More than just a pretty façade: Innovative terracotta rainscreen comes to life on Fenway apartment building

Boston’s famed Fenway neighborhood might be best known for the city’s hometown nine, but the baseball-centric community is undergoing a building boom that includes six projects under construction and another six already approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Amid the boom, one project sets itself apart from the Fenway field — Viridian Boston  — with an innovative terracotta façade system that bridges the gap between Boston’s old-school-brick buildings and the sleek modern ones sprouting across the city.

About 90 percent of construction waste on this project was recycled or diverted from landfills. Click here to see more of the Viridian’s sustainable stats.

The 21-story apartment building with 10,000 square feet of ground-level retail features Agrob Buchtal’s rainscreen façade noteworthy for its rapid installation, durability, and an enormous selection of colors and design possibilities. The largest project in the United States to feature the Keratwin K20 Engineered Terracotta Façade System, Viridian’s facade has six different panel colors with three different finishes: smooth, grooved and stripy. The nearly 27,000 individual panels have 63 different lengths and were arranged by architect Bruner/Cott & Associates in seemingly random patterns.

As the Viridian approaches its May opening, its owner, The Abbey Group, couldn’t be more pleased with the Italian-engineered and German-manufactured rainscreen.

“It gives you a great deal of control with the coloring and technical finishes of the tiles,” Abbey Group Vice President Jason Epstein told us. “It just really gave us the look we wanted. We are excited with how it came out. It’s a very unique look and I think it sets the building apart from a lot of the new stock coming on in the city.

“You can never put a monetary value on high quality design. It elevates the stature of the building.”

Money and design aside, the exterior enclosure system is innovative in two ways:

  • First, the ceramic tiles are three times lighter than precast concrete and about half as light as most terracotta systems, according to Buchtal’s U.S. rep: Anaheim, Calif.-based CB Products.
  • Second, CB Products said the terracotta tiles can be installed 20 to 30 percent faster than most terracotta systems.

“For many years in this business you had to take tiles and clip them and it took a lot of labor and a lot of time; and frankly was not efficient,” said Dave Traino, a sales consultant at CB Products. “[Buchtal’s] innovation was that they created an extruded and molded vertical carrier system where all you do is walk out and take the tile and snap it into the extrusion going vertically on the building. There are no screws or clips. People just lift and put it in place.”

Suffolk Construction Project Manager for the Viridian, Cory Belculfine, said the 60,000 square feet of tiles were numbered like a puzzle, divided into 10-foot-by-10-foot sections and spread out in the building’s garage. Each section had 320 drawings and each worker was given an iPad installed with a program to show them where to install their assigned tiles.

With tiles and iPads in hand, the workers scaled 13 giant mast climber-scaffolding platforms to install the façade.

“This pattern is really well thought out, so this tile pattern is different from that, which is different from that, which is different from that,” Belculfine said while standing next to the facade on the building’s roof deck, which offers views inside Fenway Park. “So when the guys were in the field they said ‘Alright I’m doing this block I need No. 62, 63 and 64’ and then they just pulled the tiles and all the patterns were already there for them. So when they came up they just popped them on.”

During preconstruction, Belculfine used the Lean technique of “pull planning” to schedule the order of subcontractor actions needed to install the façade. “Pull planning” — or the idea of scheduling a project’s activities backwards from the ultimate target to the project’s start date — saved the project a full month in the end.

“You get everyone involved with the façade in a room and really fine tune the schedule,” Belculfine said. “By receiving input from the subcontractors actually responsible for executing the work, you are better able to plan for, adjust and schedule the more diminutive tasks in a proactive manner rather than reactionary.

“It really does help in a whole lot of ways.”

Belculfine also traveled to Germany to see how the tiles are manufactured.

“It’s wild how they make these tiles,” he said. “They have 500-foot furnaces where they spit out tiles. The tile patterns are formed, baked and each tile is laser cut to the exact size required. Then they have another laser machine that scans them and picks out any tiles with imperfections and they redo them.”

Famed German architect Thomas Herzog first developed terracotta rainscreens in the early 1980s as a way to blend modern construction into neighborhoods mostly constructed in brick.

Buchtal’s terracotta system came online in the mid 1990s and was most notably used in the U.S. on the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. in 2005 and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion renovation in 2012. The specific version of the system installed on the Viridian was first used in 2009 in Europe and is also being used on the Element Hotel currently being constructed in South Boston.

Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY

UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA

 

The president of the Fenway Civic Association, Tim Horn, said the Viridian is prominently visible from his plot in the Fenway Victory Garden and he appreciates that the building doesn’t feel like it’s encroaching on the neighborhood’s green space. He also appreciates that the façade has a more down-to-earth aesthetic next to all the glass and reflective material adorning most of the new buildings in the neighborhood.

“There is something to be said for the textile feel of it; it is earthy,” Horn said. “When you look back you get that vibe.”

This post was a collaboration between Justin Rice and Cory Belculfine. If you have questions, Justin Rice can be reached at jrice@suffolk.com or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice. Cory Belculfine can be reached at cbelculfine@suffolk.com.

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