Smart Architecture At 187 Franklin Street

Complex Geometric Designs and Digital Technology Minimize Constructability Challenges and Costs

Bob Belden

Signature Brick Blend

Bob Belden

Complex geometry by System Architects produces some of contemporary architecture’s most striking designs. Dark Range brick blend used on interior walls complements the family’s furnishings, with Medium Range blend on the exterior. Deeply recessed and angled windows transcend multiple stories to provide an abundance of natural light and privacy.

SMART ARCHITECTURE AT 187 FRANKLIN ST

Complex Geometric Designs and Digital Technology Minimize Constructability Challenges and Costs

187 Franklin Street lies near the center of the Tribeca West Historic District. Jeremy Edmiston, principal of System Architects, was engaged to convert a three-story commercial structure on a site which had originally served as a livery stable in the 1800s, into a distinctive residential space for a family of four.

According to the New York Historic Districts Council, there are 53 neighborhoods in Manhattan and 139 historic districts comprised of more than 34,000 buildings. Tribeca West is one of those historic districts. The Historic Districts Council says, functional, yet decorative buildings found in this district were designed in vernacular and popular period styles of the last half of the 1800s. Granite slab sidewalks and Belgian-block street pavers complete the area’s 19th century commercial feeling.

According to the Tribeca West Historic District Designation Report of 5.7.1991, Franklin Street was transformed by the spread of commerce from downtown around the mid-nineteenth century. The district features many store-and-loft buildings of Italianate and Romanesque Revival design.

Delirious Architecture

In addition to the small living space of the simple lot’s 938 sf footprint, owners were concerned about the lack of privacy with large, street-facing windows on a narrow street. Edmiston’s answer to those concerns was to add two stories, making the building the same height as its immediate neighbors, with 3500 sf to accommodate a family of four, and to reinvent the façade with windows deeply recessed and angled 30° to views up and down the street rather than straight ahead.

Although not Italianate nor Romanesque Revival, the attention to detail and sculptural quality of the design is a nod to the centuryold neighboring buildings.

Edmiston chose brick for the façade because it was a material common to the neighborhood, it maintained the mercantile feel of the historic neighborhood, and it would be favored by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In the end, the Commission approved the design unanimously. “We should celebrate this project,” Commissioner Frederick Bland said at the time. “Everything is familiar and yet nothing is familiar. This is smart architecture as well as delirious architecture.”

System Architects, a small firm based in New York City with a Sydney Australia office, is known for its dynamic, complex geometric designs and use of digital technology to minimize constructability challenges and costs. 187 Franklin Street is no different. Edmiston was intimately involved in the design and construction of the home at every step. He appreciated brick’s ability to match the “tough, busy, urban environment with a sensibility of something strong, indestructible, while also responding like fabric, feeling light and responsive, even playful in a residential setting.”

Coding for Iteration Efficiency

Production drawings were digitally designed using a coding operation rather than modeling. A mathematical formula to generate coursing gave the architect control over each of the 41,288 brick. In fact, they went through more than 100 iterations of patterning to come up with what was finally used: a coursing pattern based on a Dutch bond, the 4.5 floors of rotating corbeled façade, with each corbel different, sometimes 1/16 of an inch. Once the coding design was determined, physical models were created. These models were effective in cutting down constructability issues and other surprises during construction.

Three of seven floor plans show the kitchen as well as work and living spaces in relation to the thickness of the brick street wall. Balconies at each floor extend these living spaces through the brick façade. The floor transitions from wood to concrete to meet the geometry of the interior brick.

Architect Edmiston and General Contractor Richard Wilson of NYC’s JD Wilson Construction worked closely through early design phases and on site to determine methodologies. They had to invent a way to lay modular units into twisting, curving walls.

The brick took on a life of its own

Each course is straight, but has a bend or a fold in it somewhere. The multi-wythe brick wall incorporated rigid foam that had been CNC-milled with horizontal coursing and every vertical joint etched onto it as a guide for masons. Each fold in the brickwork created a pocket behind the exterior face, which was filled with #5 rebar and grouted to serve as anchors for the façade. These acted as piers, spaced about 4' apart along the façade, which Wilson says looked like a boa constrictor running up and down the wall, are structurally sound, and follow the subtle wall gradations.

Section drawing cut through brick façade and balconies shows continuity of the façade and its relationship to the interior

Façade Development

Edmiston says it was interesting to go through the façade development, determining whether it would be a thick or thin wall. “The brick took on a life of its own,” he says. The wall is thick, but a zoning regulation worked in the project’s favor as it met certain thermal conditions in Climate Zone 4, per NYCECC. Additionally, the thick street-facing wall also plays a role in removing street noise from the interior spaces.

Zeal of Brick Selection

Choosing the brick was important to Edmiston. He wanted to have a new brick that would complement the century-old units adorning neighboring buildings. He visited The Belden Brick Company in Sugarcreek OH to learn more about their periodic kiln system. This particular brick plant consists of 20 individual beehive kilns operating since the 1920s. Edmiston appreciated the fact that these kilns had been in continuous operation for more than 90 years and appreciated the accrued knowledge of the brickmakers over that time. Many ironspot blends are produced there. 187 Franklin features a #470-479 Dark-Range Blend used on the interior and #470-479 Medium-Range Blend on the exterior.

Reducing Atmosphere

Both Medium and Dark Ranges have 15-20 distinct shades ranging from brown to orange to green. This number of shades developing from the same raw material is a function of the seven-day firing cycle of the beehive kilns and the reducing atmosphere created in the kilns to which brick are subjected. The advantage of a periodic beehive kiln is the greater amount of time available at maximum firing temperatures enabling colors to be fully developed and for changes in the kiln atmosphere to be extended well beyond what is possible in most tunnel kilns.

