Lunch & Learn at SOM Chicago

Chicago, IL – Building Blocks visited the Chicago offices of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on Wednesday, May 17 to host a lunch seminar about the manufacturing process, system capabilities, and design flexibility of Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete (GFRC). The session focused on complex facade skins and high-performance designs.


Building Blocks is an American Institute of Architects (AIA) approved provider of continuing education for practicing architects. See here for more information about the AIA CEU courses offered.


Facades+ Boston

Boston, MA – Building Blocks will attend the Facades+ conference in Boston next month. The one day program will feature a morning symposium followed by an afternoon of workshops, presented by industry leaders from Elkus Manfredi Architects, Walter P. Moore, and Thornton Tomasetti, among others. It will be hosted by the Architect’s Newspaper.


Facades+ Boston

June 6, 2017


MIT Samberg Conference Center

50 Memorial Drive

Campbridge, MA 02142

Interview with Architect Zack Cooley

Chicago, IL – Two years ago, Building Blocks worked with Brandon Haw Architecture in a design assist process for Versailles Contemporary, the final addition to the Faena District in Miami Beach. Zack Cooley was the technical design lead for the project. He previously worked at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Brandon Haw formed Brandon Haw Architecture in 2014 after leaving a 26 year career at Foster & Partners.


Versailles Contemporary is an eighteen-story condominium high-rise located between Roy France’s classic Versailles Hotel and the Faena House. It is the last piece to the acclaimed Faena District in the Collins Avenue Historic District of South Beach. The district was developed by Alan Faena. Versailles Contemporary was “designed to create open space around the original landmarked Versailles structure,” “maximize views of both the ocean and the western sunsets,” and hold “a harmonious relationship with its historic and contemporary neighbors” according to Brandon Haw Architects.


The undulating white facade features rounded glazed corners and extensive cantilevered balconies that, “float above the ocean’s horizon.” These oversized, light-as-air balconies were a perfect design for glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC). Building Blocks was brought into the project for a design assist phase in order to help the team from Brandon Haw Architecture maximize the design flexibility of GFRC added to specific scope while managing constructability and cost drivers.


Kevin Miske of Building Blocks recently sat down with Zack Cooley from Brandon Haw Architecture to recap the project, review the design assist methodology, and discuss the value of early involvement by the subcontractor on complex building skins.


Kevin: As the architect, what made you think that a design assist for this project was going to be beneficial?


Zack: We go a certain distance in our drawings and then as we’re drawing through things and proposing things we develop lists of questions. We try to answer them ourselves but knowing what we don’t know is important in that process. So, for us to engage in design assist as quickly as possible we make the thing more real more quickly. Our knowledge of all systems and all details can be limited at times. Bringing in people who have years and years of experience on a certain system really helps our documents along.


Kevin: Have you worked in design assist with other subcontractors?


Zack: Yes, we have. My experience has been that when the design assist is a bit more loose it tends to be less successful than the formal, intensive way that we engaged you. In fact, we’ve had subcontractors work in a form of design assist without charging anything. In hindsight, we should have put something on the table for their time because we didn’t get the full attention like we did your attention. Building Blocks stood out as a very successful working process during design for us.


Kevin: So, what do you think about doing this at-risk versus fee based with a give back once it goes to contract?


Zack: I think your idea of a give back program…where we engage in the process and there’s a monthly fee, but it’s credited back if awarded the job, that would get over the hump on the ownership side. Being able to really quantify the savings for a client is difficult.


Kevin: There’s also secondary value beyond just the material cost.


Zack: Yeah. It benefits the design, too. More complexity doesn’t necessarily yield a better design. It was great with Alan because he had gone through [design assist] on other projects so he understood the value. You have certain CMs and GCs that, until you go through it, you don’t really understand the value.


Kevin: On Versailles, the deliverable on the design assist process was allowing the design team to get to 100% CD. A knowledge transfer that allowed you to answer some of the questions you had at 100% DD, correct?


Zack: We’re always sprinting to draw. We’re producing and designing at the same time. So, if we know bringing somebody on board that: 1) is going to contribute the knowledge and get me from A to B much more quickly, and 2) actually take part in the production, sharing details, helping develop details – that’s just a win-win. As we’re reaching the end of CD and DD we’re looking for any way to get there quicker. It’s a no-brainer for us.


Kevin: Reflecting back on the design assist process for Versailles, what do you think worked really well and what do you think could have been done better?


