Concrete tilt-up buildings get no respect. True, there are many examples of monotonous tilt-up architecture—nearly windowless horizontal structures that seem to stretch on forever with little or no modulation. But things are changing, and the humble tilt-up is a lot more versatile than it gets credit for. It can look as cool as any kind of building.
Up until about a decade ago, tilt-ups were primarily considered only for industrial purposes. Given the use, no one expected them to look terribly good. Now, more developers and building owners are realizing the inherent efficiencies of concrete tilt-up construction and asking, why not use it for an office building? And who says they can’t look just as good as the product of any other construction method? Whether it’s a renovation of an existing tilt-up or new construction, and whether it’s for an industrial or office use, people are more and more looking for something aesthetically pleasing—and it’s completely possible.
Quick and Nearly Indestructible
In tilt-up construction, the contractor pours concrete to form walls, columns, etc., on or near the building site, and then lifts each one into position with a crane. It doesn’t take much labor to put these structures together, and their durability is considerably greater than either wood or metal-framed buildings. According to the Australian crane maintenance crew that spoke to us about this, concrete panels are nearly indestructible. I once saw a car that flew off the freeway and blasted into a window opening of a tilt-up structure. The concrete stopped the car midway. Once the car was pulled out, and a little extra concrete and touch-up paint was applied, you hardly knew anything had happened.
Tilt-up buildings also don’t leak very easily. With metal- or wood-framed buildings, there are so many joints and different materials coming together that the opportunities for leaks to develop are great. On tilt-ups, the only potentially vulnerable areas are the window openings and the intersection with the roof. It’s pretty easy to seal these if a leak develops.
We’ve been seeing a surge of demand for concrete tilt-ups in Fairfield, Vacaville, and Napa in particular. Fairfield and Vacaville are in the sweet spot for distribution centers, right between the Bay Area and Sacramento. Napa is unique because the wine industry is growing—many small wineries have matured to the point where they need a big warehouse to store wines, and as they grow, wine-related industries also need more warehouses to store equipment and accessories.
Designing a Terrific Tilt-Up
So how can these underdogs be given an image makeover? Almost anything you can do with other building systems, you can do with tilt-ups. And even if the project is for industrial purposes rather than offices, there’s no reason it can’t be attractive. If it’s located on an important view corridor, planning departments today have a keen interest in making sure the building looks good. If the architect maximizes the efficiency of the site well, then the extra square footage can easily pay for facade treatments that will help make planning departments happy.
For either a renovation or a new project, the main strategy is often to come up with a way to break down the mass of the building into smaller pieces to engage the observer’s eye. Instead of creating a monolithic stretch of concrete, architects can vary the scale of different portions or apply color, texture, quality fencing or other materials to provide visual interest. It’s important to create some sort of focal point, such as the entry, or some other composition of elements, to draw the eye and make everything else cohere.
A recent trend is to use a blended construction technique. To add variety to tilt-ups, we’ve introduced everything from metal panels to architectural steel canopy elements to curtainwall glass systems to freestanding concrete panels set off from the main face to CMU blocks. Often we’re incorporating structural insulated panel systems, which consist of a layer of foam sandwiched between two structural boards. We can apply these panels to the face of the building to define different areas. Strategic use of paint can also help break up the appearance.
On the interior, all the same strategies that apply for other types of buildings are just as relevant to create a pleasant working environment. When it’s done right, there’s no way to tell you’re inside a tilt-up building. Lots of natural light is key. Many existing tilt-ups built for industrial purposes don’t have many windows. Often in these cases we cut window openings into the concrete panels, usually adding steel to the front or the back for bracing. Putting in skylights is great, too, and less expensive, but there’s no substitute for a good view to the outdoors.
The construction cost for a one- to two-story concrete tilt-up office building compares favorably with that of a similarly sized wood-frame office building—about $65 to $75 per square foot here in the Sacramento area. But with wood frame construction, if the lumber quality isn’t high enough, the wood contracts over time as it dries, causing all kinds of stress fractures and leaks. Steel-frame buildings are more expensive, and you still don’t get the same quality and durability as concrete tilt-up. In this era of tight budgets and high expectations for building aesthetics, the tilt-up’s time has come.