The luscious signature Belden blends begin with firing up to 90,000 to 105,000 modular units, depending upon configuration in the 40' diameter beehive kiln where all brick are encircled by two wythes of 8" brick plus an insulated fire brick that lines the interior wall. Kilns are gas heated for six to nine hours at temperatures of over 2,000°F. Where brick are closer to the heat source, they become flashed. This process produces compatible color variation including very dark accents. Exquisite exterior façade detail at a typical window head showcases the pattern of both stretchers and headers. The variety of brick colors, reflections of sunlight and shadows created by the folding brick all amplify the depth and character of the façade.
Aerial photo of 20 beehive kilns in a row servicing Plant 4 have an annual capacity of 20-22 million brick equivalent per year, which is nearly 10% of Belden’s annual capacity. Entrance to kiln is secured for safety so no one can enter while kiln is in service.

In creating this wide range of colors in both dark and medium range ironspot, brick units are subjected to a reducing atmosphere or flashing. A reducing atmosphere is an atmospheric condition in which oxidation is altered by removal of oxygen and other oxidizing gases. For the 470-479 Dark Range, the gas flashing time is six to nine hours; for the 470-479 Medium Range, it is two to four hours. Neither time is practical in a normal tunnel kiln where cars loaded with brick typically move into and out of each firing zone in less than two hours. This variable range of flashing time for each style of brick is truly what makes brick manufacturing as much art as science.

Unfired brick are loaded in beehive kiln where they are heated and allowed to completely cool.

Kerfing during production ensures clean cuts at exact locations to perfectly fit the design plan.

Bill Merritt of Belden Tri-State Building Materials, distributor, brought Edmiston to Belden Brick’s Plant 4 in Sugarcreek. Merritt and Edmiston met with Mark Britko, Manager of Strategic Markets, and Tom VanFossen, Plant 4 Superintendent, to discuss the architect’s vision and how The Belden Brick Company could help him make that vision a reality. After reviewing different ironspot ranges available, Edmiston selected the 470-479 Dark and Medium Ranges with green brick omitted.

Atmospheric reduction prevents oxidation by removal of oxygen and other oxidizing gases, causing flashing/ color variations most efficient in beehive kilns. 470-479 Dark Range brick showing color variation is being sorted onto pallets at Belden Brick in Sugarcreek OH, ready to be blended into packages for most efficient laying of the perfect blend on-site.

Because ironspot brick are fired in beehive kilns, which hold anywhere from 90,000 to 105,000 modular brick, depending on their configuration, manual unloading of kilns enables sorting of brick as they are drawn from the kiln, so green units were easily removed from the blend before they were sent to the packaging area.

Kerfing for Efficiency

The project was set for modular size brick, but nearly half the units were kerfed, or scored, brick that could be broken in the field to create that design. Kerfing during production ensures clean cuts at exact locations to perfectly fit the design plan. It also helps minimize dust and debris and maintains schedule, eliminating extra labor. In addition to kerfed stretcher units, there were over 2,000 special shapes, many also kerfed.

Belden cartoned and labeled all the special shapes so they could be easily identified by masons on site. Remaining brick were packaged in cubes after blending.

Belden true ironspot brick are a unique blend of shale, fireclay and iron burned to vitrification in periodic kilns resulting in a range of colors unmatched by any other kiln-fired brick. Ironspot brick have long been a favorite of architects because the smooth surface with raised iron and subtle variations in color reflects the light differently over time periods measured in hours, days and even months. The iron drawn to the nearly glassy surface of the brick by intense heat gives the ironspot brick a look that varies with the natural atmospheric conditions of the surrounding environment.
Brick masons at work on the exterior façade, setting sections of brick one course at a time with offset tools and brick course reference drawings. Brick course drawings produced by the architect have color-coded brick sizes to further streamline construction. Underside of the balcony floor structure projects through the brick facade at each floor level.

Mason Efficiencies

Belden brick are blended before palletizing so masons or robots can simply pick up and lay the next brick. Laying the wall was a slower-than-typical process because of the curves and special shapes. As much preplanning as possible resolved questions and concerns in advance to keep productivity as high as possible.

An example of two-brick offset tools being used to check an outside fold of the exterior brick façade. Structural strategy for exterior brick was thought of as a series of brick piers which follow the façade geometry. Steel reinforced piers were filled with grout to tie brick to the building structure.
Offset tools made for bricklayers are used to project the face of the foam template to the face of the finish brick.

The crew worked diligently to maintain cavity spacing exactly, as to not disrupt flow of the coursings. They also had to be meticulous with mortar batching to match color and strength throughout. Because brick install ation was slow, they used small batches of mortar for consistency, rather than adding water to keep one larger batch elastic over time.

In creating this wide range of colors in both dark and medium range ironspot, brick units are subjected to a reducing atmosphere or flashing.

Communication Efficiency

Not every brick order receives this degree of personal attention, but every order is important to The Belden Brick Company and the more information provided, the better the solution we can achieve for the end user. Archiving of information for future matches also brings efficiencies. Each plant keeps a sample of large projects especially when there are special blends like the green brick omitted here so that future matches will be correctly manufactured.

We are always happy to have architects and contractors visit our operations and speak directly with plant personnel. Because satisfying the owner is the main objective of all parties involved in construction of a building, Edmiston is quick to remind that this is a family home and they were working within a family budget. “It’s hard to build in New York City and make it feel domestic – not like a hotel or commercial building. Brick was an ally in that challenge.”

Bob Belden
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