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Industry Inspires Exterior

Articulated skin expresses local history, contemporary design

Belay Sept17 4
Photo: John J. Macaulay

A mixed-use building on the north side of Milwaukee reflects the area’s industrial past and growing development. Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects designed the exterior of Belay Apartments and Adventure Rock Inc.’s building to embrace its large scale, rather than break it up into smaller pieces. It also designed the building, which houses apartments and a rock climbing gymnasium, to appeal to new residents and advertise its special use.

Industrial Scale 

The mixed-use facility sits on a site formerly used by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, alongside the Milwaukee River. It is an area where real estate developments are increasing as the city continues to grow. 

Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, LEED AP, principal at Johnsen Schmaling Architects, says, “What we tried to do was capture the history in the sense that there used to be more of these industrial-scale and industrial-looking buildings in the neighborhood. Our building is trying to evoke the scale, the masculinity and the materiality of those buildings that used to be much more part of the fabric until things changed and got torn down, and the whole manufacturing industry moved out of the city.” 

Belay Apartments and Adventure Rock’s building is organized in two box-shaped volumes. One long, rectangular volume oriented north/south is hugged on its east and south sides by a second, L-shaped volume. The rectangular volume contains the gymnasium and is taller than the L-shaped volume, where the apartments are located. Weathering steel wraps around the entire structure. 

Schmaling says the overall design aesthetic embraces the building’s large size. “Our goal here was to create something more monolithic, expressing the volume of the whole building rather than trying to break it down into smaller pieces. So we looked at this more like a box that we would articulate the skin of.”

Photo: John J. Macaulay

Dynamic Steel 

Since the project was completed in September 2016, the weathering steel has reached a state where it looks dark brown. Schmaling says the steel’s dynamic nature enlivens it. 

“It’s going to darken up a little bit more, and there’s almost a hue of purple at the end, not specks of purple, but a really subtle tone of purple that overlaps the red and brown of the material; really, it’s quite beautiful,” Schmaling says. “It’s just fascinating that a building that is physically static has so much life in it, and really changes its appearance over time.” 

In the summertime, the reddish-brown building complements a grove of green trees on its east side, next to the Milwaukee River. “It just sort of fits in, and that’s beyond our original intent,” Schmaling says. “It’s just basically to emulate the Rust Belt rust of the architectural fabric that used to be there.” 

To clad the exterior, Campbellsport, Wis.-based Wenger Roofing and Sheet Metal fabricated and installed 11,500 square feet of Belgrade, Mont.- based Bridger Steel Inc.’s 9-foot-long, 26-inch-wide, 22-gauge, Truten A606 corrugated weathering steel wall panels. At 1.25-inch-wide and 1.25-inch-deep, the corrugations are narrower than some other panels. 

Schmaling says the narrow corrugations give it a fine texture. “The thing with this material is, there’s a fine line between looking shoddy and cheap, and looking sophisticated. We felt that this finer grain in the corrugation would add a little more sophistication to it.” 

Direct Details


The details for the building materials and how they intersect is straightforward, Schmaling says. “The cladding doesn’t change around the entire perimeter of the building, except for the north façade. It’s not fuzzy detailing where every 5 feet there’s a new condition that has to be addressed.” 

All the penetrations for vents and other components are located at custom-fabricated, C-channel bands that break up the exterior at each floor. “That way we avoided those penetrations going through the corrugated siding, because you would see them much more,” Schmaling says. “With the corrugation, there’s no good, clean detail where these vent caps can interact with the undulation of the shape of the corrugation. If you don’t think ahead on this, they can end up sticking out like pimples all over a building façade.” 

Wenger Roofing and Sheet Metal fabricated and installed 4,400 square feet of Bridger Steel’s 20-inch-wide, 16-gauge weathering steel C-channel for the project.

Window Pattern


The west side of the building, which borders the rock climbing gymnasium, had to fit the special use. To accommodate the climbing walls, windows needed to be minimized. Johnsen Schmaling Architects created thin, vertical slits for windows in an intermittent pattern. 

“We added window slits to create an animated appearance, rather than just having a windowless, blank façade along the street,” Schmaling says. “Those slits are distributed more or less randomly over the façade, in an effort to create texture. It’s more like a canvas that put a pattern on the façade, than any kind of particular function.”

Photo: John J. Macaulay

Public Sculpture

Another requirement based on the rock climbing gymnasium was the north façade couldn’t have windows. At the same time, it faces a busy street, North Avenue, and offered an opportunity to advertise the facility. To resolve the competing interests, the architects developed a sculpture wall for the exterior inspired by the rock climbing walls inside. 

Schmaling says instead of leaving the north façade blank and passive, his firm treated it like a public sculpture. “The way we approached it was, we looked at the undulations of the climbing walls themselves and tried to emulate that texture and rhythm,” he says. “By repeating it as a series of aluminum fins that each has a different, oblique shape, it creates movement when you approach and look at it from an angle.” 

Milwaukee-based Sign Effectz Inc. fabricated and installed 380 square feet of Indianapolis-based Firestone Building Products Co. Inc.’s anodized aluminum fins. In between the fins, a series of horizontal, light green light bars accentuate the design. The light bars were constructed with custom acrylic lenses backlit by LED strips. The combination of light green lights on the rocky gray wall was inspired by a photograph of moss growing on rock. “That is another feature that activates the façade and makes it like an interesting art installation, that as you drive by or walk by, it captures your interest,” Schmaling says. 

Folding Roof


At the top of the four-story building, a horizontal band of clerestory windows provides daylighting and draws attention. “It becomes a beacon in the neighborhood, something that you really see from far away with that glowing strip of horizontal light,” Schmaling says. 

Milwaukee-based Heritage Glass Inc. installed 2,270 square feet of Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Pittco Architectural Metals Inc.’s clerestory windows and curtainwall on the east and west sides. The roof plain over the clerestory windows appears to fold down 90 degrees and become the north façade. “It looks like a cloth that was draped over the roof and falls down on the north façade,” Schmaling says. “If you think of this as an art installation, it’s like the canvas we pulled down on that north façade.”