Zack: The live work sessions were great; screen sharing, spinning around the model, drafting. There’s nothing better than having a session where you discover problems and instead of saying, “Oh okay, we’ll walk away and address these problems and come back to it next week,” you have the tools out and draw through it right there in the meeting. It is a huge benefit for the project when you have people who are willing to play in the sandbox.


Kevin: Do you think there were any issues with us being remotely located?


Zack: Well, that was my thing that “could have been better.” If you’re in the same room it’s always better, but I’ve never worked on a project where everybody on the team is in the same city. It didn’t really matter because we could just Skype.


Kevin: There is some benefit to being together. It’s something I would like to look at when we have the next design assist opportunity; to go to the architect’s office and work there with them. I think it’s going to be a more focused effort.


Zack: It would be nice to somehow bake the physical mockup into the design assist process. We go through design assist, the drawings are finished, then there’s a big period where the GC is brought on board. Some way to seamlessly transition from design assist into a mockup where there isn’t this stopping point.


Kevin: The GC doesn’t have the benefit of everything we’ve been through, and then they are now the one driving the mockup and it slows everything down.


Zack: It’s like starting from scratch a little bit.


Kevin: Because of that delay, especially like Versailles which was a very long delay, you start forgetting all these little pieces of knowledge that you earned during design assist.


Zack: You have to somehow convey all of that to the GC. They weren’t with you learning the lessons and you have to somehow bring them up to speed. On the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, which I worked on at Diller Scofido+Renfro, it was a bit earlier because the GC was decided really early in the process. We entered design assist in DD, about the same time we did for Versailles. There wasn’t this reeducation process. In fact, the mockup process was a bit more seamless because the GC did have the buy-in.


Kevin: With having the GC involved, we’re getting closer to an Integrated Project Delivery where the general contractor, the architect, and the engineer engage all of the critical subs that have dependencies on each other early enough that they help influence the design. For an IPD, you’d have to have a general contractor who is really leading that.


Zack: It’s like a project-wide design assist, which is the ideal scenario.


Kevin: I can’t understand why our industry is so reluctant to take on more collaborative relationships. Design assist is really the precursor to getting to an IPD process. I hope that the industry continues to move in that direction.


Zack: For us it’s all about the clients. We work for the clients. Sometimes we have clients who have gone through a process like design assist before and they understand the value. They know they’ll save money and time. It’s all about expectations. Other times we work with clients who aren’t as familiar with design assist and think about it as a step by step process. They prefer to hire an architect, then pass it to the engineers, then to the contractors. They may be attracted to a more incremental process because they’re not committing to everything up front. If you have a client who prefers the a la carte process, it’s hard to convince them to do design assist. If you have a client or a third party adviser who has done it before, it’s much easier.


Kevin: Do you think it would be helpful to engage in technical design discussions earlier?


Zack: It depends on the project. If you understand what the broad strokes are and you know what the systems are early enough. Once those decisions are made, then the sooner the better. Even early DD if you have the systems finalized. Sometimes you don’t. For example, on Versailles we were talking about several options on the cladding, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate to start with you.


Kevin: On Versailles, it started off as precast, is that right?


Zack: We were entertaining precast seriously. Someone said it would be cheaper as precast and then we realized several weeks into it that that wasn’t the smartest path.


Kevin: So, do you think the outcomes of improved cost, schedule, RFI’s, constructability, and quality were achieved with design assist over a design-bid-build process?


Zack: I mean, the cost was dead on. When we were going through those VE efforts, well after CDs were finished, it wasn’t really questioned. Everybody was comfortable with where we landed. Having that off the table whenever you’re dealing with so many other issues, to say that this issue is well resolved and we have a high degree of confidence in it is really beneficial. I think we nailed that. What do you mean by schedule?


Kevin: Getting to 100% CD faster.


Zack: Yeah, yeah. Well, that definitely, but also some of those details wouldn’t have been where they ended up. It definitely gets you there quicker.


Kevin and Zack agreed that by the end of the design assist process the project was more comprehensive and ready to transition to the next stage than is typical at that point. A major factor was the design assist process. It was also thanks to Brandon Haw Architecture’s well detailed DD set. Most DD plans are only about 50% of the required information for accurate costing but theirs was more developed.


Design assist was dually responsible for keeping the costs of this project consistent from initial budget on February 23, 2015 until contract on April 16, 2016. Generally, when a project progresses from DD to CD, costs increase as more requirements and complexity are identified. Design assist subverted the norm by maintaining the same costs from one stage to the next. The design assist process requires a more collaborative relationship between architects and their contractors. The results are a more thorough, well considered design that is executed on a faster timeline.


