The angled precast concrete panels that extend beyond soaring glass panes on the new student academic center at Florida International University make this structure come alive. The design is intended to give the appearance of movement, says Sean Zaudke, associate principal at Gould Evans, the project architect. “We love the way the [look of the] building changes as you move around it. From one direction, it can feel quite solid, yet from another it feels incredibly open.” The use of precast concrete panels helped achieve this aesthetic goal.
Zaudke’s team chose precast concrete because of its high strength and the ability to create the desired long spans and narrow edges in a manner that other materials could not. “We were also able to utilize precast concrete as the primary system for the facade without the need for a backup system that other facade solutions would have required,” Zaudke explains. This solution made it possible to achieve a facade that can resist hurricane-force winds but has a “leaf-like thinness.”
A delicate look plus hurricane resistance
The student center has a unique appearance, which, like a chameleon, changes as the light changes. This design was not originally created with precast concrete in mind. The designer began with a metal panel concept but converted their plan to use architectural precast concrete to achieve cost and durability benefits. However, he wanted to keep the metallic look originally envisioned. The precaster achieved this aesthetic effect through the use of polished precast concrete panels with a thin profile.
Coordination meetings were held between the contractor, design team, and precaster throughout the project, and three-dimensional models were used to perfect the design. The facade features polished panels with extremely angled fins and mirrored glazing between for the auditorium and the main building with spandrels over the connecting areas. The finned panels had to be perfectly coordinated to support highly complex window openings, which feature three pieces of glass and six precast concrete pieces.
The window openings, which are intended to look like gills, are central to the building’s distinctive appearance and emphasize the internal use of palm fronds to diffuse light in the environment. After conducting shade studies, Zaudke was able to create a design that draws natural light into the building, which limits the buildup of native heat and helps to keep ambient temperatures cool. All panels were poured monolithically, which allowed the precaster to rotate the panels without damage while leaving room for the glazing to fit within the narrow sections.
Despite the complex design, the facade was highly modularized, greatly simplifying construction and installation, Zaudke says. “Rather than stick-framing each of the undulations, the facade was hung in a series of panels.” The result is an almost exotic structure, which sits at the entrance to this global university and welcomes students from around the world.