This past year, when NBBJ, an architectural firm with a luminous lineage that spans the globe, was faced with a design challenge at Alfred University’s New York State College of Ceramics (NYSCC). Echelon Masonry, part of Oldcastle Architectural based in Atlanta, GA, eagerly jumped in. The masonry manufacturer came up with a creative concept that would win over their team of world-renowned designers—and transform the college building into a work of art unto itself with a theme reflective of their ceramics art and science curriculum. NYCSS includes the School of Art and Design, the Inamori School of Engineering and the Samuel R. Scholes Library.


NBBJ placed in Fast Company’s Top Ten Most Innovative Companies three times in the past five years. Among their many achievements, the team at NBBJ has worked with tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Samsung, the LEED Platinum Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation building and most notably designed Amazon’s 3.3 million square foot facility in Seattle.


Founded in 1836 in Alfred, NY, Alfred University’s College of Ceramics, which offers degrees in ceramic engineering and ceramic art, is associated with five galleries, as well as numerous exhibition spaces. With 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. But the design team at NBBJ envisioned a broader purpose for this space.


“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 in Boston. “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 Alfred U’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. But a creative, new solution soon presented itself.


With the expertise and guidance of 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+ was chosen as the glazed block—because when scored down the center, it actually looked like ceramic material. The 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-hour fire rating, both important in a school setting.


“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.” It was used for the entire outer face of the building and for common areas on interior walls.


They also worked with the masons on the unique block positioning.” King Brothers laid the glazed blocks on end, so vertically in a sense. They mason had a score down the center of the CMU glazed face lengthwise which gave it the appearance when laid up of being a 4-inch wide X 16-inch high CMU--then pointed in the scored joint as he went along.


The random placement of the pieces is artwork in itself. The colors, Earl Grey, Silver Grey, Pewter, and Wheatfield Yellow, provide contrast and pops of color giving the building a modern look without appearing too busy. The outer design carried on into the interior, both on the wall and through furniture. Mimicking the glaze block placement, the furniture varies in shades of grey 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,” adds 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.


“When we first saw the design, we knew that installation would be a bit of a challenge as the blocks would have a tendency to tip forward in the vertical format,” explained Echelon Project Manager, Terry Page. “The blocks were specified at 4 x 4 x 16. In places where the same color butted up together, we took a 4 x 8 x 16 unit and ran a score along the face so it looked like two separate blocks.”


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. After working with NBBJ to ensure the block was up to their team’s design standards, Page worked closely with King Brothers Masonry Construction to facilitate the installation.


NBBJ’s unique signature is on every building they touch—and the Ceramics College building was no exception. “Overall, I know we at NBBJ and our client at Alfred University are very pleased with the product and the unique solutions Echelon presented to us to help make this project happen.”


The new addition was officially dedicated to the McMahon Engineering Building on April 6, 2017 at a ceremony held in the building. Many of the school's programs are very much related to manufacturing discoveries in the real world. In the years to come, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that a future ceramic engineering graduate from Alfred might someday work on innovate glazed block products like the Astra-Glaze that adorns the building.


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