Facade Tectonics Forum in Chicago

Chicago, IL – Building Blocks will attend the Facade Tectonics Forum: Chicago next month. The morning event is broken into three distinct parts: the impact of fenestration on thermal performance, digital workflows, and wind effects on tall buildings. Sessions will be given by individuals from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Thornton Tomasetti, Schüco, and Gensler, among others. It will be hosted by the Illinois Institute of Technology.


Windy City Skins:

Building Facades Where The Hawk Wind Blows

May 23, 2017


IIT Herman Hall

3241 South Federal Street

Chicago, IL 60616

Register here to attend.

Daily Work Stop at Hogan for Mice and Fish

Evanston, IL – The O.T. Hogan building is part of the Northwestern University campus. It is one of three buildings dedicated to the study of biological sciences. Its Brutalist architecture features an unusual four-leaf clover-like footprint. The building was designed in the 1960’s by Walter Netsch during his tenure at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It is an excellent example of his Field Theory; rotating squares to create complex geometries. Limestone panels and aluminum window walls twist around the center.


The entire sixth floor is comprised of greenhouse pods. Building Blocks has been contracted to replace the exterior window walls of these greenhouse rooms. The unique geometry of Hogan has provided an engaging project. A more unexpected challenge presented itself after windows had been selected and installation planning began.


The biological sciences department house their mice and fish in the Hogan building. These animals have specific breeding habits that are sensitive to the particular vibrations and audio frequencies produced by window replacement. As a result, the installation schedule this summer has been arranged to allow a work stop from 8:30 am to 10:00 am every day. This way, the building improvements will not disrupt the mice and fish or alter the results of studies that are underway.


Restoration of Chicago’s City Hall Begins

Chicago, IL – Building Blocks is working with IW&G to replace an estimated 600 pieces of terra cotta on Chicago’s century-old City Hall building. Nearly half of the facade replacement pieces are designated for a band above the 11th-floor windows. Building Blocks previously worked on the separate but identical Cook County building a decade ago. Knowledge gained from the Cook County project will help the team stick to their aggressive schedule for City Hall.


Chicago City Hall and Cook County Building

Presentation at Facades+ New York City


New York, NY – Building Blocks has again been asked to speak at the Facades+ conference, this time in New York City. Kevin Miske, President of Building Blocks, will join Jared Della Valle of Alloy and Alberto Franceschet of Permasteelisa to discuss reclad planning processes and projects in a session titled, Overclad and Reclad in NYC: New Materials in Rehabilitation Projects.


Facades+ New York City

April 6-7, 2017


Register here with our code for discounted admission.

Discount code: DDNYC17


601 Washington Facade Mockup Complete

Miami Beach, FL – Building Blocks completed and installed a visual mockup of the facade for a new hotel at 601 Washington Ave in the historic district of South Beach. The mockup pulled together all of the building’s facade elements into a single panel for owner and architect approval. It was designed by Morris Adjmi Architects with Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe as the architect of record.


Building Blocks and GT McDonald will furnish and install a unitized facade of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) and windows for this project. GFRC is a Miami-Dade Historic Preservation Board approved material. To learn more about our involvement in this project see here.


Guest Speaker at SAIC

Chicago, IL – Matt Seymour of Building Blocks, spoke about his work in masonry restoration to a group of historic preservation students at his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), on Friday, February 17, 2017. Matt shared his knowledge of the GFRC and terra cotta restoration process and provided a presentation about the ongoing restoration at 125 S Clark in Chicago.  Students then had the opportunity to view the project from Federal Plaza and ask Matt about his experiences after graduation.


Matt has managed exterior brick, terra cotta, and stone restoration projects to local and federal preservation standards. He earned his Master of Science in Historic Preservation from SAIC in 2011 and is a member of the Landmarks Illinois Skyline Council.


New Advisory Board Member

Brendan Deely

Advisory Board

Chicago, IL – Building Blocks is pleased to welcome Brendan Deely to the Advisory Board. Brendan is former President and CEO of L&W Supply Corporation and former Senior Vice President of USG Corporation.


He has nearly 30 years of diversified leadership within global corporations, publicly traded companies, and mid-cap specialty manufacturing and distribution businesses. His experience in industrial, commercial, and consumer markets, as well as his reputation for value creation as a CEO, Corporate Director, and member of board and executive committees, is an excellent addition to the Advisory Board.