Ancient Romans mixed lime and volcanic rock to form a mortar, a precursor to modern reinforced concrete. This made engineering marvels like Rome’s Colosseum possible—still standing more than 2,000 years after its construction.
Today, this versatile material is evolving further: Precast concrete, which is formed and cured in factories before being installed onsite, is bringing about a new wave of architecture that streamlines the building process while reaching toward big, complex ideas.
“Concrete is one of the world’s only truly plastic building materials, and it allows architects to design iconic structures that stand the test of time, with low maintenance over 100-year lifecycles,” says Mo Wright, marketing director at Gate Precast, one of the largest producers of precast architectural and structural elements in the US.
A major component of delivering these iconic structures is Gate’s involvement in design-assist, in which the precast subcontractor becomes an active part of the design process. “Design-assist is our way to show the design community how to cost-effectively realize, in concrete, their most progressive and cutting-edge ideas.”
With the design-assist model, Gate aims to get members of its engineering team onboard at the starting point of each project design. “We really want to be engaged as early in the design process as possible, preferably in the conceptual or schematic phase,” Wright says. “That allows our engineers and modelers to make meaningful contributions—not to change designs but to show designers how they can do what they want to do, structurally and efficiently.”
For Gate, adopting design-assist led to a commitment to in-house engineering expertise. The company directly employs 18 engineers, plus 64 modelers and designers, and uses Autodesk Revit to support them. “Without good modeling tools like Revit, design-assist wouldn’t exist—we just couldn’t be productive enough,” Wright says.
There are substantial advantages to design-assist precasting. First, it reduces complexity, which also reduces cost. By making slight adjustments to early concepts, designers can reduce the number of molds needed for precast elements, simplify casting and transportation of elements, and streamline installation. Design-assist also leads to fewer change orders and scope changes, and fewer conflicts during construction. “Early involvement with the design team gives us the opportunity to work with the architect’s models in conjunction with our own models, which allows our BIM technicians to detect clashes and conflicts before we start pouring concrete,” Wright says. “That’s huge.”
Another benefit is reduced timelines. “When we’re engaged early on by the owner to collaborate with the architect or engineer on a design-assist basis, we’re able to move typical design work—like detailing of precast elements—upward in the process so we can start building molds as soon as contracts are finalized,” Wright says. “We’ve seen this coordination shorten design and construction timelines by up to 24 weeks.”
The Perot Museum of Nature and Science, in Dallas, Texas, is an early example of the design-assist model pioneered by Gate. “It was a turning point for the industry,” says Wright. “Morphosis Architects faced unusual pressures on this project, and that made them more open to early engagement with us.” Put simply, the museum foundation wanted the new museum to reflect Ross Perot’s values, which meant a “museum for the people” that emphasized programs and collections over the physical museum—so design and construction costs had to stay low. But at the same time, Morphosis, and Principal Architect Thom Mayne, are well known for iconic buildings with sculptural, layered facades.
Gate’s design-assist contract proved to be an effective way to satisfy both needs. “At the time we were brought in, Morphosis was exploring ideas but hadn’t settled on a particular concept,” Wright explains. “This was ideal from our point of view. As we showed them what was possible with precast techniques, they responded with design ideas that might not have occurred to them otherwise. In turn, we were able to make suggestions that helped the final design to be more cost-effective.”
In the months that followed initial meetings, Morphosis designers sent Gate engineers designs based on what they were learning about precast capacities. “It was simple, playful stuff—spheres with concavities and protrusions, complex shapes, truncated cubes, you name it—that helped them to really become comfortable with what can be done. We’d mock up what they were asking for and ended up sending over several completed elements for their review.”
This hands-on involvement continued through the entire project, with Morphosis and Gate teams collaborating on the project site or at Gate’s production facilities. One important innovation involved the ‘modular’ concept developed by Gate to realize the satisfyingly complex, striated appearance of the museum’s otherwise-unadorned concrete shell.
“We found a way to use a dozen molds interchangeably, rather than hundreds, to create a 350-panel surface that appears highly variable, without repetition,” Wright says. “And that led to major savings.” Other cost-cutting innovations included brand-new methods for fabricating curved panels and consistent use of concrete mixes in widely varying molds, which helped maintain a unified appearance.
Gate’s early involvement did save costs and also satisfied Morphosis’ desire for a showy, iconic building—the Perot Museum has won numerous awards, and the precast facade in particular has been featured in several industry magazines.
The latest innovative project for Gate Precast is the Two Trees Development at 260 Kent Street in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, designed by COOKFOX architects. “It’s just one of the amazing projects we’re involved in now,” Wright says. “We are on our 55th design-assist contract. To us, it seems like the United States is in the midst of a new renaissance of building, and we are very happy to be such an integral part of it.”
Technology and innovation are bringing a high level of productivity to the latest construction boom, with precast concrete and design-assist playing a big part. Although ancient Roman designers were master-builders who combined form, function, and constructability for awe-inspiring results, today’s designers and engineers are creating modern, iconic structures with far less strain and fewer headaches.