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Small Smart Boxes

By: Jeffrey Brown, AIA | Powers Brown Architecture

The next big thing in tilt-up may actually be small. While nearly every building type has now been executed in tilt-up, this article focuses on recent projects we have bundled together as Small Smart Boxes. These projects are from a series of small corporate build-to-suits that, because they had a small or moderate portion of warehouse, manufacturing or distribution in their programs, were pre-determined to be built using tilt-up. This series of buildings demonstrates the architectural potential of this technology- its ability to provide interesting and formally innovative work environments / corporate image projections in a low-cost form.

By way of a back story to this declaration, well-known avant-garde architect Peter Eisenman once said something along the lines that any hack can build a dumb box. Assuming he was elaborating on what has become known as the big dumb box, several conjectures follow his admonition. We know that after tilt wall construction’s initial flirtation with high modernism, first through Gill and in the twenties via Rudolph Schindler in the Kings Road House, the technology was relegated to virtual design anonymity until after the Second World War when it became associated with big box warehouse and post-war distribution building architecture. Somewhere along the line, and despite the innovation of Albert Kahn and others in industrial architecture, the big boxes became, well, dumb. Devoid of detail and calibrated for scale by way of the economics of speed of construction and efficiency of scale, tilt wall seemed immune to the ongoing experimentation in form making, innovative utilization for the creation of space and general sense that unless it was a box the technology just didn’t have much to offer.

But all boxes aren’t the same. Small Smart Boxes is a line of buildings backed by a unique approach to solving the problem of our day post-great recession – Will design innovation suffer at the hands of low budgets? As the market returns, architects, engineers and our consultants have begun to understand the cliché, The New Normal. The business environment for both commercial developers and corporate-end users is now subject to unprecedented barriers to new construction such as increased financing scrutiny, huge increase in equity requirements, and other complex financing requirement meant to assuage another building bubble. In many ways, these structural changes in the finance of architecture are actually suppressing the market for many that don’t have cash or secure banking relationships. However, close examination of statistics and trends revealed a business opportunity for us. Basic research into the average age of small-business CEOs trends to the mid-fifties, interest rates continue to be at historic lows and most small businesses have less complicated banking relationships. For us that conjured an opportunity, at least at the basic level of business speculation intersecting design needs – How many of these CEOs looking at retirement in a ten- to fifteen-year window were interested in capitalizing on the low interest rates to build a legacy building rather than one last lease renewal. And as importantly, how many wanted a low-cost but high-quality work environment for their employees? It turns out quite a few.

By adopting a sense that clients really no longer exist, only markets; we realized that markets require commodities. We put together a product called Small Smart Boxes. It combined our traditional architectural services, such as programming and innovative form-making with our experience in the low-cost technology of tilt wall construction. We targeted the 30-50,000 square foot office warehouse user, as our backup research showed us that we could generate a slab big enough for casting panels but small enough to control the building envelope architecturally, or at least, we speculated the scale to be big enough to balance the formal and the efficient. We created a few case study projects, built cost models around them with the help of collaborating contractors and went to the market, as it were, in late 2004. Our up-front work in getting our product line established was based upon our ability to save in most cases between $7-10 per square foot over conventional construction for similar configurations.

Some thirty buildings and eight years later, we are comfortable labeling this series of buildings Small Smart Boxes. That they are Small is a relative claim supported for us by the markets we have executed them in, none exceeds 60,000 square feet. That they are Smart is a proposition that only the users, and perhaps observers, can authenticate. By Smart, we mean they are responsive to program, formally experimental and economically friendly – otherwise, not “dumb boxes” anymore. Most of the buildings in this series use tilt wall as load-bearing exterior structure that is then formally attacked and eroded to defeat the box effect. In some cases we have created voluminous walls- deep-set windows or layers of penetration that defeat the thinness of the walls. In others, we have agitated the panel configuration by torquing to instigate non-Cartesian plans, or shearing to create roof lights and clerestories economically. There are endless possibilities for assembly strategies- the series of buildings included here represent accumulations of incremental explorations of tilt wall’s non-technical formal capabilities, formal conditions dealing with

EAGLEBURGMANN – Height maximization in single panel picks
LAVERSAB – Profile and shape of panels including curved panels
TORNIER HQ – Depth or the ability to produce what has been called a voluminous wall
MNP – Apparent or actual visual density through layering both literal and phenomenal
TEXAS STEEL – Use as actual structural effect
PETROLVALVES – Planarity vs. Volumetrics
PIPELINE MACHINERY – Transparency and Light

Finally they are Boxes only as a reminder that resisting dumbness is the best hope for revealing the potential of tilt wall architecture. We want these projects to instigate the possibility of un-tethering tilt wall from its presumed teleological circumscription as “structure.”

Many of our projects like Small Smart Boxes make up most of the built environment but resist the type of critical investigation that leading practice implies.  They are projects driven by capital flow, financing, real estate formulas and expediency of construction such that any perceived non-essential speculation is expunged from the timeline. The owners of small businesses that supply many of the opportunities we encounter are interested in sponsoring environments that exceed the mundane, but within the limitations of the burden their business can carry. Should the low-budget / small-business client that employs the bulk of workers in the country be excluded from the benefits of high architecture? Not if they employ the Small Smart Box strategy.

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TILT-UP TODAY, a publication of the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, is THE source for Tilt-Up industry news, market intelligence, business strategies, technical solutions, product information, and other resources for professionals in the Tilt-Up industry. A subscription to TILT-UP TODAY is included in a TCA membership. Subscriptions for potential TCA members are also available. If you would like to receive a complimentary subscription to the publication, please contact the TCA.