Whitepaper: 10.31.2012

Building a Concrete Future

McCarthy is pushing limits in concrete building in Texas.

Concrete has become popular in the construction industry based on its economic value and versatility. It is a cost-effective material that has endless design possibilities because it can be molded and transformed, stained, painted and finished. It also can expedite the building process depending on the type of project and, of course, depending on the contractor’s experience with the material.

Contractors, architects and engineers alike are constantly looking for new ways to use concrete in design and construction. Concrete's popularity has spurred new trends in load-bearing walls, insulated concrete form walls, reinforcement, formwork and decorative concrete. According to cement.com, the precast industry is manufacturing ultralite panels with CarbonCast, a grid of carbon fiber reinforcement. The resulting weight reduction generates savings in shipping, erection and substructure costs. Cement.com also highlighted new evolving technologies, such as adding optical fibers to concrete mix to achieve a translucent, "see-through" look.

If you are considering concrete for your next project, there are a number of potential challenges of which you should be aware. The good news is that concrete’s potential construction challenges can certainly be overcome. Two of those challenges – also the most significant – are forming and placing the material. Contractors must form the concrete to meet certain requirements and place the concrete well to ensure a smooth surface is extracted.

The key to a successful concrete project is having the knowledge and skills for using the material. For instance, building the formwork and placing concrete is prone to human error, so hiring an experienced contractor is key. As a true self-performing builder, McCarthy has long been working with concrete, and over the years has developed and refined its use in the construction process.

One of McCarthy’s first notable concrete projects was the Salk Institute for Biological Studies East Building Addition in La Jolla, Calif. Completed in the mid-1990s, the 116,000-square-foot laboratory facility was framed with concrete walls. Dr. Jonas Salk directed McCarthy to “experiment” with concrete; in turn, McCarthy worked to form smooth, marble-like walls. In order to accomplish the marble look, McCarthy created a first-of-its-kind architectural forming and placing technique known as mirastone. The end result was a fine-quality finish that was also suitable as an interior wall finish. The Salk project illustrates the resourcefulness of concrete and the exciting challenges it casts for contractor innovation.

McCarthy’s consistent success with concrete has propelled its building team to the forefront of “concrete architecture” across America. Today, the firm is ranked the 7th largest concrete contractor by Concrete Construction (July 2012) and continues to deliver state-of-the-art concrete results, such as the unique coffer ceiling recently completed at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri utilizing many of the techniques first developed on the Salk Institute project.

The Texas Division recently completed the new Dallas City Performance Hall (CPH), exemplifying the uses of concrete in an entertainment project. The architect of record on the project was Corgan Associates, Inc. of Dallas and the design firm was Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP (SOM) of Chicago. The CPH is a 124,000-square-foot multiphase theatre facility constructed with 6,000 cubic yards of concrete. Using concrete as the primary construction material allowed for a wealth of design options and also was economically sound. The $40.5 million structure is composed entirely of concrete with a long sweeping roof flanked by two stories of cast-in-place concrete walls. It is organized as a series of linear pavilions, capped by varying ribbon-like roof forms.

The interior audience chamber of the building includes articulated board form concrete walls, creating an intricate and beautiful, horizontal wood grain design entirely covering each wall. Not only are the walls architecturally stunning, the concrete’s malleability was further used to disperse sound and break up echoes, one of the key challenges when working with concrete.

The amount of noise transmitted through walls depends on the density of the concrete wall. The denser the wall, the less noise transmitted. To ensure there were no insulation problems in the CPH project, McCarthy constructed 18-inch thick concrete walls, creating a solid sound barrier to retain entertainment music and dialogue while shutting out distracting noises. Absorbing vibrations from movement is also a primary hurdle to clear with concrete. Installing items such as sound boards and carpet help absorb those vibrations, ensuring noise from the internal workings of a building – pipes and air conditioning units – are silenced. The pipes and other internal workings of the CPH building are isolated from the walls, acting as a sound barrier in order to keep noise-related vibrations virtually nonexistent.

The CPH also will be the first LEED Silver-rated performing arts facility in Texas under the U.S. Green Building Council. The use of concrete contributed tremendously to the recycling portion of its LEED certification. McCarthy used recycled materials in the concrete formula and used wash-out pans to collect 990 tons of excess concrete to be recycled.

McCarthy worked with the design team and the owner to consider all opportunities to use concrete, customize it to the entertainment project, and utilize the material to overcome challenges like insulation. The result was a cost-effective, elegant addition to the Dallas Arts District. In addition to the CPH, McCarthy has worked on numerous projects involving concrete in Texas, including the AT&T Performing Arts Center Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas; the Fort Worth Westside Water Treatment Plant; and the Port of Houston.

The future is bright for concrete construction projects. McCarthy's Salk Institute and the Dallas City Performance Hall are only two examples of the many successful projects contributing to concrete's popularity, innovative advances and resourcefulness. The most important item to remember when considering concrete is to partner with an experienced contractor who has the knowledge and skill set to use the material effectively and to overcome the potential challenges presented. The versatility and economic value of concrete continue to strengthen its popularity, and McCarthy looks forward to participating in future advances.

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