Studio Spotlight

University of North Carolina Charlotte

The Precast Design Studio at the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) is entering its fourth year with a new twist. Over the past 3 Fall semesters, this studio course has been offered as a topical studio and dual offering in both the Architecture and Engineering schools – with an emphasis on innovative senior housing, integrated project design and precast concrete solutions.

Uniquely, this year, the studio will be part of the 2013 US Solar Decathlon. This is a biennial competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar where selected collegiate teams are challenged to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The new focus means that fewer students will take part in the popular program this year. “The Precast Studio is always oversubscribed, so we had to cap the number of students to let in so as not to siphon off too many students from the other studios,” says Gentry.  Last semester there were 22 students.  This year there are 12 students.  “The cap was lowered this year for a couple of reasons, but the one reason that concerns PCI is we want to a small group that can work more closely on what is a very important project for the school – the 2013 Solar Decathlon

This year Metromont Precast has stepped in to help the UNCC studio to design and fabricate the house at their Charlotte, NC plant.  The in-progress design brings together several cutting edge technologies to produce a wall system that is environmentally superior to conventional precast architectural precast wall panels.  The design includes a continuously insulated wall system made from a geopolymer concrete – a portland cement-free concrete – that uses capillary tubes to make the wall an energy efficient radiant heating and cooling system.

Integrated Studio

A key focus of the PCI Foundation is to facilitate the inclusion of precast concrete systems and technologies in college and university curricula. The UNCC precast studio is team taught by Assistant Professor of Architecture Thomas Gentry, Director of the Laboratory for Innovative Housing, a multidisciplinary research laboratory operating within the IDEAS (Infrastructure Design Environment and Sustainability) Center in the Lee College of Engineering and the Center for Integrated Building Design Research in the College of Arts + Architecture (CIBDR), and Dr. Brett Tempest of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The studio is sponsored by the PCI Foundation and Georgia/Carolinas PCI, with material and time contributions by several precast producer and associate members of G/C PCI.

An appealing part of this studio for both the university and the students is that it is interdisciplinary, and allows both architecture and engineering students to participate. Gentry said that for many years, the two schools had wanted to collaborate, but it took the precast studio to help solidify the idea, and has made the relationship between the two schools stronger. Last year there were 16 architecture students and 6 engineering students in the program. That number has been slightly different with each semester.

Local Industry Takes Part

Another unique part of this program is the ways local industry interacts with the studio. Students have toured precast operations at Metromont’s Charlotte and Tindall’s Spartanburg facilities as well as local precast building projects. And, for the past 3 years, all of the students have spent two days at Gate Precast’s Oxford, NC plant as part of a hands-on tour and workshop. With a program conceived by Gate’s Chris Galde, the students work in small teams on the plant floor to fabricate 6 foot X 6 foot samples of continuously insulated architectural wall panels with four different architectural finishes (acid etched, sand blast, exposed aggregate and thin brick). Peter Finsen of Georgia/Carolinas PCI has coordinated local participation and sponsored much of the interaction between the students and industry. “Whenever possible I like to get the students out of the studio to learn through experience,” says Gentry. “Thanks to Georgia/Carolinas PCI, Gate Precast, and several other PCI member organizations, we have been able to give the students some very rich hands-on learning experiences.”

Each semester, Georgia/Carolinas PCI has provided each student with the PCI Design Handbook or the Architectural Precast Concrete manual, along with additional printed resources, and covered the cost of meals, transportation and lodging for our fieldtrips.  Peter Finsen has also been a guest lecturer for the studio and has been instrumental in getting producer and associate members to participate as consultants and design reviewers for the studio.

Student Glimpse "Real World" Projects

For Gentry, adding that “real world” experience in the studio has been very successful. “I enjoy teaching design theory as much as any architecture professor; but there comes a time when I want to know how the theory is manifested in the real world The way the PCI studio is structured at UNC Charlotte the students are obligated to demonstrate their theories in buildable buildings.”

Student reaction to the studio has been overwhelmingly positive. “The fact the studio is always oversubscribed says it all,” says Gentry.  “The students really like what they get to do and learn in the studio.  I think a big part of what makes it so appealing for the students is the interaction that occurs between the industry and the studio.  The students respond very positively to everything from tours, working in the plants, to partying with Peter.”

Additionally some students will have an opportunity to mingle with the industry on a larger scale by attending the PCI Convention. Last year Melissa West attended the PCI conference in Salt Lake City and came back speaking very positively about the experience.  This year, with PCI Foundation support, 2 students will attend the Convention in Nashville and participate in the poster session. “You have to remember many of these students have not had much, if any, interaction with the industries they will be working with once they are working as practicing architects and engineers,” says Gentry.  “The experiences they are getting through PCI provide a very positive first impression.”

Each Precast Studio is slightly different than the next – because it must meet the needs of the curriculum, take advantage of local industry, and use the talents of the academic(s) putting it together. The one part that ties all of them together is the support of the Precast/Prestressed industry through the work of the PCI Foundation and its financial support of the programs. “The importance of the underwriting provided by the PCI Foundation cannot be overstated,” says Gentry.  “It allows me to cover expenses associated with the studio and my research that the university is unable to cover, such as the cost of printing packets for the final review jury and materials for the students.”

 

Photos courtesy of Thomas Gentry.