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Trio of Tilt-Up Structures Contribute to UCSD’s Renowned Architectural Heritage

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By: Mitch Bloomquist

UCSD East Campus Office Building | Triton Ballpark And Marye Anne Fox Clubhouse | UCSD Spanos Athletic Performance Center

The University of California San Diego (UCSD), like most good institutions of higher education, takes their architecture seriously and holds certain design standards to ensure development of the campus is in harmony with the existing, anchoring architectural icons. A trio of award-winning buildings on campus are proving that affordable architecture can indeed be architecture with a capital “A,” according to Matthew Smith, principal architect with the UCSD Capital Program Management.

Student walks by the Geisel Library at University of California San Diego UCSD, named in honor of Audrey and Theodor Geisel Dr. Seuss, and built in 1970

“Concrete is very important to our architectural palate,” said Smith, citing examples from across their campus that Rory Stott, former managing editor at ArchDaily, hails as “one of the most architecturally fascinating universities around.” “The history of UCSD architecture is one of ambition,” writes Stott, “which has made the campus a display case of modernism in all of its forms from the last half a century.”

Charles Lee Powell Structural Research Laboratory in University of California San Diego, USA.

It was in 2011 that tilt-up concrete was first proposed as a more cost-effective alternative to traditional cast-in-place concrete for a nonutility structure on campus. The university was in dire need of space for office, administrative, and clinical-research activities that were supporting a new cardiovascular center. After considering the budget and schedule, John P. Mattox (AIA, LEED AP, and senior director of Healthcare Project Management for UCSD’s Facilities Design & Construction) recommended considering tilt-up concrete construction.

Fallen Star, an artwork by Do Ho Suh, is a skewed house on top of EBU building of Jacobs School of Engineering of University of California San Diego, USA.

Gensler’s Tom Heffernan (AIA, LEED AP, and principal in charge of UCSD’s East Campus Office Building known as ECOB) noted that the request for proposals issued by the university suggested tilt-up concrete construction as a good means of addressing the project’s requirements given its budget limitations and aggressive schedule. “The team took this to heart and focused efforts on developing a tilt-up design that expressed the sculptural potential of site-cast concrete,” said Heffernan. “UCSD and its surrounding community have a rich history of traditional, cast-in-place concrete and we welcomed the challenge to use tilt-up methodology in an innovative way to design a new building that could hold its own among the other buildings on campus.”

According to Smith, ECOB proved the stereotypes relegating tilt-up construction to second-class structures were false. The project was widely acclaimed and inspired the university’s continued exploration of tilt-up’s architectural potential. Specifically, the project demonstrated that articulation of the concrete surface (which is a feature of many of the campus’s other concrete structures) was not only possible with tilt-up, it was also affordable and efficient. “ECOB showed that, with proper handling, we could benefit from the cost savings and still end up with a project we were proud of,” said Smith.

When the time came to design and construct another project nearby, the Triton Ballpark and Marye Anne Fox Clubhouse, the decision to employ the tilt-up method was easy. In turn, Triton inspired continued exploration with the Spanos Athletic Performance Center. 

The trio of projects are outlined here.

Narratives submitted by project teams. 


Architect: Gensler

Images: Ryan Gobuty

The UCSD East Campus Medical Office Building is situated right at the seam of a rustic canyon habitat and the formal Health Sciences Scholar’s Walk. The design of the building provides the link between the two.

The building’s shell combines concrete and curtain-wall systems to represent and relate to the two types of landscapes that surround the building. Textured, patterned, site-cast, tilt-up concrete walls face the canyon side of the site and appear as an extension or outcropping of the canyon’s geology. With a program requirement for a large number of uniformly sized perimeter offices, it was important to use a variety of textures and patterns in the concrete to add visual interest and rhythm to what otherwise would have been a repetitive-window module. Several techniques were employed to maximize the architectural expressiveness of the concrete, including three different form-liner types, three levels of sand blast, exposed aggregate panels, and varying panel depths. These all work together to create a rich appearance.

In contrast to the rugged concrete surface facing the canyon, a highly refined, curtain-wall system faces the discretely landscaped interior of the site. A unitized curtain-wall system creates a sheer surface in contrast to the concrete, and it features custom-fit patterns that emulate the concrete formliner as a way to visually link the two systems. Early and continuous collaboration with both the concrete contractor and the curtain-wall contractor allowed the team to maximize the design potential and the value to the owner.


