University of Washington
fosters design and engineering ideas

Tyler Sprague, Assistant Professor of architecture,  is able to bring together his love of design and his training as a structural engineer through his precast concrete studio at the University of Washington in Seattle. “As a structural engineer, what I enjoyed the most was being in the architects office and working through the building at the early critical stages where the design, technology and structure comes together - I like those formative moments when the building takes off,” says Sprague. “Now I am in the studio where I get to foster that environment directly. We take some things that are pretty high end design, and make them realizable projects.”

To make things more exciting, the students working with Sprague have only 10 weeks to kick off the projects, develop a concept, understand the structural system and develop the plan.”  The program just finished its second year, and Sprague works closely with Senior Lecturer Jim Nicholls.

From day one, the students are surrounded by resources from PCI, and they connect early with the industry partners nearby. “We have a slew of industry partners,” says Sprague, “And they are a deep resource for us.”

“In our second year we took a less, “we talk, you listen” approach,” says Catrina Walter of BergerAbam, who is the industry liaison for the program. “Instead it was more of an open forum during those first 2 meetings with the students. Our team sat down individually with the students, one on one, and talked with them about their plans for the projects. The students were able to show us both their computer and physical 3D models and walk us through their thought process for how they arrived at their design concepts. We have offered tours at both Concrete Technology Corporation in Tacoma and Olympian Precast in Redmond. These tours have given students the opportunity to view both structural and architectural precast focused facilities.”

Casting exercise takes hands-on approach

The students start the studio with the knowledge that their project will be precast and so the first thing on the agenda is to gain a working knowledge of concrete basics. Sprague starts with a small scale casting exercise. Studios use the simple architectural diagram of the Maison Dom-Ino and develop a cladding system for it. They quickly come to understand both the importance of repetition in precast but also see how precast come take on many forms and designs.

“We encourage the students to think broadly about the problem so we are not just looking for simple floor to floor panels that we can stack we are asking them to engage the true nature of the problem and think about it in different ways,” says Sprague. “The projects really take off in interesting directions. In one project the students looked at the warping of a fin and twisting of an airplane coil and how that might be created as a single castable unit so that when you passed inside and outside you would get different views from these fins - whether you are looking at it straight on or at an angle.”

Other students researched more about the concrete and create a permeable façade, with the thought that a concrete screen could filter the water and runoff form the parking garage. 

This initial study of placing precast concrete as a façade on a simple structure works well in helping students understand the freedom one can have in designing in precast.  “I know a lot of ways to think about precast as an innovative material and as a means of executing their ideas,” says Sprague. “We are not in the business of saying “no you can’t do that in precast.” We are in the business of saying “yes, and how” and really working with the students to figure out how to execute their ideas.”


 Tours bring new ideas to light

To make that happen, the studio partners with a contingent of precast industry professionals coordinated by Catrina Walter of BergerABAM. Their first time with the students is when they come in a do desk critiques with each student.

“That is where the power of our studio really kicks in,” says Sprague “We are definitely pushing our industry professionals to think about precast in ways that they not have thought of before, and we are pushing our student to make their ideas real. We have to look at how are we panelizing, how are we reinforcing, how are we casting these pieces. It is that mutual meeting of the ideas that has been the most successful for us.”

For student Sarah Chan, the desk critiques have been especially helpful. “It has been unique to this studio. And not only do we have those desk crits with them, we invite them to our mid-term and final reviews so it creates an interesting dialog between the architect reviewers and the industry reviewers. We get a chance to see how it comes out. They are always very interesting conversations with the different perspectives.” 

“Having this intense contact with the material and being shown what a material can do rather than telling what the material can’t do is something they will carry with them and use in the very near future,” says Sprague.

Students move out of the studio and into Seattle and the precast plants so they can both see successful precast design and understand the fabrication process. “We have an interesting balance of producers in the Pacific Northwest where we have a heavy industrial producer, Concrete Tech, and they do floating pontoons, bridge girders, and one of the transportation producers. Then we have a smaller producer, Olympian precast doing panels for the sides of buildings. We balance those two extremes as we take our trips,” says Sprague.

A tour of precast projects around Seattle also gives students appreciation for some precast deign from the past. Sprague calls the 1960s and 1970s in Seattle a “golden age” of precast. Notably, the Pacific Science Center for the 1962 Worlds Fair designed by Minoru Yamasaki which is often referred to as “space gothic.”

Parking garage design uses new ideas in program

Finally, the students take on the design project - a modern day urban parking garage at a transit hub near the university. In addition to using precast concrete in the design, students are given another program element of modernizing the idea of how a parking garage is used.

As Sprague sees it, the parking garage of the future is less determined by the current car sizes and more speculation about future mobility trends. Students get on board with this because they are excited about thinking about the ways things could be in the future.

For one industry partner, Chuck Prussack of Oldcastle, sitting down with the students and rolling up his sleeves was the most enjoyable part of the semester. “Anyone who knows me knows I like nothing better than sitting with architects, engineers, or contractors with a sketch pad or whiteboard to help show how to use our products,” says Prussack. “I was amazed at the thought each student had put into their concepts and how much pride they had in their vision. It could be they are way ahead of the curve for what parking structures of the future may have for other uses. I did some sketches for each student to help show how to connect things together, and how as an engineer I look for load path to be sure the structures are stable.”

“(The students) have these amazing ideas,” says Walter. “It has how many different ways 10 students can visualize a single parking garage at the exact same location...and how that structure can be converted to future uses. Each one is so unique.”

“The parking garage is also an indicator of how cars are slowly becoming obsolete within Seattle as we are starting to see more ride share taking over the urban fabric,” says student Sarah Chan. “We designed an extra program detail in the project to extend the life of the parking garage so it will be able to adapt to changes within the urban fabric.”

Student get chance to develop ideas during summer

Following the semester, Sprague will work with 1 or 2 of the students who want to develop their ideas further in a seminar. During the summer of 2016 students looked a thin concrete. “Thin concrete is material that used to be used in the 50s and 60 quite a bit and now with new understandings of efficiency and all the different mix designs now we are exploring how that might actually come back,” says Sprague.

All-Campus Design Competition

New for 2017 is a campus-wide design competition that is being held in addition to the Precast Studio. This is our effort to bring in designers from the art school, the engineering school, from across the campus to think about precast in an open ended way. The students will be challenged to design a single, innovative precast building element. The school is having information session across campus and will finish with a cash prize.

“We found that we wanted to expand the number of students who would be exposed to these ideas, so this was a way to reach out to students across the university,” says Sprague. “We are doing some information sessions and reaching out, but it is not part of a normal scheduled class. “