The precast concrete industry offers an incredibly diverse range of building and infrastructure products to architects, engineers, DOTs, contractors and homeowners. From structural frameworks and architectural flourishes to septic tanks and bridges, no other building material is as dynamic as precast concrete.

Manufacturers across the globe push the limits of what their products can do, how they are used and what they look like. This year’s tour of projects from outside of the U.S. will introduce you to complex shapes and designs in Italy, a unique façade in Germany and tall wall panels with a surprising purpose in Canada. Sit back, relax and enjoy a trip around the world right from the comfort of your home or office.

Fine Italian precast

Project: Ospedale Giovanni XXIII Chapel
Location: Bergamo, Italy
Precaster: Styl-Comp
Architect/Designer: Traversi + Traversi, Aymeric Zublena, Stefano Arienti

Project: ENtreePIC and Palazzo Italia
Location: Milan, Italy
Precaster: Styl-Comp
Architect: Nemesi & Partners

Italy may be a country known for its wine, food and textiles, but Styl-Comp in Zanica is working to add precast concrete to that list.

Italy has a long and well-documented history with concrete as a building material. Ancient Romans used it for buildings such as the Pantheon and infrastructure like the aqueducts that still stand today. Styl-Comp is carrying on that tradition in the form of beautiful and often complex precast concrete products.

The Ospedale Giovanni XXIII Chapel in Bergamo captured the Supreme Award, the highest recognition at the 2015 Surface Design Awards in London thanks in large part to Graphic Concrete panels manufactured by Styl-Comp. The designer took his cue from the Garden of Eden and the design was realized on the panels. Round openings allow natural light to enter the chapel and complete the desired look. The project was the company’s first big project with Graphic Concrete, which uses a retarder on a membrane to create the images on the panels.

The panels required a special mix design, detailed curing and washing processes, and extreme care during handling and shipping to ensure the pattern and joints remained perfectly intact. This included dedicated stripping and handling frames and special protection after installation until the roof was completed. In total, 64 panels were poured, including 32 Graphic Concrete panels. The company also manufactured the slim velarium outside façade panels.

In Milan, Styl-Comp worked with Nemesi & Partners to design and manufacture a smog-filtering, mind-bending façade for the Palazzo Italia at Milan Expo 2015. The façade includes more than 700 unique panels that were manufactured and installed over the course of 14 months. The design is inspired by tree branches and, along with the air-purifying properties of the concrete, creates a unique urban jungle. The company also manufactured the ENtreePIC installation that greets visitors to the expo.

Forming, pouring and curing for the company’s complex architectural products are dependent on the requested finish and shape. The company uses everything from steel molds to computer numerical control machined molds. Every job, though, requires extensive experience and engineering skills.

“Being innovative based on experience, and having the engineering skills to manage design optimization, production, shipping and erection (are big challenges),” said Ivo Allas, marketing manager for Styl-Comp. “We can do this and have a worldwide unique group synergy between our three companies that assist designers, general contractors and clients with value engineering for construction drawings, production of molds, precast concrete elements, an adjustable supporting/connection steel system developed with our sister company B.S. Italia.”

Styl-Comp believes that with precast, any shape, dimension and texture can be created with high-end finishes and that it will be a cost-effective, versatile solution. The company has seen Italy shift from using precast mainly for industrial buildings to high-end architectural finishes and it is proud to be a part of that change.

Design mimics life

Project: Textilmacher Headquarters
Location: Munich, Germany
Architect: Tillich Architektur

The world “folded” and “precast concrete” are rarely, if ever, used in the same sentence; unless you’re talking about the new headquarters of textile-printing company Textilmacher in Munich. Architect Kurt Tillich of Tillich Architektur designed the envelope of the building to appear similar to creased fabric, a nod to the work of the building’s owner.

To accomplish this look, Tillich turned to precast concrete panels. Depending on the time of day and weather, the folds give the building a differing appearance thanks to the play of light and shadows. The panels were poured with anthracite to achieve the gray color. Tillich took a variety of factors into consideration during the design phase.

“The main tasks were to build a flexible, low-cost and eco-friendly building,” he said “During the design process the idea evolved to use the light and the seasons to modify the appearance of the building continuously. The three reasons to choose precast concrete were the short construction period, the possibility to ensure the quality of the concrete surface and the financial benefits.”

It’s not the first time Tillich has worked with precast concrete. Past experiences have encouraged him to use precast because of the creativity it allows him to have with his designs.

“(Precast has) the possibility to deal with color and surface, has a large range and there are few boundaries.”

Wall-to-wall precast

Project: Crag X Climbing Gym
Location: Victoria, B.C., Canada
Precaster: Nanaimo Precast
Contractor: Story Construction
Architect: Chandler Associates Architecture

Structural precast wall panels are used around the world, and adding foam insulation to create sandwich panels is fairly common. But it’s not every day that a precast wall serves as the structure on which a climbing gym is built.

Because of the unique use of the building, the walls were unlike anything Nanaimo Precast in Nanaimo, B.C., had ever poured.

“It’s definitely, in almost all aspects, large for us because of the sheer size of the panels and because there are a lot of panels,” said company President AJ Hustins. “The height of the panel is unique because of the nature of the project and what they’re doing in there. We’ve done lots of building in the past and normally you’re 16 feet or 20 feet to the truss and then you’re on to another floor.”

The 35 panels are 50 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 16 inches thick and average approximately 80,000 pounds each. Nanaimo Precast poured three inches of facing concrete, then added four inches of insulation and finally nine additional inches of concrete. All the while, the company heated the form from below before and during pouring and from above after pouring. A third-party engineering company, Scouten Engineering, was hired to consult on the project due to size, and determined the panels needed 12 lifting points and to exceed 2,900 psi before stripping.

The panels were shipped and installed over the course of four days to form the building envelope of Crag X Climbing Gym. Story Construction installed the panels with zero lot line on three sides, with a one-way street adding to the tight squeeze. Story said the insulated precast sandwich panels provided speed of installation and allowed the owners to achieve the tall and wide open effect that emulates the freedom experienced in exterior climbing. The finishing touch will be prefabricated climbing walls from Bulgaria that will be fastened to the precast panels.

“(The installation) went very smooth,” said Stewart Story, principal of Story Construction. “Precast definitely had advantages over tilt-up, as there was very limited space to store, operate and re-rig, especially when the braces started taking up real estate.”

Overall, Hustins was pleased to get the job and with what it means for the industry.

“We live in an economic climate here where the forestry industry is a primary industry so there’s a lot of wood construction,” he said. “But we’ve seen a shift to precast structure buildings and I think one main point is the owners that are financing these projects are looking at longer lifespans. I think another point is the fact that these panels are very local – ingredients, labor, it’s a very B.C.-type product.”