Design “techniques” for speculative Industrial Concrete Buildings.
When I began writing this Blog about Commercial Architecture not very long ago, I stated that I would always try to tie the post to history in some way. So for part 2 of the series in this post I am compelled to refer to events in the truly ancient past. I want to relate an experience I had as a sophomore in College.
It was 1978, – Jimmie Carter was President, the serial killer Ted Bundy had just been arrested, and Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were meeting at the Camp David Accords. I was taking a long, circuitous walk back to my dorm room after having just been shockingly castigated over my first assignment in Design 1. The realization I was forced to confront, if my teachers were to be believed, was that I did not have a clue about the design of buildings. (They were right). I was either going to have to get up to speed fast, or I would be choosing another major. My professors’ criticisms seemed so arbitrary and subjective to me that I was truly at a loss to understand. It was what you might call an “existential” crisis. The next day, desperate to find answers, I visited a well-known bookstore near campus and picked up a number of books – my choices guided only by a vague recollection of terms used to criticize my work, intuition, and pure chance. One of those books ended up having a profound influence on me and it wasn’t even about design directly. The book was “The Illusion of Technique”, by William Barrett. Even though I didn’t fully grasp all the passages of the book, Barrett’s basic thesis taught me to open up to a different way of seeing things and to trust in new or different ideas and thoughts long enough to examine them completely, – instead of making a rapid judgment toward achieving a particular end goal. Many of the philosophical points and concepts Barrett explored in the book resonated with me; and made my absorption of the material in the other works I was studying much more meaningful. From there, things began to fall into place. Ever since that formative year, I have been fortunate to never again suffer from a lack of ideas or inspiration. It would be true that maybe only 1% ever have any real merit, – but I never lacked for them after that.
Why is this relevant? Because the set of “rules” outlined in Part 1 of this post should not be thought of as a “cookbook”. They are not representative of a ‘Technique” for designing buildings. They are instead, “avenues of thought”. Try to keep this in mind as I expand on them a bit.
As promised, I’ve listed the “rule”, and followed it with an explanation of what I meant by it.
“If you can site cast it, do it.” – An endless source of opportunity with tilt-up is the plastic nature of concrete. If you look for elements to cast on site besides walls, it will often lead to the generation of form ideas that influence the entire façade design. Eyebrows, canopies, cornices, columns, soffits, – all are candidates for site casting. Very often such an approach can lead to less costly solutions versus other systems, and generate new form.
“Break down the scale.” – Everyone recognizes on some level that the scale of modern industrial buildings is enormous. A typical facade will be nearly three stories in height. There are many ways of dealing with this scale problem, from color gradients to cornice elements. But if you let a ten-foot-high storefront line dictate your proportional efforts from the start, you will likely end up with a “top heavy” composition at best. Ignore the function for just a little while and focus on the scale and proportion possibilities. The “function” will follow in this case – it’s mostly all happening in the back anyway, and pretty much all by itself.
Your most cost effective friend is “Stupid Paint Tricks”. – It is often effective to really “dial down” on the application of paint to tilt-up buildings during design development. Sometimes, it’s really all you have to work with. Instead of copying the paint keynote around and about the elevations and “calling it good”, – think about the details. What choice of texture is appropriate? Where will the color change start and stop at a reveal? Does the color choice accomplish proportional goals? Another frequent disappointment is a failure to convey painting intent on all surfaces. Paint color can effectively convey “continuity” in an element like a panel leg, but not if the painter stops the color on the front and doesn’t turn the corner – and he won’t, unless you show him where to do so on the documents.
“Design the building you want to see, and worry about how to lift it later” – This one might come across to some as anathema. Tilt-up gained in popularity as a construction method in large part based upon its erection efficiency and speed. And it would be true that this approach can slow things down in the field “just a hair”. Obviously, the most efficient panels to lift are panels that are all the same, but the limits that places on the expression of form are severe. (As another example, in the early days, we always made reveal sizes in increments consistent with dimensional lumber in order to support such efficiency. Fortunately, most reveal lumber is now fabricated to order, and engineered materials have largely replaced conventional “1x” stock for forming reveals). I have simply found over the years that for me, thinking too much about the construction while developing a schematic concept kept me in a kind of “feedback loop” that limited the development of new ideas for a building. Obviously you can’t ignore the constraints of the building process in the end, I just like to make those constraints “wait in the lobby” for a while before I focus on getting the building up in the air.
