Insulated precast concrete panels provide a long-lasting, aesthetically pleasing residence hall for students at a Midwestern art school.
By Mason Nichols
Art has the unique ability to move people. With the simple stroke of a brush or pencil, the full spectrum of human emotions are evoked. For thousands of years, art has inspired us, taking us on whimsical journeys, causing us to ponder life’s many wonders and serving as a vehicle through which nearly anything is possible.
For those seeking to inspire through art, learning how to craft influential pieces requires proper training. At the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, college officials know that, in addition to a tailored curriculum designed to spark innovation, students need a space reserved for reflection – a place where creative thinking thrives and thoughts can flow freely. To meet this need and provide a top-notch experience for students, KCAI pursued plans to build the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall, a four-story, 75,000-square-foot facility featuring more than 200 beds, a dining center, multiple gathering spaces and more.
Construction of the residence hall was made possible by leveraging precast concrete, the only building material capable of providing the blank canvas the design and construction teams needed to generate an awe-inspiring, resilient structure that will carry KCAI students into the future.
A signature structure
Concrete is a prominent feature in and around KCAI’s campus, with many buildings adjacent to the project site – including the nearby Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art – taking advantage of the building material within their design. For Doug Stockman, AIA, principal architect at Helix Architecture + Design, this was a major source of inspiration for the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall.
“I always draw upon the site in one way or another,” said Stockman, who worked as the lead designer on the project. “In this case, the neighboring buildings and the campus were very much into the use of concrete. For both the art institute and its students, craftsmanship and the use of specific materials is critical because of the way they evoke emotion and inspiration.”
This ultimately led to Stockman and his team specifying the use of precast concrete for the residence hall’s building envelope. Doing so not only provided an opportunity for the finished structure to integrate fully with its surroundings but also met KCAI officials’ needs for a signature building on campus that would last. The choice also made sense from a safety and job site perspective, something general contractor JE Dunn and precaster Enterprise Precast Concrete agreed upon during the early stages of the work.
All three groups worked together extensively from the project onset, operating closely and staying in constant communication to ensure an insulated precast panel design that maximizes efficiency in response to some of the site’s limitations.
“There was a building on one side and a boulevard that the city would not let us take any lanes from,” said Tim Ockinga, senior project manager with JE Dunn. “As such, we were restricted to a zero crane route around the building. Working with Enterprise, we maximized the size of the panels to be as large as possible while still remaining within the capacity of our tower crane.”
Dirk McClure, director of business development at Enterprise Precast Concrete, said that his team worked diligently on developing this crucial balance for the panels. Enterprise settled on a typical unit size of 12 feet tall and 14 feet long, with each of the more than 200 panels produced weighing approximately 17,500 pounds. In total, the company manufactured more than 31,000 square feet of insulated precast façade for the residence hall.
By going with a precast concrete approach, safety also was enhanced on the job site. According to McClure, this was mainly due to a consolidation of the trade contractors required, which limited the number of people actively working on-site at any given time.
“One of the reasons we wanted to go with precast was to lessen the manpower count, and obviously, this does it,” Ockinga said. “We had a 4- to 5-person crew erecting this skin panel very quickly versus multiple crews doing the different layers with non-prefab.”
A stunning design
As Stockman explained, a significant portion of the design work that went into the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall was driven by Stockman’s love for concrete, something he said allowed Helix to “have some fun with the envelope” while also meeting KCAI’s goals. This led to healthy interplay between Helix and the teams at Enterprise and JE Dunn as all three parties discussed how to push the boundaries of what was possible. To maintain some cost-efficiency while still generating a unique design, much of the conversation focused on the use of formliners.
“We wanted to find a unique skin profile or pattern that looked organic and abstract yet was repeatable,” Ockinga said. “Using the series of formliners that we developed, we ended up with a façade that, despite being repeatable, looks as if no two segments are exactly the same.”
Beyond the striking appearance of the precast concrete panels, another notable design feature is the use of color on each of the panel’s insets. Both the exterior, roadway-facing side of the residence hall and the inner section facing the courtyard were treated with a stain to give the building pops of color.
On one side of the structure, the colors transition from the fluorescent shades of green typically found on trees and plants in the spring and summer to the deep oranges and reds seen during the fall. The intent was to provide the building with some visual contrast while also highlighting the all-important changing of the seasons. The courtyard side was handled with a different goal in mind.
“The art institute was very clear that they wanted the ‘inner space’ to be used for contemplation,” Stockman said. “They wanted it to be a space where students could rest their minds and experience peace and calm. We chose what we felt was a natural color for that – blue.”
In addition to becoming a campus that now serves as a natural draw for students and visitors alike, the use of precast concrete brought several more advantages to the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall. And precast allowed the project to stick to its tight schedule.
“With many materials like masonry and site-cast concrete, there’s a certain window of time in which you can build,” he said. “If you get too far into the winter or specific weather conditions, you have to pause work and wait for that window to open back up. With precast, as long as the footings and foundations are in place, it can literally go up in any weather.”
Energy efficiency and resiliency also were important considerations.
“We ran some energy models, and this by far gave us what we were looking for as far as a continuous insulation barrier on the building while only engaging one trade,” Ockinga said. “The precast skin also lent itself well to the client’s mandate of having a long-lasting structure in place. This is going to be a 75-year building.”
A major success
Although artwork is intended to be admired with the human eye, it also is meant to be experienced – something students at KCAI will have the pleasure of doing within the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall for years to come as they learn, create and kickstart their careers inside the space.
Thanks to the use of precast concrete, the art institute already is experiencing myriad benefits. In 2020, the building won multiple awards, including the American Institute of Architects Kansas City’s Project of the Year. Occupancy numbers on campus also are up, with students from every level wishing to live inside the building.
Stockman referred to the project as a major success.
“There’s no part of this that wasn’t successful, really, and the client couldn’t be more happy with the end result.”
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry for nearly a decade.