Paulina Shahery was one of the first students to take part in the precast studio at the University of Southern California with Doug Noble and Karen Kensek. Today, she works for Marmol Radziner + Associates in the West Los Angeles. Additionally, she is working on a project for Joshua Tree National Park that stemmed directly from her work with the precast studio. We caught up with her to find out how her experience in the PCI Foundation sponsored studio influenced her current work life.
What project did you do in your precast studio?
The XS/XL Cultural Center in Joshua Tree National Park is founded on the basic human needs to interact yet retreat. It provides a more extroverted public exhibition space and a handful of introverted private creativity pods. The two building types are nestled on opposite sides of a canyon and are connected by a bridge, which keeps water flow and wildlife migration intact. Inspired by Rosan Bosch Architects’ Vittra Telefonplan School in Stockholm, Sweden, the design is influenced by the psychology of how the students relate to one another and themselves.
The undulating roof and façade is made of custom precast concrete fins, which provides indirect difused natural light and stack ventilation. To test the lighting, an interactive study model was made using CNC milling, vacuum forming and casting Rockite cement. Then, the next goal was to understand if precast concrete finishes could help forge a tactile connection between the user and the space; perfumes, foliage, and stencils of insects and bones were just some of the aggregates casted into the cement test if scents or textures could to stimulate the senses.
Furthermore, The ground level of the exhibition space is punctured by iconic Joshua Tree boulders. These rocks filter the prevailing winds for natural cross ventilation, provide hands-on climbing opportunities for kids and carve out semi-intimate gathering spaces alongside the highly social exhibit hall. Computational Fluid Dynamics, Autodesk Vasari, Ecotect Analysis and Climate Consultant were used to determine the structure's effectiveness from a sustainability standpoint. All in all, increasing the users’ awareness of their surroundings – interpersonally, environmentally and tactically – was the intent of the project.
What did you think of the precast studio while you were in it?
During the studio, I was intrigued yet challenged by the comprehensive nature of the studio. It was interesting to see how each student used standard precast components in unique ways or designed completely custom elements.
Unlike most studios, issues such as construction, feasibility and transportation were addressed early on, which added to the complexity of each project. Admittedly, it was initially difficult to juggle construction concerns during schematic design, but it gave me a glimpse of how project managers think!
How did the work from the studio apply to your career?
The studio gave me insight into how buildings come together for two reasons. On a practical level, we had exposure to details and construction though visits to the precast plants. And, on a personal level, we learned a ton by constantly collaborating with consultants – from rangers to geologists desert lighting specialists, from representatives at ARUP, architecture firms and the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute members! Currently at Marmol Radziner, a multidisciplinary design-build firm in West LA, I see all of this firsthand. I am constantly learning by example the way people manage, direct and communicate so effectively.
Have you worked on precast projects since leaving school?
Yes! Continuing the momentum from the Joshua Tree studio, I spearheaded a team of six to design the next campsite and amphitheater for volunteers at the National Park. The design not only stemmed from the project’s environmental and programmatic needs, but also from creative uses of modular precast elements. Considering the budget, time frame and remote nature of the project, precast concrete would solve many issues; for example, due to its high thermal mass, concrete would retain heat during the day and release it at night. Geothermal cooling is imperative when designing in a desert without air conditioning!
The PCI Foundation gave me the opportunity to test the myriad benefits and variations of architectural precast concrete. When designing at any scale, I now consider precast as a top option.
What would you say to a college student thinking about taking a precast studio?
I would say, go for it! The studio by no means ties you down to this material but rather provides an avenue to explore some key building fundamentals. Since precast was a common thread across all projects, I also think it also created some healthy competition and sweet camaraderie within the studio.