“Don’t let the structural grid, “regulate” the facade design” – This suggestion is related to the one above, and I can hear the heads of certain former associates exploding right about now. I “get it” though, – the grid is important for a lot of reasons. I just choose to set it aside for a while as I develop an idea. Then I go back and “test” the structural grid against my approach. Ultimately, everyone develops their own process, so take it for what it’s worth to you.
“Don’t let the two dimensional nature of site cast slabs, keep you from thinking in three dimensions” – This one is also related to the ideas expressed above. This applies to not only the erection of walls perpendicular to the plane of the façade, but also to the slabs themselves. It is often economically viable to site cast extra dimension into certain panels to achieve an interesting effect. It’s one reason I prefer to refer to the construction method as “site cast concrete”, rather than “tilt-up concrete”.
“Make a deliberate choice about how you’re going to “panelize” the facade, and reinforce that approach with subsequent design decisions” – I like to think about how I am “panelizing” a building as part of the development of the elevations. By panelizing, I mean how I am going to let the panels “read”. They can read either as individual panels in a row, a reveal approach I call “discrete”, or they can read as a homogeneous wall, a condition I call “continuous”. I have found that better results occur if you are consciously aware of how you are doing this with the design. Think of “discrete” as reading like links on a watch band, and “continuous” as reading like a masonry wall. Combine these two approaches only with deliberation.
“Your second most cost effective friend is texture” – Once again the plasticity of concrete is a useful property to exploit. Lining the wall forms with a textured material, or placing objects in the forms before pouring, is limited only by the imagination and the projects wallet. Amortizing the cost of texture on a few panel locations in a large building results in a minimal cost burden, but can add a lot of interest. (As a practical sidebar: mock up panels are often a good idea when using a new textural effect). For years I’ve been looking for the opportunity to site cast a panel that is a sculpture in its own right, maybe using Styrofoam blocks that we melt away after lifting. Oh well, a guy can dream.
“Don’t “decorate” the box. “Sculpt” the box” – It is very easy when staring at a 34-foot-high, 600-foot-long rectangle that is to become your elevation, to start “adorning” it with stuff. Here comes that cornice, – and how about a wainscot? I know, let’s put some medallions between panel joints. (Pretty soon you start wondering why all your buildings look the same). Or perhaps if we put an interesting shaped panel out front, you know, with an angle here or a “whoop-tee-doo” there. (Taking this approach often results in people 10 years on remarking – “what were they thinking?”) I’m not saying that those types of elements never have a place; I’m just saying I don’t find them to be a good place to start. Think of the building as a block of clay. Push and pull on things, – the parapet heights, the entry points. Sculpt a basic surface form in 3 dimensions first. I seem to get better results thinking that way, maybe you will too.
“Your third most cost effective friend is “layering” – Thinking of a site cast façade in terms of “layers” can often synthesize interesting, cost effective depth into a design. The classic, “stand-off” panel is an early effort at layering, and can still be a worthwhile approach to achieving relief, or depth. As a cautionary comment though, I have found myself wincing at various buildings over the years that fell victim to the temptation of what I call “Capricious Cartooning”. This is where a stand-off panel form is expressed as an arbitrary, attention grabbing shape, devoid of context or historical reference. Such an approach is often a form of trendy ornamentation, and in my experience can “date” a building very quickly. (See #9 above). Simple overlapping of panel edges, as well as extending a panel edge beyond the corner of a 90 degree return in the façade are other techniques to be aware of when exploring layering as a design device. There is plenty of unrealized potential in this concept to experiment with.
So now that I’ve fleshed out the “rules” I laid out in the previous post, I hope that you have gathered some “food for thought”, – especially if you find yourself disagreeing with me or dismissing my editorializing. I say that because if you find yourself checking these things off like a checklist while you work on your next elevation design, then don’t look up. You just might see the frowning ghost of William Barrett glowering down at you.