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University of Southern California


The newest Studio being sponsored by the PCI Foundation is one at  the School of Architecture University of Southern California Los Angeles. It includes 12 undergraduate students and 10 graduate students participating. The studio first began with a visit by the faculty to  toured the CLARK PACIFIC plant in Fontana with Robert Clark and Brad Williams.  The half-day tour was coordinated by PCI West Executive Director Doug Mooradian.  Clark and Williams gave a thorough overview of plant operations, materials, design and production.  They also showed a powerpoint presentation showcasing a number of precast/prestressed projects. Mooradian has been to USC several times as we prepare for the start of the semester.  His first presentation to the studio was on January 18, and he is helping set up plant tours for the studio group.

The USC School of Architecture PCI Foundation Studio is designing hypothetical visitors center buildings for Joshua Tree National Park  Joshua Tree NP is a place of sublime natural beauty.  The climate of the Colorado and Mojave Desert area is formidable and uncompromising. Each student will be assigned a separate program and site location within the park.  The projects typically include 30,000 square feet of program, and are characterized by consequential indoor and outdoor public space. "The selection of Joshua Tree National Park as the site for our work was partially based on the inherent advantages of precast/prestressed concrete in a distant and sensitive environment and in a climate with pronounced diurnal temperature oscillations," says Karen Kensek, one of the professors leading the studio. "The prefabricated and high-thermal-mass characteristics of concrete harmonize with the site conditions, and we will strive to extend the frontiers of the material and assembly.  Prefabrication will help reduce some construction site impacts- a high priority for the National Park Service when working inside the Park."

The students started the semester with a camping trip inside the Joshua Tree National Park in order to understand the context of the project and how precast concrete might be used.The team was given tours by the National Park Service Rangers.  The projects are intended to help explore architectural design for the desert climate, with high diurnal temperature swings, low humidity, and difficult construction access.

The next field trip was an outing to the Clark-Pacific Irwindale plant. The tour was set up by Doug Mooradian of PCI WEST, and led by Erin Pratt of Clark Pacific.  "It ended up being the coldest day of the year so far, and the tour started with a  quick rainshower, but after ten minutes the skies cleared and we toured the full yard," says Doug Noble, the other professor on the teaching team.

The students spent more than two hours learning about double-tees, precast columns and floor systems, contract documents, shop drawings, Quality Control, welding and embeds, and the full process of pretensioning, casting, removing from forms, form-cleaning, transportation and more.

Students are designing within the very tight guidelines of the National Park Service (NPS).  The Park Service admires high quality buildings and exceptional design, but requires that all new buildings not outshine the natural setting.  "The students are walking a fine line trying to achieve design at the highest level, while remaining understated to let the scenic beauty of the National Park be at the forefront," says Noble."A studio motto is "No Jelly Beans or Licorice Whips," referring to the latest trend in architecture: genetic parametric form-giving for wild building massing.  Rather than create "cool" geometric shapes, our team is exploring performance-based design, and using rational parametrics for a deep understanding of interaction with site and climate (we did the cool-shape thing last semester)."

The studio is helping the National Park Service develop a set of environmental design guidelines.  Our studio projects will test the guidelines and provide the Park Service with case studies for future real projects.  While there are no current plans to build at Joshua Tree National Park, the parks' 1.4 million annual visitors are seriously underserved by the current visitors and education facilities.

In addition to the studio, USC will host a one-day precast/prestressed conference.  This conference is supported in part by the PCI Foundation grant to USC.  They will gather the precast and architecture professional communities together for a full day of presentations.  The studio students will be attending this event, but it is primarily aimed at AEC industry professionals. 

Studio Faculty:

Karen M. Kensek, LEED AP BD+C
Douglas Noble, FAIA, Ph.D.

Studio Consultants:

Prof. Marc Schiler, LC, FASES
Prof. Anders Carlson, Ph.D.
Ed Losch, PE (Ph.D. student)
Elizabeth Valmont, LEED AP, (Ph.D. Student)
Tighe Lanning (graduate student – building science)
Stephanie Egger (graduate student – building science)
Tyler Tucker (graduate student – building science)
Jennie Cowell (graduate student – historic preservation)
Robert Clark, Clark Pacific (Industry Champion)
Brad Williams, Clark Pacific (Industry Champion)
Doug Mooradian, PCI West (Industry Champion)

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