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What Makes a Good Project for Precast Class?

The scope and type of project used as part PCI Foundation funded programs is as varied as the universities where they take place. It is important that a project used for a precast design studio be complex enough that the students will learn about precast concrete systems, but not so complex that programming issues take precedence to the precast concrete design. This can especially be true when the instructional project strives to provide an integrated design atmosphere. 

“You have to very carefully select the project,” says Mikhail Gershfeld, an engineering professor at CalPoly Pomona who has been involved with several integrated design classes through the PCI Foundation. “It has to be possible for architects to get something done in a short amount of time. If you choose a project that has a lot of programming requirements, you are not going to be successful. You have to keep the programming at a minimum and you also want to make sure that the architects and engineers start working together right away.” 

Additionally, the project must suit the curriculum needs of the university, as well as cater to the expertise of the faculty. Which means that no two schools teach precast the same way. Projects that PCI funded programs have taken on ranged from an urban cemetery mausoleum, to a soccer stadium and from a rural housing cooperative to a fishery. Sometimes, a project is selected based on the local community needs. 

At the University of Southern California, there was an existing relationship with Joshua Tree National Park that lent itself to precast. “What we are doing at Joshua Tree is a three-year project to help the rangers there develop an environmental guideline for the future of the park,” says Doug Noble of University of Southern California. “Some of the characteristics of Joshua Tree mean that we are looking to minimize jobsite disturbance, so we are looking to do things off site - so that blends nicely with the precast idea. It also has a high dial temperature swing. It can be more than 100 degrees in the daytime and then 40 or 50 degrees that night all in the same day. So precast as a sort of thermal battery strategy is a very effective one.”

In other cases, a natural disaster leads to interest in certain types of projects. This was true at both the New Jersey Institute of Technology and at CalPoly Pomona. 

Faculty at NJIT looked at the results of Hurricane Sandy and felt that the precast concrete design course would be the appropriate place to address storm resistant design for the Jersey Shore. After designing solutions for several public structures, the students presented their work in several places, including to a local mayors conference. The projects chosen by the students allowed them not only to study precast concrete design, but also have opportunities to communicate about the value and meaning of their work to “real world” audiences. 

“Post Hurricane Sandy, that has been a focus of the entire university and we have led the charge with that with our resilient design center. We have tried to find collaborators in the community to help with this,” says professor and team leader Matthew Burgermaster. “They help us envision new types of design and constructions solutions that might be useful to the marketplace.

At some schools, the research done by the professor drives the type of project that is chosen. For example, at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), the focus has been on digital fabrication of precast concrete. “What we are looking at here is ways in which you could implement 3D geometrically precise rebar nodes. This was actually something we kind of stumbled across,” says Bradley Bell of UTA. “We were making a kind of porous panel and we were having trouble beginning to structure and we could have done it with GFRC. We were looking at concrete composition mixtures, but we were trying to introduce steel and structure it in a different way not just through material composition. So it was how we began to precisely locate our structural rebar. We had the digital tools to do that and how do we begin to locate the rebar relative to our digital model.” 

Does the project lend itself to precast? This is a question that your local partners will be able to help you answer. Some projects are natural “fits” for precast concrete. Types of projects that work well include those:

* with enough repetition to make precast work well

* requiring structural characteristics that lend themselves to precast

* having tight site requirements and little lay down space

* that would benefit from energy savings garnered from thermal mass

* which use precast as a total system rather than just looking at individual components

* including requirements for minimizing job site disturbance

In the end, there is no one thing that makes a project perfect for a precast concrete studio. Each professor must carefully select a project to meet the special needs of his or her school and students. 

For more information on what types of projects have been used, visit the student case studies on our website. 

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