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The Knox College Whitcomb Art Center embraces its metal buildingness

Laura SchwimmerAmong a group of excellent metal buildings, the judges of the Metal Architecture Design Awards selected the Whitcomb Art Center at Knox College, Galesburg, Ill., exactly because it leaned into being a metal building. With three large bays, ribbed metal wall panels and standing seam metal roofing, no one would ever guess this building was anything other than a metal building system.

That's not unusual for projects designed by Lake|Flato Architects Inc., San Antonio. According to Lewis McNeel, AIA, an associate at the firm, "Our firm's ethos is to make the best use possible of all the resources available and let the resources be shown off in the best way possible … On preengineered metal buildings, it's natural to want to celebrate its unique shapes."

 

The Program

The metal building was supplied by Star Building Systems, Oklahoma City, who worked closely with the architect and the general contractor, P.J. Hoerr, Peoria, Ill., to meet what were some demanding conditions for a pretty sophisticated metal building design. The building comprises five total bays, with three large ones connected by smaller bays. "We wanted to showcase the structure of the building," says McNeel. "Because it's an art building, we could be very repetitive with the bays, using a single structural shape for three of the bays. It was easy to put a program in the space."

That program included a lecture hall, seminar room, various studio spaces, administrative offices, and tying it all together is an open floor plan with few doors. "The central circulation hallway doubles as a critique space and show venue," says McNeel.

The defining characteristic of the building is the unique roof shape, with an offset gable that allowed for skylights facing north to flood the building with natural light. The long, low-slope side of the roof is ready to receive solar panels.

P.J. Hoerr was brought in at the conceptual design stage, and was instrumental in working with Star Building Systems to resolve engineering issues that arose because of the shape of the building and other client requests. Kirk Anderson, vice president at P.J. Hoerr, says, "The president of the college told us she wanted people to walk by on the sidewalk and look in and see students working on art. Those were our marching orders."

 

The Location

Knox College is like many small, liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. The campus tends to be dominated by traditional brick or stone buildings that present a somewhat architecturally conservative environment. A metal building would look out of place in such an environment. "The building is on the edge of campus," says McNeel, "and next to the railroad district to the east and south. All around the site are metal buildings and old brick buildings. The art department wanted to be on that edge of campus."

There is an elegant courtyard that opens toward the campus, inviting people in. That façade is dominated by metal paneling, supplied by MBCI, Houston. Most of the paneling is ribbed, but on walls that are set back between the large bays, the ribbing is wider, giving a greater sense of depth to the building. On the walls that drop down from the steep side of the roof, P.J. Hoerr installed standing seam paneling to match the roof paneling so it seems as if the roof just turns the corner and drops down to the ground.

Large windows cut into the corners of the bays so anyone approaching from the campus can see deep into the building and students working on art. The corner windows also reveal the iconic tapered columns of a metal building system.

 

The Interior

Once students and faculty have navigated the courtyard and entered the building, they are greeted by large spaces flooded with natural light that showcase the building itself. It was that desire that caused the most difficulties for Anderson and his team. "One of the biggest challenges," he says, "on the construction side was the energy code. We had to create unique wall sections to meet the code. We used rigid insulation, a moisture barrier, thermal clips and hat channels to fasten the siding to the walls. On the roof, we used an acoustical deck with rigid insulation, plywood and a moisture barrier." Making sure there was no thermal bridging complicated the design.

"Very early in the design," he continues, "they decided they wanted as much of the interior exposed as possible. They wanted to see the bracing through the windows. You can see the purlins, the underside of the deck, the bracing, the bolts. That made it really fun. We didn't have to worry about covering everything up, and we don't get that luxury very often."

The color palette for the interior was equally as subdued. McNeel says, "The art department is extremely aggressive with color and materials. The building needed to be a neutral canvas." The interior included exposed concrete, reclaimed wood from a shed on campus, and pavers from a stockpile during an earlier campus renovation. Even the hardwood flooring was culled from a previous project. "It's a scrappy assemblage of humble pieces," says McNeel.

 

Photos: Courtesy of P.J. Hoerr

Photos: Laura Schwimmer

 

Whitcomb Art Center, Knox College, Galesburg, Ill.

Completed: October 2016
Total square footage: 29,950 square feet
Owner: Knox College
Architect: Lake|Flato Architects Inc., San Antonio, www.lakeflato.com
General contractor and metal building system assembler: P.J. Hoerr Inc., Peoria, Ill., www.pjhoerr.com
Metal building system: Star Building Systems, Oklahoma City, www.starbuildings.com
Metal roofing and wall panels: MBCI, Houston, www.mbci.com
Storefront system: Tubelite Inc., Walker, Mich., www.tubeliteinc.com