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Tilt-Up as a Re-Emerging Design Technology

By: Mitch Bloomquist, Tilt-Up Concrete Association and Jeffrey Brown, Powers Brown Architecture

Charles Davis Smith - Photographer | Perkins + Will - Architect

As a low cost, low technology building system, Tilt-Up concrete construction has become one of the fastest growing solutions used to meet current industry wide budget constraints. This is no subtlety – it represents a grass roots insurgency on the part of low cost technology fueled by historic economic forces of the Great Recession. If one is to believe the predictions, this is a challenge that may face the allied professions in the building industry for some time to come. This dilemma sponsors an obvious question for design professionals; will design innovation suffer at the proposition of less costly methods of building? Perhaps not. Tilt-Up has been typically considered an acceptable methodology for every day buildings and big box retail; it has recently gained a foothold with serious architects as an innovative way of form making.

Invented in the last decade of the 19th century by Army engineer Robert Aiken for military purposes, it had flirtations by Thomas Edison as an invention, and finally Irving Gill as “architecture.” But it took Rudolph Schindler in his now canonical Kings Road House – also known simply as the Schindler House, to elevate Tilt-Up into a method in which high formal achievement could be pursued. On the cusp of becoming de rigueur with Modernism, it was, like many advancements, forced to go dormant until after World War II. Innovations such as the traveling crane allowed it to become the low cost method for building big box buildings that supported the massive suburban middle class post war growth.

Yet by the late 1970s and early 1980s it had to slink somewhat humiliated from avant-garde architectural consideration. That is until recently; world-class architects such as Stephen Holl, Rand Elliot and Scogin Elam and Bray began to engage the technology to create significant works of architecture in the early to late 1990s. A common thread of these great Tilt-Up works, and reason for their impact on the industry, is their expression of elements that are uniquely Tilt-Up, an exploration into the qualities intrinsic to the method. The resulting aesthetic is exclusive and authentic.

Paul Warchol Photography, Inc.

Holl’s masterful demonstration of the potential for Tilt-Up to produce canonical architecture is exemplified in two key projects; the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle and the Planer House in Arizona. The poetry of Steven Holl’s application of the Tilt-Up method resides in the interaction between desired effect and its inherent manifestation in the construction method. In both the Planer House and the Chapel of St. Ignatius, the panels are interlocking. The joints between panels meander to create openings and disrupt the rhythm of the vertical joint marching down the façade. Openings occur strategically within the joint between two panels and at the edges of panels, interacting with the roof, building corner and ground. The opportunistic placement of the openings accentuates the joints and dissolves the appearance of a panelized façade.

At the Chapel of St. Ignatius the animated panels engage the sky as well, creating an irregular roof-line.  The planar panels, once free from the constraints of adjacent panels, begin to curve and bend. Collaborating with other building systems employed in the project, these panels create dynamic volumes of light-filled space described conceptually by the architect as “bottles of light.” Adding to the quirky characteristics of the Chapel of St. Ignatius, once erect, the lifting inserts (hardware embedded in the concrete used to lift the panels in to place) were capped with bronze covers. Due to the irregular shape of each panel and the resulting weight distribution, the inserts are seemingly randomly placed on the wall. The subtle shadows cast by the protruding of these shiny metallic elements calls further attention to their presence, contributing to the narrative. The lifting inserts at the Planer House were treated similarly.

These buildings and others by significant designers were widely published and recognized but never launched a “movement.” That may be changing. The nexus of downward economic pressure on construction costs and the need for accelerated construction schedules have fueled opportunities for Tilt-Up to morph into new more complex building types and challenges. Tilt-Up’s high design pedigree, its proven track record of flexibility in supporting and manifesting complex spatial propositions and use in executing unique forms, have made it the choice of many leading edge architects.

Nic Lehoux, Photographer

Nic Lehoux, Photographer

Newer works such as Rob Quigley’s New Children’s Museum (San Diego, California, USA, 2009) the Perkins + Will designed Cedar Ridge High School (Round Rock Texas, USA, 2010) and One Haworth Center (Holland, Michigan 2008) and Bing Thom’s Sunset Community Center (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 2007) demonstrate a rejuvenated appreciation for the technology as well as a fresh approach to beginning to tap its form making potential.

So go the leading edge architects, so go the mainstream firms. A wide variety of building types, applications and explorations are being undertaken with Tilt-Up technology. No “big dumb box” limitations seem to remain. Formal experimentation in height, profile and shape of panels including curved panels, depth or the ability to produce what has been called a voluminous wall, thinness, endless potential for assembly strategies, apparent or actual visual density through layering both literal and phenomenal, use as actual structural effect, planarity versus volumetrics, and transparency to name just few of the manifestations. Combined, these experiments promise great things.

In an exciting development both in terms of application and the leap of Tilt-Up to yet another building type is David Chipperfield’s addition to the Saint Louis Art Museum in Saint Louis, Mo. (currently under construction). The novelty of this specific installation of site-cast Tilt-Up construction is that the dark colored concrete panels will be cast face-up and polished before being erected and placed into position resulting in grand expanses of dark glossy concrete. This will be a project to watch and could well be a catalyzing force in the widening legitimization of Tilt-Up as a vehicle to meaningful and important architecture.

Tilt-Up concrete construction’s exciting future is not limited to its formal potential. Current industry wide research into its technological capabilities is underway. In particular, Tilt-Up technology as a low cost method for meeting Anti-Terrorism Force Protection Standards set forth by the Department of Defense is a promising trajectory – and combined with the above mentioned nascent formal explorations, are beginning to point to new unimagined directions.

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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.