Architectural Terracotta – 5 Keys to Successful Design & Installation

Come January 2019, The University of Arizona will open their doors on a truly special project: The Health Sciences Innovation Building (HSIB) is a 220,000 square foot state-of-art structure, designed by CO Architects with construction led by Kitchell of Phoenix. Kovach was fortunate to be the exclusive facade subcontractor on this very unique and rewarding job that prominently features terracotta.

Rendering of Health Sciences Innovation Building (HSIB)
This rendering features HSIB’s South and East elevations.
Grooved terracotta fin.
Grooved terracotta fin.
Twisting terracotta fin crafted by Boston  Valley Terra Cotta.
Twisting terracotta fin crafted by Boston Valley Terra Cotta.
Twisting terracotta fin crafted by Boston Valley Terra Cotta.
Twisting terracotta fin crafted by Boston Valley Terra Cotta.

HSIB allowed our team the great privilege to work with a phenomenal terracotta supplier – Boston Valley Terra Cotta, based in Buffalo, New York. Their team of artists, craftsman, sculptors, and engineers have manufactured and supplied terracotta for some of the largest projects in New York City such as 1 Vanderbilt, The Fitzroy, and 510 West 22nd Street. Their work can be found in charming yet complex projects like the Rathbone and Newman Passages in London and historic renovations like the Alberta Legislature Dome.

Having a shared sense of pride in workmanship we knew that our partnership with Boston Valley was going to be a success. One of the biggest challenges of HSIB were the 12” x 60” twisted terracotta fins that were to be integrated into our curtain wall system. After a number of early technical meetings, plant visits, and great collaboration, the Kovach/Boston Valley team was able to invent creative solutions to solve the unique terracotta challenges of HSIB. As construction comes to a close, we could not be more pleased with how this scope has come together.

We had a chance to catch up with Amy Bossert, Project Manager for Boston Valley, and had a discussion about things we learned from this job. Together we identified 5 key elements to a successful terracotta project.

1 – Build Your Team Early

Due to the intricate manufacturing process and high degree of customization, it is essential that terracotta suppliers and installers are brought on board very early in the design process. In fact, there is no such thing as selecting your terracotta team too early. Perhaps the most significant contribution to the successful installation of HSIB was the combined dedication of UofA, CO Architects, and Kitchell to get a facade team selected and organized long before installation began.

Amy emphasized the importance of identifying an installation team early,

“We can’t express how critical it is. There was a lot of conversation that went back and forth on the design to try to provide a texture that looked nice and would still hold up through the forming method for the twisted fins. If we can help with design work upfront everyone is on the same page and the expectations are set. Everything moves so much more efficiently once the job does move forward.”

2 – Understand the Material

Kovach has a lot of experience with a wide range of facade solutions and without a doubt terracotta is unlike any other product on the market. That being said, Boston Valley’s team of artists and sculptors do not shy away from a challenge.

“We like pushing the limits of the material and are always up for a challenge.” Although terracotta has some constraints, Amy’s recommendation is clear, “Take time to learn about the material. You need to know when you are over pushing the boundaries, and get a realistic expectation to avoid problems later in production.”

Most architects and builders do not interact with terracotta often in their career. CO Architects was dedicated to working hand in hand with Boston Valley and Kovach to understand terracotta in a meaningful and functional way. Their willingness to learn made a significant impact on the productivity and alignment during the design process.

3 – Design for Variation

Terracotta is a natural product that does not produce the same regularity as manufactured material. During the fabrication process, variation in color, grain, and texture can be guided but not fully controlled. However, that variation creates an organic, timeless attraction that should be embraced rather than subdued.

In addition to natural shades of red, orange, grey and brown, glaze can be applied to achieve rich color and vibrant tone. In fact, recently Amy has noticed piqued interest in glazed terracotta. “The biggest trend right now is color. What you can do to glaze terracotta or ceramic to create different effects cannot be achieved with other façade materials.”

4 – Don’t Underestimate the Attachment System

Without question, the attachment system was the most important point of coordination between Kovach and Boston Valley.

“If your backup system isn’t right it is going to show in the facade. A successful installer needs to understand the level of detail that is needed and know how critical it is.”

“The installers we work with have to be forward thinking and technically advanced. You need to work as a team in order to make it work. There needs to be a back and forth attitude. The technical feedback is really important.”

Although Boston Valley’s standard attachment system is frequently used on different projects, when designing a unique terracotta façade, it is likely that a customized attachment system will need to be designed. The size and rotation of the twisted terracotta fins on HSIB added complexity to the project. “Despite concerns to the contrary, tailor-made solutions do not have to adversely affect the client’s budget.”

James Hatch, VP of Procurement with Kovach, worked with the HSIB team to find cost effective ways to address the project’s complexities. “Often when an owner hears the words “customized” they get scared. The reality is, customized attachments can be engineered fairly quickly and usually save the project time and money.”

With over 100 years of combined experience the Kovach/Boston Valley team was able to engineer a brand-new attachment system for HSIB.

5 – Have Reasonable Expectations on Costs

There are two costs to consider when evaluating budget implications for terracotta – upfront installation costs and long-term maintenance.

Occasionally we encounter folks in the A/E/C community who assume that terracotta is a low-cost solution because it is a natural product. With an elevated level of design, customization, and longevity, terracotta should be viewed as a premium product that is well suited for signature buildings with high profile and aesthetic appeal. Together, Kovach and Boston Valley have a lot of experience helping our clients find creative ways to achieve design intent within budget. Again, getting a team together early will significantly help you identify ways to put terracotta on your project and manage costs.

Long term value is where terracotta really soars. As previously mentioned, terracotta will stand the test of time with little to no maintenance. Amy can’t emphasize it enough, “It’s going to be there forever. Terracotta is not a 25-year material. There are thousands of examples that have lasted hundreds of years in every corner of the globe.”

Building a Legacy with Terracotta

Terracotta is truly a one-of-a-kind product and HSIB is a one-of-kind job. If you have been challenged to design a timeless, monumental project terracotta can help you get there. As a building material that has been used for thousands of years there’s no doubt that its aesthetics will be appealing for the foreseeable future. If you’re considering terracotta on your next project, Kovach and Boston Valley will be happy to assist you.