As administrators at Suffolk University worked through the process of shifting their campus from its original Beacon Hill base to Boston’s downtown area, they wanted to do more than provide a basic learning facility. Their goal was to create a flagship academic building with state-of-the-art classrooms and science labs. To project that image, designers chose architectural precast concrete panels with four textures to create a moving, three-dimensional effect across the building’s façade.
The $68-million building features general-use and science-oriented classrooms and laboratory space, a light-filled cafeteria adaptable to university functions, and indoor and outdoor gathering spaces. The building has applied for LEED certification and expects to receive Silver.
The facility originally was designed prior to the Great Recession with a high-tech appearance combining aluminum panels and curtain wall, explains Will Voulgaris, principal at NBBJ, the architect of record. Once the economy dropped, so did the project’s budget. “We needed a more economical solution that still met the university’s design goals,” he says. “Precast concrete’s material costs were lower, as were its construction costs.”
A key part of that savings came from being able to erect the project through Boston’s winter months, he notes. The panels were erected on the second shift, allowing them to use the same crane as was used during the day to move other materials. Suffolk Construction, the general contractor, handled the erection logistics.
“The project is located in the middle of the city, so it was a tight, urban space,” he says. “The erectors did a great job of coordinating the arrival of panels and the erection so it was a smooth process.” Precast Specialties Corp., which fabricated the panels, is located only about 20 minutes away, which facilitated the logistics of deliveries.
Precast concrete also gave the project aesthetic versatility while blending with nearby buildings. “The area has a number of mid-century buildings clad with precast concrete, but many of them are fairly generic looking,” he says. “We thought we could use the same material to create something distinctive and make it stand out. We took it as a design challenge to make something creative.”
About three-quarters of the facing consists of precast concrete panels with the rest glass curtain wall, but the percentage varies by façade. The most was used on the west side, which faces a state office building. Fewer windows were placed on this side to meet fire-separation issues with laboratory space on this side of the university building. But state officials were concerned about employees looking at large, blank walls out their windows.
To resolve this issue, designers created panels with a geometric pattern of four triangles across the panel’s face, meeting with the points at the center. Each features smooth faces or reveals along with slightly varying depths. The panels average a 6-inch thickness, with the slopes adding or subtracting 1 inch to create a 2-inch difference between some.
“The ribbed pattern and slopes create the illusion of more depth,” says Voulgaris. “We needed to minimize the full thickness to keep down the weight of the panels.” Foam mockups were created in a one-quarter size to show various designs, with a half-dozen panels created in all to gauge the impact of combinations. Full-size mockups were then cast at the plant for a final review.
Panel sizes were kept to three widths and three heights to minimize form needs. “It made it really easy to do the entire building in only nine forms,” he says. The panels were cast to be erected in a vertical position, with a typical size of 6 feet wide and 25 feet tall, with a maximum weight of 12,000 pounds.
“We are really pleased with the final look,” he says. “The panels give a richness to the skin that we couldn’t have accomplished any other way. The design creates depth on both cloudy and sunny days and creates a great three-dimensional effect with little actual depth.”
Both the client and the neighbors were pleased as well. “They were wary when they heard it would be precast concrete, having seen some of the other designs in the neighborhood. But they were satisfied with the view. The panels really give the building some visual dynamism.”