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Architecture Primer: How Understanding Basic Theory Creates Success

By: Alan Wilson, AIA, design principal at The Haskell Company

In recent years, Tilt-Up professionals have begun to explore new innovations in design—so much so that this construction method, previously relegated to box-like warehouses, is now delving into the realm of architecture. But what makes a Tilt-Up project truly architectural? This is an area that is still considerably gray, and subject to debate among architects, engineers and contractors, who are partnering more than ever on Tilt-Up projects. Architects are one of the primary reasons for the success of Tilt-Up to date and have helped advance the potential uses of Tilt-Up and penetrate the method into new markets, which until recently would never have considered this construction method. As such, it is important to have a basic understanding of the tenets of architecture to be able to properly partner with architects to create a successful project.


To further understand how certain Tilt-Up projects can be considered a work of architecture, we must first understand what is meant by the term “architecture.” Webster’s Dictionary defines architecture as “the art, profession or science of designing and constructing buildings.” A professional practice definition includes the impact that architecture has on humans: “the business of creating environments for people.” Actually, a good definition of architecture was supplied in ancient times.

In his ancient Roman treatise on architecture DeArchitectura (The Ten Books of Architecture), Vitruvius set forth three “conditions of well-building” that all structures must possess in order to adhere to architectural standards: firmness, commodity and delight. First, a building must have firmness, or durability. This means it must be well-constructed using quality materials, thereby imparting a sense of longevity. The second quality a building must possess is commodity – in other words, it must be functional, and it must be successful in serving its intended purpose. Finally, and not to be discounted, is delight. The work must possess a sense of aesthetics, beauty or expression that allows it to transcend the realm of the ordinary.

The problem with beauty, however, is that it is, as the saying goes, in the eye of the beholder. While firmness and commodity are tangible values that can be judged somewhat more objectively, beauty is open to the individual subjectivity. Whether a project is elevated to “greatness” often depends on the collective opinion of many people, from the building’s owner, inhabitants and maintenance staff to the design community and critics to the general public. Each of these entities has a different set of standards by which to evaluate the overall quality of design of the building. Ultimately, those projects that are remembered for great design are the ones that have captured, over time, the imagination of the community as a whole.


As such, people must be considered above all else when one designs a building – not only the people who own and will use the building, but also every person who will have the opportunity to interact with it. Our interactions with buildings, after all, are both a visual and physical experience. The design of a building can impact the quality of life of its users by its form, color, mass, details, surface, etc.

Therefore, the design of the buildings should be considered in relation to the human beings who will view and in- habit them. Properties such as proportion and scale, which significantly impact one’s perception and experience of a building, are derived from the human body. For instance, both the Classical Column and Ordering Systems are based on human proportions. Doorways and windows are proportioned for the positive interaction on the part of the user. In architecture, the most important proportional relationship is the one between the building and a human being.


Beyond the parameters of proportion and scale, architecture derives much of its meaning from the treatment of its “face,” or façade. Throughout history, dramatically varied façades have served to illuminate the ideas and styles of the time in which they were developed. Façades can “tell a story” about a building, its purpose or its importance. Manipulation of the details within a façade can produce very different meanings. For example, a plain, unadorned façade creates a “wall aesthetic” with punched openings, producing a more utilitarian structure. Three levels of one-story columns provide an equal emphasis to all levels of a building, but suggest it possesses greater importance than the unadorned building. Two-story ground-level columns can lend a sense of grandeur and significance to the structure, as might be found in public buildings. Each of these may be an appropriate design response depending on the nature of the building and the expression desired by the designer.


Beyond solving the basic project requirements and producing good aesthetics, architecture often expresses a concept—an idea or theme that unifies and gives meaning to the building design. To be successful, one must be able to identify what idea the building intends to express. For example, the Jacksonville Beach Seawalk Pavilion, a Tilt-Up project, offers a beach theme. The three-dimensional building boasts a sculptured quality, complete with sweeping curved panel tops that derive their form from nearby dunes or ocean waves. The stage roof, which cantilevers 13 feet, reaches out to the audience like a wave preparing to break onto the beach, just as the performers “reach out” to the audience. The design of this structure is enhanced beyond its basic functional and constructability requirements by the overlay of a theme to provide a degree of “delight,” thereby helping to make it a successful piece of architecture.


As Tilt-Up concrete has evolved over the years, so too have the types of buildings that are designed and constructed using this method. Many design teams are no longer content to leave Tilt-Up projects “unadorned,” and are therefore designing buildings that serve to do one of two things: “mask” the method so the building doesn’t appear to have been constructed by Tilt-Up, or “celebrate its nature” by making use of forms and aesthetics derived from the use of Tilt-Up. “Masking it” generally is done by employing design techniques and construction materials found in traditional buildings, such as using applied brick or other appliqué on the Tilt-Up. “Celebrating Tilt-Up” uses the qualities of site-cast concrete in new, creative ways to produce buildings that are obviously Tilt-Up — often can only be built by Tilt-Up — yet are aesthetically successful in their own right.

No matter which treatment an architect might choose for a Tilt-Up project, many are now realizing
its potential as a gateway to great architecture. As a technique, Tilt-Up allows buildings to meet the three “conditions of well-building.” Its use of strong, solid concrete provides firmness; its flexibility to serve any purpose lends it a sense of commodity; and the freedom of expression that abounds in the medium today allows endless possibilities for delight.

Going forward, the challenge for architects will be to celebrate Tilt-Up and use it to its full advantage during the design stage. Tilt-Up buildings can be designed to respond to a user’s sense of scale and proportion. The method itself can be used as inspiration for new façades that will impart meanings consistent with or different from the traditional styles. Concrete comes in liquid form, and once placed and hardened, is limited only by the imagination of the person or team conceiving the application. Finally, it can be used to help express the underlying concept of the building, bringing all components of the design together. Architects, engineers and contractors need to work together to make these elements a reality. Innovative contractors are willing to accept challenging projects from architects to help advance Tilt-Up and differentiate themselves from the competition. A basic understanding of architectural theory helps ensure that everyone is speaking the same language and working toward a common goal.

As the demand for Tilt-Up construction continues to grow, the creative possibilities for architects, engineers and contractors working in this method will only increase. Contractors can play an important role in the creative development of projects by encouraging architects to push the envelope with challenging design. Applying the fundamental principles of architecture to this construction method will surely take future Tilt-Up projects into the realm of great architecture.

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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.