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Meet the Challenge

Mc Grath  Photo 1

Demanding façades require a close collaboration between architects and fabricators

One of the most powerful tools humans possess is our imagination. We can dream up and visualize the most spectacular and unbelievable things. In the world of architectural design, that imagination is pushing the envelope of our ability to construct buildings. Façades that bend, fold, swoop and curve. Façades that break planes. That reach for sky. That reveal surprise openings. We can imagine it all, but can we build it?

The Minneapolis environment provides daunting
challenges for building envelopes to meet the
widely varied weather that can range form 90
degrees in the summer to minus 20 degrees in
the winter. The erxperience gained in this
environment has helped MG McGrath meet
the demandds of the most sophisticated designs.

Increasingly, the answer is "yes." But at what cost? And what risk? Demanding and sophisticated architecture gets expressed most ardently in the design. "We really like to see the architecture transform the skyline of the city and give the heart of a city a character," says Stephen Kovach V, vice president of Kovach Building Enclosures, Chandler, Ariz. "Architecture is what does that. Architecture is what gives a city character. Through the downturn, developers, municipal, federal and state-funded projects were under incredible budget constraints, which meant the AEC world delivered façades that were less impressive than they were 10 years before and, hopefully, 10 years after."

This new reality is even more difficult for façades that include metal panels. Because of its ductility and versatility, metal gives architects tools to express their visions that can be more fanciful and difficult to execute.

"Metal panels are perhaps the most misunderstood product on the envelope," says Kovach. "There are so many different variations, so many different options, so few in the supply chain that are willing to collaborate that it happens to be one of the most misunderstood scopes of work. Waterproofing is very important, but it doesn't have a supply chain to manage that metal panels do. We found that providing samples and mock-ups is invaluable, simply to set expectations, and to also understand the architect's design intent."

By supply chain, Kovach means from the mined material to a fabricated product. "And the questions that come up in design meetings, really merit education on where these raw materials come from, how they react in a natural environment, and how the do what they do. What they don't do. Why an engineered finish on a product is different than a natural finish. Folks can look at an elevation of a façade, and if you had 12 opinions on what the material was, its thickness, what the finish was, where it came from, and how it's fabricated, you'd have 12 different answers, and quite possibly 12 different options. Finding the best material has a lot to do with understanding it."

For the Arizona Center for Law and Justice in Phoenix,
Kovach Building Enclosures implemented procedures
from curtainwall techniques and employed a new
fastening system based on European designs

Given the complexity of these designs and variety of metal materials, fabricators want to be involved early in the process. Mike McGrath is president of MG McGrath, Maplewood, Minn. As with Kovach Building Enclosures, MG McGrath is responsible for some of the most dynamic and interesting metal façade work, including the recently lauded Florida Polytechnic University building by famed architect Santiago Calatrava.

Of difficult and complex designs, he says, "There's usually early involvement with all of them by the design team, architects, engineers, some consultants, hopefully some sort of construction manager. And we're at the table as early as possible. That's probably the best scenario for us. That we're engaged at a level that we can have some impact on things, to help look for efficiencies, better means and methods, choices in materials. That's where we can open up a lot of different doors or avenues with means and methods that you couldn't expect anyone that's not seriously involved in our business to understand how those need to be installed, fabricated or procured."

That early involvement is part of a process and fabricators, such as Kovach Building Enclosures and MG McGrath, provide a wide variety of services during that time that help identify materials, offer pricing alternatives and improve performance criteria. "We always try to get a good understanding of what the design team is thinking and what they want the project to look like," says Mc- Grath. "We want to understand not just their aesthetics, but the next step for us would be to dive into the performance criteria for the project: thermal and moisture management, air vapor, wind loads, deflections and all of those things. That's really going to lead us into one of a few approaches. It seems like when you're talking about this level of architecture, when it starts to get more complex, there's usually a really a high level of performance desires from the façade, as well as something that's architecturally impactful or really stunning."

Those initial meetings and early involvement are essential to the success of projects. If aesthetically demanding façades also require higher performance, getting all the players to the table for collaboration means a more dedicated approach to solving the problems posed by these demands.

Kovach Building Enclosures' investments in
infrastructure and machinery help it meet the
most demanding projects

First, though, you have to understand the intent of the architect. "That process is a delicate process," says Kovach. "The idea is owned by the designer and the building is owned by the owners. What we bring to the table is creative problem solving."

How early should architects bring in fabri cators? Kovach wants to be involved prior to a major milestone, and he describes that this way: "The biggest milestone is making a budget change without having an idea completely vetted. The design team may have made a budget change, but if it hasn't exhausted resources on that idea and it may have missed an opportunity."

He explains, "The biggest challenge is working with the constraints of real manufacturing tolerances and criteria to bring these ideas to life. The biggest constraint is the owner's budget. We can do amazing things."

McGrath says, "On our most successful projects, we hope to get involved in at the schematic level or even the design/development level or somewhere in between. In some cases, we even influence the schematic design packages. Here's what a cost-per-square-foot might be for X, Y and Z. Then allowing them to back into what they have to spend in the budget. Maybe even put forth renderings. With that sort of data in hand, we won't have the surprise down the road that they just can't afford it."

That involvement is more than just cost analysis, of course. "We try to provide a complete package," says McGrath. "Here are material options, system options, fabrication options. Here's the cost component. Here's how we might construct it. And then here's the cost component."

Kovach adds, "What is worth highlighting is the people in the AEC worlds have come to understand collaboration brings tremendous value. And if you're not sophisticated in fabrication to keep up with design, you've missed the boat."

MG McGrath is installing a metal panel facade
on an addition to the University of California,
Berkeley, Calif. It demonstrates the importance
of heightened performance criteria that often
accompany unique or demanding facades. The ice
and water detailing has been painstakingly
worked out through modeling

Keeping up means is far more than just keeping educated. For companies such as MG McGrath and Kovach Building Enclosures, that means investment in machinery and technology. Custom façades are not inexpensive, so efficiencies have to be found to make them viable in the real world of construction. "Where we capitalize most," says McGrath, "is on the means and methods side. Since we install all of the stuff ourselves, there are a lot of options open for us."

Located in Minnesota, McGrath says, "We have one of the worst climates with extremes. This weekend it was 90 degrees and really humid. In January, it will be minus 20 degrees." MG McGrath relies on the experience of building in that environment. And it uses technology. "Computer modeling is a powerful tool," McGrath says. "It allows people to anticipate problems before the first season change in a building. We see it utilized sporadically. Some design teams use it religiously. As a specialty contractor, we use it religiously. At the end of the day, we have a responsibility to the owners and customers that we won't have problems down the road. Nothing good comes out of that."

Designing demanding façades requires more than early collaboration and computer modeling. It requires machinery that can execute those façades, which is a major part of a fabricator's investment. Kovach Building Enclosures has modified machinery to accommodate a design idea. "What's evolved even more than machinery," says Kovach, "is processes. The construction industry as a whole has not kept up with the tech industry with regard to processes and procedures. But with better processes and better quality assurance/quality control (QA/ QC), we can better bring things to life than we could have otherwise. Processes and procedures have really evolved in the last 20 years."