Architect: Gensler

Images: Joel Zwink

For years, UCSD’s intercollegiate program played great baseball while their fans sat on aluminum bleachers, and their players and staff used a portable trailer as their clubhouse and locker room. With support from the chancellor and generous alumni, the Triton baseball program was able to achieve their dream of redeveloping the ballpark that supported their efforts to field a top team while also improving the fans’ experience.

The new Triton Ballpark is designed to express permanence and stability, and to represent the unique sense of place that characterizes UCSD’s campus setting. Set on the edge of a coastal chaparral canyon, the grandstand enclosure and clubhouse were designed with tilt-up concrete because the plasticity, warmth, and texture of this material creates a strong relationship between the buildings and the campus context.

Mitsubishi Type II Cement, rustic Norfolk Rib Formliner by Fitzgerald, and a medium sandblast finish give the tilt-up wall panels an appearance of emerging directly from the ground in a way that anchors the ballpark securely to its site, while custom formwork literally brands the team’s identity into the clubhouse wall.

Tilt-up’s speed of construction contributed to a successful opening-day game only five months after construction started.


Architect: Architects HGW

Images: Darren Bradley

Spanos Athletic Performance Center is a high-performance training facility designed to elevate UCSD’s sports programs as they transition to NCAA Division I athletics. Functionally, it is designed to augment an existing facility with the goal of creating a combined center that unifies the advanced training program on campus while providing a signature facility to recruit Division I athletes.  

The new training center uses kinetic concrete-relief patterns, Triton colors, and rhythmic lighting to project the building’s athletic function. Tilt-up panel construction was utilized for the durability, visual strength, economy, and speed of erection. Through the manipulation of the repeating module, surface relief, and panel geometry, the inherent properties of the construction were leveraged to highlight the center’s athletic identity. The interior of the structure is open and airy. Natural ventilation and abundant daylight contribute to the pavilion-like feel of the space. Large, overhead doors connect the training center and outdoor courtyard, providing an uninterrupted flow and seamless transition from the training room to the natural environment.

This LEED Gold facility features an integrated strategy for sustainability with its proximity to campus and the community’s transportation system, a storm water bio-basin with 100% retention, low-water use plumbing fixtures, drip irrigation with xeriscape planting, and high-performance mechanical equipment. Integrated control with occupancy and daylight sensors allows the facility to primarily use natural daylight, reducing demand of electric lighting. The windows and skylights are placed strategically to bring balanced light quality to the space while reducing glare and heat. Louvers, operable windows, and overhead doors supplement the mechanical fans to provide constant fresh air to the training room while also minimizing mechanical conditioning. The bio-retention basin forms a continuous planted “moat” around the building, integrating stormwater treatment with landscape design.

The facility is the recipient of Tilt-Up Construction Association’s Achievement Award, AIA California’s Merit Award, AIA San Diego’s Merit Award, and San Diego Architectural Foundation’s Orchid Award.


With each project, the teams were able to refine the process. Matthew Smith believes that continued development and honing of the architectural specification is an important area of focus. “Any material, when treated sensitively and done well, can be used in high-end architecture,” said Smith. 

Some aspects of previous jobs were easily translated and directly applicable to tilt-up construction. For instance, they were able to use the same warm white cement and the outcome was as expected. The details of how and where it was cast presented more of a learning curve. “The whole spectrum of quality using cast-in-place concrete has been perfected over a long period of time,” said Smith, explaining how architects have used decades of experience to evolve the traditional cast-in-place concrete spec into an architectural concrete spec. “Professionals don’t have the same proficiency related to tilt-up,” said Smith. Issues related to formwork fabrication, the use of formliners, finishing techniques, and panel layout all impact the appearance of the final product and benefit from the attention of the design and construction teams. Good early communication, consistent collaboration, and excellent mock-ups go a long way toward solidifying any decisions that may be taken for granted. The Tilt-Up Concrete Association regularly updates their guideline specifications and is currently working on a major update addressing architectural tilt-up construction, specifically.


ECOB set the precedent and provided proof of concept. “With Triton, we established an architectural language,” said Smith. This language was carried through the design and construction of the Spanos Athletic Performance Center such that the department now carries a renewed identity. “We were able to do more with less and do it well,” said Smith. 

The time- and money-saving benefits afforded by the tilt-up method allowed for the consideration and realization of program elements and architectural features that would have otherwise been unaffordable. Through the architects’ creativity and tilt-up technology, UCSD was able to deliver incredible value. “Over time,” said Smith, “nothing can articulate status and success like what you build.”

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