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A work of art

image Glassell School of Art

HOUSTON - The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), one of the largest museums in the United States and the oldest art museum in Texas, initiated a two-phase, $450M expansion in 2015. Phase I includes construction of the Glassell School of Art, a highly regarded school serving as the teaching wing of the MFAH.

 

 

 

     The Glassell School of Art hosts classes, workshops, and educational opportunities for students diverse in age, interest, experience and needs. Glassell is one of the only schools of its kind, with. classes for students ranging from three to 18 years of age. Nearly doubling the size of the previous structure, the new school is approximately 80,000sf and replaces the original building, which was designed by architect S.I. Morris and housed the school since 1979. 
    McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. began construction on the Glassell School of Art – Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in late 2015. From demolition to completion, phase one took 31 months and cost approximately $103 million.
    The unique L-shaped building was constructed of a series of sandblasted, pre-cast concrete panels, alternating with panes of glass, in a rhythm of verticals and slight angles. No two panels or windows are the same shape or size. Although this was a challenge, it’s also what makes the building unique. From the moment you walk up to the building and see iconic pieces of art and a rooftop garden, to when you step inside and see the floating staircases and exposed concrete, you feel like you are in a museum rather than a school.
    Primary structural construction was comprised of pre-cast structural panels, concrete ring beams and hollow core planks. Concrete lift drawings in conjunction with a pre-cast model and hollow core plank model allowed for tight coordination of the structure. The project’s interior features exposed concrete floors, walls and ceilings with glass, numerous glass walls and guardrails.
    Cutting-edge construction technologies including Building Information Modeling (BIM) and virtual reality streamlined the preconstruction process. BIM was used to mitigate pre-construction conflicts and virtual reality allowed museum staff to experience the building before construction and assist in making decisions. Site logistics models illustrated the pinpoint location of the museum fence, delivery points, pedestrian access routes and tower cranes.
    Review of constructability issues in 3D allowed McCarthy superior planning and coordination of the numerous odd angles intersecting each other on different planes. With no ceiling, building systems were all exposed; the use of 3D MEP coordination allowed McCarthy to model everything, including devices, switches and even half-inch conduit runs. This enabled the design team to precisely position all elements, providing preferred placement of devices from an architectural standpoint.
    Architects Kendall Heaton Associates, Inc. and Steven Holl Architects specified the open ceilings with all building systems stacked on one side of the room and no systems visible in the corridors. Long, cantilevered beams were custom-made to deflect. Laser scanning the structure assisted with fabrication and calculating the right tolerances.
    Approximately 4,300 existing glass blocks from the original Glassell School of Art were saved, which was a major challenge. It was tedious and challenging to remove those glass blocks, but McCarthy worked closely with the masonry contractor to devise salvage methods for the blocks while maintaining the schedule. The design team incorporated some of the salvaged 8-in. by 8-in. pieces in the new Glassell School of Art.
    The “puzzle” design of the new Glassell School of Art presented another challenge. The building features 177 pre-cast panels with no two panels the same shape. Massive glass windows, numbering 139, are a major component of the design. Each window has a unique size and trapezoidal shape – either straight or at a 10-degree slant in-or-out.
    The glass for the windows came from Europe and the units were made in Mexico. The U.S. doesn’t have capability for fabrication of glass that size, so this too was challenging.
    McCarthy self-performed all concrete work. The hybrid pre-cast/ concrete/hollow core plank structure created a unique challenge, as it is not common practice to put the parts and pieces together. Pre-cast concrete panels sat on top of up to 40 dowels that stuck out of the cast-in-place concrete, creating extremely close tolerances. Extreme precision had to be taken when working with the pre-cast templates to ensure dowels went in the right location.
    The unique hybrid structure with its sloping, walkable roof presented yet another challenge. The building features a sloping path that rises from an outdoor amphitheater at ground level to a green space with vegetation at the top overlooking the campus. The roof is three stories above ground. With the amount of rain experienced in Houston during construction, as well as the steep slope, teams had to figure out how to keep the rooftop greenery from being washed away during storms.
     To overcome the design and constructability challenges, project manager Matt Schrodel and superintendent Winston Hesch worked collaboratively with the owners, architects and engineers to devise solutions. McCarthy’s team praised the owner, saying they enjoyed working closely together and appreciated the creativity and fairness. The architects’ design was a work in progress and it required ongoing coordination and planning to ensure McCarthy achieved the vision for the structure. The engineers rose to the challenges as well, placing a full-time, on-site representative to the project to witness and make revisions to the concrete reinforcing as the work was being put into place.
    McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. is a general contractor with regional Texas offices in Dallas and Houston. -cmw


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Carol Wiatrek meditor@constructionnews.net