Glazed Block Lends Character

Blocks create an ultra-modern, artistic design solution for Alfred Univ.’s College of Ceramics building.

Echelon’s Astra-Glaze SW+ glazed block was chosen to transform Alfred Univ.’s New York State College of Ceramics building into a work of art with a theme reflective of the ceramics art and science curriculum. All photos courtesy Echelon

NBBJ Architecture, Boston (nbbj.com), was faced with a design challenge at Alfred Univ.’s New York State College of Ceramics (NYSCC). Echelon Masonry (echelonmasonry.com), part of Oldcastle Architectural, Atlanta, joined the project with a creative concept that would win over their team designers. The concept would transform the college building into a work of art unto itself with a theme reflective of the ceramics art and science curriculum. NYCSS includes the School of Art and Design, the Inamori School of Engineering, and the Samuel R. Scholes Library.

Founded in 1836 in Alfred, NY, the university (alfred.edu) began as a co-ed school, which was very unusual for the time period. The avant-garde school did not stop challenging societal norms. In 1850, it became the second racially integrated college in the nation. This enterprising spirit is apparent in the school’s celebrated history of engaging in the interface of art, science, and technology. The College of Ceramics, which offers degrees in ceramic engineering and ceramic art, is associated with five galleries as well as numerous exhibition spaces. With such a distinct and progressive history, the new building would have to exemplify innovation and novelty, inside and out.

As a new addition to the older 1952 McMahon Engineering Building, the building was designed as an infill into a courtyard constructed to hold the College of Ceramics’ sensitive imaging equipment used in creating ceramic artwork and lab-testing engineered ceramics. The design team at NBBJ also envisioned a broader purpose for this space.

The outer design carried into the interior, on the wall and through furniture. Mimicking the glaze- block placement, the furniture varies in shades of gray with the occasional pop of yellow.

“Our goal was to give some character to what could have been a simple concrete box,” said William Voulgaris, AIA, principal and architect with NBBJ. “So, in trying to be relevant to the ceramic school, we wanted use an unconventional, forward-thinking material in the design.”

The college originally wanted the building to be tiled with actual ceramics. What seemed like a great idea was quickly deemed impractical. Though ceramic tiles would capture the university’s vision for the building, ultimately the tiles would never hold up to the weather or wear and tear and would have presented a maintenance nightmare. A creative, new solution soon presented itself.

With the expertise and guidance of consultants at Echelon Masonry, NBBJ was able to formulate a winning solution: glazed block, which had all the advantages of masonry but with the illusion of a ceramic tile. While traditionally the blocks are laid in a horizontal configuration, the architects placed the block vertically, arranged in a random pattern with Echelon’s Astra-Glaze SW+ chosen as the as the glazed block. When scored down the center, the block actually looked like ceramic material. Bold colors added to the illusion.

The units are pre-faced architectural concrete masonry blocks featuring a thermoset glazing compound permanently molded on one or more faces. This exterior is cured and heat-treated to create an impervious surface that repels water and resists mold, is easy to clean, and installs in only one step. It is also resistant to graffiti and has a 4-hr. fire rating, both important in a school setting.

The random placement of the glazed block is artwork in itself. The colors, Earl Gray, Silver Gray, Pewter, and Wheatfield Yellow provide contrast and pops of color giving the building a modern look without appearing too busy.

“At first, we were a little concerned about how the glaze facing on the blocks would weather in New York’s extreme environment,” said Voulgaris. “However, Echelon representatives showed us some good examples of past performance on other building facades. They also worked with the masons on the unique block positioning.”

After working with NBBJ to ensure the block was up to their team’s design standards, Echelon project manager, Terry Page worked closely with King Brothers Masonry Construction LLC, North Java, NY, to facilitate the installation. King Brothers laid the glazed blocks on end, or vertically. The mason made a score down the center of the CMU (concrete masonry unit) glazed face lengthwise, which gave it the appearance, when laid up, of being a 4-in.-wide by 16-in.-high CMU, then pointed in the scored joint as he went along. It was used for the entire outer face of the building and for common areas on interior walls. This cutting-edge approach not only allowed the mason to lay one block instead of two in those cases and made it easier to line up the score, but also saved the college money.

The random placement of the pieces is artwork in itself. The colors, Earl Gray, Silver Gray, Pewter, and Wheatfield Yellow provide contrast and pops of color giving the building a modern look without appearing too busy. The outer design is carried on into the interior, on the wall and through furniture. Mimicking the glaze-block placement, the furniture varies in shades of gray with the occasional pop of yellow.

“One of my favorite aspects of the building is the seasonal sunlight that hits the colors giving the inside a constant changing character,” added Voulgaris. The aesthetics of the project were paramount for a school that produces artists. In addition to storing sensitive imaging equipment used for ceramics, the space will also act as an inspiring common area for students to gather and collaborate. The new addition was officially dedicated to the McMahon Engineering Building in April 2017.

Click here to learn about Astra-Glaze SW+.

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