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New Trends in Tilt-Up Finishes

By: Jim Baty

Over the past decade, Tilt-Up concrete has made the transition from the go-to construction method for boxy warehouses to an option full of architectural possibilities and viable for a wide range of projects, including schools, churches, office buildings and even homes. Tilt-Up’s architectural flexibility is due in large part to innovations like reveals, cast-in elements and specially molded formliners, which make adding architectural interest to a building cheaper and easier than with many other construction methods. Today, contractors and suppliers are reinventing these techniques in a dazzling number of ways, bringing a whole new level of creativity to Tilt-Up without sacrificing the cost-effectiveness and ease of construction it has long been known for.


For years, cast-in elements like thin brick, stone veneer and exposed aggregate have been the gold standard for imparting a more sophisticated finish on the exterior of Tilt-Up buildings. These methods are still in wide use, but more and more contractors are expanding their range with intricate bond and arch patterns—everything from herringbone to basketweave, and even multi-layer arches. These unique patterns add very little cost to a project’s bottom line, but produce a superior wall finish. Combining finishes is also becoming increasingly popular—using an embedded split-face block as wainscoting with a bull-nose transition to thin brick or porcelain tile, for example, makes for an interesting and complex aesthetic. Design elements that are completed during casting allow for faster enclosure times, which is a great benefit to owners. One constant for all new finish options is easy installation during the casting process to make the process as simple as possible for crews in the field.

In addition to the inherent green building traits of Tilt-Up wall building methods (reduced site disturbance, accelerated construction schedules, less traffic and labor on site, etc.), many of today’s finishes address the green building and sustainable attributes building owners and designers are seeking. By utilizing a thin-brick or porcelain cladding instead of full bed-depth brick, 75-85 percent less raw materials (clay) are extracted from the earth. Utilizing embedded thin brick also conserves fuel consumption with trucking; the wall coverage of one-truck load of thin brick would require six trucks of full bed-depth brick for the same amount of coverage. This type of emission reduction should play a large roll when making decisions on exterior wall finishes. This coupled with eco-friendly materials such as recyclable PET and Styrene liner systems, low VOC concrete stains and local manufacturers delivering short distances allows building owners to achieve outstanding building appearances while meeting today’s green building standards. The end result is concrete wall panels with superior finishes with less embodied energy which reduces the environmental impact that comes from construction.

New materials like embedded porcelain tile, stone patterns, custom photographic images and metallic brick are making headway on Tilt- Up walls, considerably expanding the designer’s tool kit. Before committing to new finish trends, however, take some time to evaluate the design, material options and the integrity of the systems. Many times the latest finishes appear to be great ideas, but don’t hold up well when carried through to crews in the field, or a few years after installation. Time spent up front thinking through installation details, durability aspects and finished appearances will pay off for everyone involved.

As the bidding process for Tilt-Up projects becomes increasingly more competitive, innovative contractors must think outside of the box for finish options. It is important for Tilt-Up contractors to understand the variety of finish options available and present choices to owners and designers. “Many times, jobs can be won or lost at the design and negotiation tables because contractors continue to suggest status quo finish options,” said Jeff Tucker, LEED AP, Director of Business Development at Innovative Brick Systems. “Contractors need to expect more from the companies that present cladding systems and make sure they have several options available and will support those systems in the field.”


In addition to a shift in patterns, finishes are being applied in more efficient, economical ways. Thin-set or field-applied materials have long been used on Tilt-Up projects, but these tend to add time and cost to a project and don’t always have a lengthy service life. Now, by contrast, textures and colors are often installed during the casting process, which not only speeds up enclosure times for the benefit of owners, but also simplifies the process for crews in the field. For example, liner systems now allow split-face thin blocks to be cast into the panels without the use of a sand bed. These blocks are no more than 1.5 inches thick and embed similar to that of the thin-brick and tile systems from Innovative Brick. Elements like this will continue to revolutionize what Tilt-Up contractors can accomplish with finishes.


The successful installation of creative Tilt-Up finishes begins with detailed planning. Designers of Tilt-Up structures should always keep the installers in mind when formulating ideas for decorative finishes. For example, it may be extremely beneficial to design a Tilt-Up building with embedded brick veneers; however, it may be necessary to allow areas that are field laid such as around the main entrance that require more ornate masonry. In this example, the benefits of the brick embeds can be achieved on the building envelope and the same look can be accommodated for the punch out sections after walls are erected. The transition from design to shop drawings can lead to layout challenges and extra labor in the field if finish elements aren’t carefully reviewed. Panels that aren’t laid out properly to match typical masonry dimensions can result in crews spending countless hours trying to sort out the adjustments and subsequent trimming in the field. Above all, finishes need to be simple and universally adaptable for everyone involved. Even panel layouts with non-mason dimensions can be accommodated if the designer works with the finish supplier, and the supplier has the flexibility and expertise to handle the deviation. In many cases a small, visually unnoticeable change, such as a small increase in a joint size or the addition of a rustication detail, can make almost any pattern possible and accommodate this type of layout.

“By teaming with manufacturers who have extensive experience with Tilt-Up, designers, developers and contractors can draw upon the manufacturers’ knowledge to create unique appeal,” said Tucker. “For designers and developers who desire an ‘outside the box’ structure, the right supplier will help create new styles, patterns or even signature looks. It is important for designers to understand that when they are not bound by masonry conventions such as lentils, moisture control spaces, etc., they have a much broader range of options available to them.”

When designing a structure with specialized finishes, however, always consider the lead time needed. Often, the finishing system will need to be manufactured specifically for the job, in which case, a lead time of eight weeks is not unusual. Most systems, such as embedded materials, will need to be on site when the Tilt-Up project starts.

One way to prevent missteps is to work with an experienced supplier who will take responsibility for all materials and supplies procured for this particular scope of the job. If you have experience with the product(s) being used or can get that experience and guidance from a supplier (perhaps even on-site), it can help guarantee a better finished product. What’s more, finding an experienced supplier you can partner with on current and future projects will allow you to draw upon their expertise and innovation to really explore the architectural possibilities Tilt-Up has to offer.

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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.