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Tilt-up designs appealing to both retailers, consumers

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Tilt-up construction -- a method in which concrete wall panels are cast on a floor slab, erected into place, and finished on the outside with paint or other material -- has long been regarded as one of the most efficient ways to construct buildings. Tilt-up combines the advantages of low maintenance, durability, speed, minimal capital investment and architectural appeal.

Norman Barrett

For decades, the primary market for tilt-up was warehouse construction. In recent years, however, the demand for decorative tilt-up has grown rapidly. The industry has expanded into a diverse range of markets, including offices, public buildings, schools and -- as a growing trend -- retail centers.

More and more, tilt-ups are replacing the traditional "retail boxes" constructed mainly from labor-intensive concrete block. Comparatively, concrete and block are about the same price when it comes to materials. Yet, owners, tenants and developers in the retail sector are turning to tilt-up concrete construction because it has several advantages over block construction.

The main advantage is that tilt-up construction takes less time to build than traditional blocks buildings, so it works well with a fast-track project schedule. Also, especially on smaller buildings, tilt-up construction in conjunction with a steel truss roof system has the advantage over traditional wood-framed buildings by allowing clear spans without intermediate columns that allow maximum leasing flexibility.

In particular, designers and builders in Southern California's thriving retail market are helping to spearhead the tilt-up trend. One example is Lake Elsinore Marketplace, a new $70 million, 459,085-square-foot regional retail center being designed for a 46.7-acre site in Lake Elsinore, Calif. The center will encompass 15 one-story tilt-up buildings and will be anchored by five major retailers, including Costco, Lowe's, Petsmart and Staples. The center is slated for completion fall 2006.

Other tilt-up retail developments in Southern California include Creekside Market Place, a new 270,000-square-foot retail center nearing completion in San Marcos; as well as EastLake Terraces, a nearly complete retail center in Chula Vista.

Because the design of tilt-up retail buildings requires more planning and detail work, architects are very involved in these projects.

One concern that often must be addressed, particularly with a neighborhood retail center, is that the development will have a generic "big-box" look, with little distinction from other centers.

On the other hand, designers also must appease owners with national signature images, such as anchor chains. These owners often are concerned about keeping the look of their buildings consistent from one development to the next.

Overcoming these design challenges requires innovation and incorporation of new decorative techniques. To make buildings more distinctive and eye-catching, designers are constantly generating new ideas -- from finding new ways to add relief and depth to walls; to incorporating different building materials and adornments; to creatively using color and texture.

The typical aesthetic complaint with tilt-up is the flat-panel look that arises naturally from this type of construction method. As a result, architects have developed a number of techniques to add relief and depth to walls.

One technique for providing relief and architectural interest is attaching prefabricated stone, concrete or foam elements to flat surfaces to provide three-dimensional interest.

Concrete reveals also are used often, both horizontally and vertically, to break up large walls, which sometimes can be as high as 30 feet tall.

Further, right-angle wall returns as deep as four feet can be designed into panels to give the structure more apparent thickness than the typical seven-inch-thick wall itself can provide.

Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems (EIFS) is another method that can add detail and depth to tilt-up walls. With EIFS facades, shapes made from polystyrene foam are bonded to the concrete walls, and a polymer cement is applied with plastic netting as reinforcement, followed by colored polymer-cement finish coats.

Using EIFS, builders can easily add columns, cornices, and other architectural features, breaking up the flat-wall appearance.

Greatly increasing the size of window openings (although it sometimes can make construction more difficult) is yet another way to create relief within wall panels and enhance aesthetic appeal. Aside from the design benefits to the outside of a structure, large windows are also good for office workers who are increasingly working in higher-density settings.

For the most part, tilt-up concrete walls usually are used only for the main body of the building. Traditional framed construction then is used for any architectural accent pieces, such as the main building entry, canopies or a tower element.

Accent pieces can include decorative pilasters, metal or cloth awnings, canopies, roof elements, light fixtures, parapet cornices, planted trellises, and brick or stone veneer.

Lake Elsinore Marketplace will feature large tilt-up concrete buildings and smaller, traditionally framed buildings, each with multicolored earth tones with deep color accents. All structures will feature metal canopies and awnings, split and smooth face concrete block, decorative light fixtures, and standing seam metal roofs.

Creekside Market Place, which was designed to embrace a Mediterranean-style ambience, will include tower features, decorative light fixtures, and stone facing that is used as an accent and to highlight distinct building features such as tower elements and color.

Color cannot be underestimated as an important design feature. Many otherwise good designs have been diminished by either no color or poorly chosen colors. Color is very important for projects when the goal is to stand out from competitors' centers.

Also, color can add warmth and charm to any center, if done properly.

The main goal for most developers, especially with retail tilt-up projects, is to have a great design concept that is acceptable to the community, owner, tenant and city planning departments.

However, achieving this goal often requires closely analyzing whether or not the building is a good candidate for tilt-up concrete construction. Two of the biggest deciding factors are size and shape.

For example, a small retail project with lots of "ins and outs" would not lend itself for tilt-up concrete construction.

However, larger rectangular and "big-box" tenants would be ideal.

Another concern is that once the concrete walls are up, flexibility can become limited for modifying building footprint size, door openings, and storefront locations.

Also, some larger tenants require that the concrete floor of their facility remain in pristine condition throughout the construction process. Since the concrete floor is used to pour tilt-up walls, optimum conditions cannot always be guaranteed.

While there is no one formula for ensuring the long-term success of a retail center, the longevity of most successful centers has been directly traced to how well they were designed. With tilt-up designs becoming more diverse and less formulaic, opportunities for unique projects and expressions are greater than ever before. And a well-designed retail tilt-up can certainly hold its own among the most successful centers today.

Barrett is a project architect for Smith Consulting Architects. More information about the firm is available online at www.sca-sd.com.>

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