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University of Washington Precast Studio Gets a Strong Start

Guest Blog by Tyler Sprague, University of Washington

Every studio is an opportunity to explore something new.  The architectural studio format provides an almost unparalleled venue for thoughtful and critical investigations through design – whether to test out a new program, address a pressing social issue or something else entirely.  The unbounded yet focused work of the architectural studio produces fascinating work.

This winter, Senior Lecturer Jim Nicholls and I are trying something new in the Architecture 501, graduate student tectonic studio.  We are challenging our students to design with a commonly overlooked (and often maligned) construction material: precast concrete. Tectonic studios have regularly focused on steel or wood as a primary structural material, but typically not concrete – nor specifically pre-cast concrete.  As both process (pre-cast) and material (concrete), this medium offers many tectonic opportunities to young designers while also posing significant issues to consider.

Supported by the PCI Foundation (Precast/ Prestressed Concrete Institute Foundation), the studio uses the idea of ‘casting and recasting’ as an approach to an adaptable, architectural design.  Just as concrete is cast in a form and assembled on site, so each building is ‘cast’ by its present use.  Yet as time moves forward, these concrete products/ building must be ‘re-cast’ – that is re-made/ re-purposed to accommodate new uses.  In a changing world, buildings must be re-thought/ re-designed into something new.  In our studio, students are challenged to design a precast concrete building that will be gradually converted from a parking garage into a different, but un-certain future use.

As we progress through the winter quarter, students will engage multiple industry partners – architects, engineers, and pre-cast concrete producers – who will help them learn about the current state of the industry, and provide valuable feedback.  During our first week, industry representatives gave presentations on the fundamentals of precast and prestressed concrete, discussed the production process, current and potential design applications and where the industry might be heading.  The studio has already taken a trip to one of the oldest pre-cast concrete plants in the United States – Concrete Technology Corporation in Tacoma – where the history of precast concrete was on display, as well as a wide range of precast concrete products.  Back in studio, students were challenged to design their own precast concrete screen made from a modular block – and then cast that very block.  This first exploration – a simple, small scale casting study – helps further define the nature of precast in their minds, and will be immensely valuable as the students move to a larger scale.  Future field trips around the Puget Sound area will expose students to the design potential of precast concrete.

As we embark on this new endeavor, the destination is undetermined.  Yet this design discovery of precast is sure to produce fascinating results.

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