Architectural concrete gives new shape to an old material

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by Jean Sorensen last update:Feb 24, 2012

Concrete is as old as the Roman Colosseum, but B.C.'s construction industry is honing a skill of turning this old structural material into new exciting shapes and forms.
Architectural concrete gives new shape to an old material

Concrete is as old as the Roman Colosseum, but B.C.'s construction industry is honing a skill of turning this old structural material into new exciting shapes and forms.

Known as architectural concrete, it is being used to express different colors, finishes, building shapes and sustainability objectives.

“In Vancouver, during the 60s, 70 and into the 80s, a lot more was done,” said Roland Haebler, president of Haebler Construction, which is known for working on challenging projects that involve architectural concrete.

“It’s a more difficult contract,” he said

“You often have to do a lot of mock-ups.”

Some of Haebler’s award-winning projects include Sunset Community Centre (Bing Thom Architects design), The Waterfall Building (Arthur Erickson/Nick Milkovich design), Erickson’s Liu Centre for Global Studies (first Canadian non-industrial application of high volume fly-ash (HVFA) concrete and the Lore Krill Housing Co-op (Henriquez Partners Architects).

Haebler pointed to Vancouver’s rich immigrant sectors – especially Italian and Portuguese tradesmen – who were the backbone of the concrete forming crews during construction of architectural concrete structures built in the 1960s-1980s.

He said that they brought much of Europe’s expertise in the use of concrete with them.

It was an enabling factor to bring forward many leading-edge architect designs, such as the MacMillan Bloedel (MB) building and Vancouver’s new courthouse by Erickson.

The 27-storey MB building, built in 1968-69, uses reinforced, cast in place concrete as the dominant finish inside and out.

It features a unique design for its time as the building tapers as it rises, much like a tree in the forest.

As the tradesmen retired and general contractors shed their forming crews, expertise has shifted to companies specializing in forming such as Whitewater Concrete, which is currently building the Coquitlam Sports Centre, and Best Choice Construction, which worked on the Surrey City Central Library.

Both firms are known for their expertise in the field.

New architects have also emerged to follow in the tradition of architectural concrete design in Vancouver.

“It is very much a team effort,” said Michael Heeney, a principal in Bing Thom Architects, which designed the Surrey City Central Library, which prominently features architectural concrete structure.

That team effort includes skilled carpenters for building the forms, craftsmen placing them to gain the right effect, crews able to skillfully place the rebar inside the concrete to achieve both strength and design, and crews able to place services inside the walls in cases.

It also takes a skilled contractor, who is able to monitor the work’s quality.

When the forms are removed, there is a prescribed effect, albeit in the formation of a feature, the texture or color of the concrete or a smooth surface devoid of air pockets, pebbling or seams.

Kwantlen’s Cloverdale Trades and Technology Centre uses colored concrete and architect Bunting Coady Architects of Vancouver selected integral colored concrete to achieve colors that stain or paint would not.

The concrete also has the ability to change colors when wet from rain.

Achieving texture will be seen in the new York House Senior School, which begins construction by Haebler in April.

The central block area of the old school is being demolished and a new entrance and a new block of three levels of classrooms constructed to join several wings of the old school and the junior school.

The foyer area of the entrance will have concrete walls that are board formed. Architect Susan Ockwell of Acton Ostry Architects said forms are from boards that are spaced to allow small amounts of concrete to seep through.

“It gives the texture,” she said.

As well, large areas through the building will have exposed concrete in circulation spaces.

Associations have not ignored the rising interest in architectural concrete.

The Portland Cement Association offers several books for sale on the topic.

The Concrete Association of Canada released the CD Guide to Architectural Concrete in September 2007.

The guide is a resource for the architectural community that demonstrates concrete’s possible role in creating striking buildings.

Communications and education director Carolyn Campbell of the BC Ready-Mix Concrete Association said that while she has no hard statistics, she feels there is a growing interest in the community to use architectural concrete in building design.

One factor that may be driving the use of concrete is the greater focus on the life cycle of a building and permanence that concrete offers.

“The sustainability movement has influenced the demand for architectural concrete,” Campbell said.

She added that the ability to use exposed concrete on interiors has eliminated carpets and paint, and may enhance interior air quality.

last update:Feb 24, 2012

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