All photos copyright 2018 Barbara Karant Architectural Photography
For most, the name Frank Lloyd Wright evokes mental images of the Fallingwater home in rural Pennsylvania. Wright’s creativity on that project was set free thanks to the owner’s deep pockets. What many don’t know, however, is he also designed cost-effective homes for the middle class during the Great Depression, as well as affordable housing.
Architects today often face the same challenge of designing something beautiful and functional on a limited budget. Such was the case when Chicago-based architecture firm Lothan Van Hook DeStefano designed a new arts and athletics center for the Wolcott School in Chicago.
Not only was the project’s budget tight, the site for the 16,000-square-foot building is a mere one acre. Time was of the essence as well. It was up to the architects to figure out how to create a beautiful space for the site on time and on budget. They found the answer in the primary building material.
“The project was extremely cost sensitive, and precast was one of the few approaches that would work,” said Avi Lothan, design principal for the firm. “We used precast for a previous school, the Legacy Charter School, that was under construction not too far away and that project was going very well, so we could see opportunities for precast at this school as well. Just as important, we were able to show the client what the precast would look and feel like.”
The building’s wall system consists of insulated precast concrete panels from Dukane Precast in Naperville, Ill. By using simple cladding or coatings on previous projects, LVHD learned how to create eye-catching textural surfaces at a low cost using precast concrete and polish, stain, paint and sealants to create varied looks and textures. Since the school is in a manufacturing district, the precast also married the desired warmth for the space with the tough, industrial austerity of the building’s surroundings.
With an aesthetic direction set, the other major advantages of using precast concrete panels on the project – time and space – were set into motion during construction thanks to advanced production, just-in-time delivery and fast installation.
“We were able to release the precast fabrication before the rest of the drawings were done and coordinate shop drawings and installation with the successful contractor once bidding was complete,” Lothan said. “We saved months of construction time with this process.”
Left largely exposed, the precast concrete surfaces give the school a defining look that will hold up to the abuse of the school’s active students. Lothan said the variation in color, grain and surface also adds a degree of needed camouflage and interest given the wide variety of activities held in the building.
Wright’s work in the early 1900s breathed beauty, functionality and practicality into the home building industry. Many of these same principles ring true for the Wolcott School’s new building. As school officials seek to recruit new students, they can now offer an attractive, modern and purposefully designed space to learn, play and create.