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Framed views of a production tower and creative uses of steel give office building character

Photo: David Richter, FAIAIn an industrial area on the Gulf Coast, a long shadow stretches across the land under the hot Texas sun. The shadow belongs to a giant, 500-foot-tall processing tower, which dominates the site. It is used by Portland, Texas-based Voestalpine Texas LLC to produce hot briquetted iron (HBI). Leading up to the tower, a plant administration building lines right up with it. The coupling of the two structures is the work of Corpus Christi, Texas-based Richter Associate Architects Inc.

Great Tower

Photo: David Richter, FAIADavid Richter, FAIA, principal at Richter Architects, says his firm turned the building a few degrees askew to the rest of the plant to frame views of the tower from inside. "Just a simple gesture of rotating the building a few degrees, and then configuring the spaces in such a way that they have these framed views, you can create a very explicit relationship between the tower and the administration building," he says. "And that explicit relationship tells the story about why they're there, that we're making steel, and that's how it's made, with the huge tower."

Richter says his firm designed the building to be connected to its surroundings and with an outward-looking mindset, something similar facilities may not have unless they house control rooms. "A lot of times administration buildings are inwardly focused, especially in industrial facilities. There wasn't a functional necessity to look out, but we felt like it was a design opportunity to make the tower and the plant a part of the experience of the building."

The tower is on the east side of the administration building. Richter Architects widened views of it by stepping the building out on its north side. Each of the three steps has windows framing the tower. "That's basically how we brought the tower into the building strategically in several key positions," Richter says.

The main conference room has a view to the tower, as does the main passageway from the first to second floor. "As you enter and go up the trajectory of the stair, you're looking straight out a window and straight up the tower," Richter says. "The center of the tower is on axis with the center of the stair, so it's quite dramatic."

Open Layout

Photo: David Richter, FAIAThe outward-looking design also has a sense of openness in the building's floor plan. Richter says, "The other part of the design that's important is the human element. And that is the openness, the quality of light from the orientation, and the openness for people to work together in sort of a team environment."

A lobby and large meeting room are on the first floor. The second floor has a big, open space with a few private offices at the perimeter.

"There aren't a lot of private offices," Richter says. "There's a lot of open space, there's a lot of daylight, a lot of views out to the outdoors. It also opens to the main foyer, which is a two-story space where that stair has its orientation to the tower; so it's all a big, open space."

Shielding Sunshine

One issue the design needed to address was the building's west-facing entrance. Richter Architects countered the sunlight with a large, box-like mass on the second floor. "The big, metal, corrugated-clad element cantilevers out over the front door and creates shading to the entrance, main lobby and foyer," Richter says. "The main foyer, which is just behind that, turns and opens to the north, which is very beneficial. We were able to essentially tune the orientations to the appropriate solar exposure, even though we had an adverse west condition."

Tons of Steel

To underscore the owner's role in steel production, Richter Architects incorporated numerous applications of steel. Steel windows, ceilings, stairs and exposed, painted structural steel are a few of the most noticeable ones. "There's a whole array of steel products that are used," Richter says.

Richter says his firm developed creative ways to use common building products. "They're all used in ways that you wouldn't use them normally. And the result is that the interior is quite expressive of the process of making steel. It shows all the different ways steel can come out and be used on the other end, some of which are normally hidden and covered up. But in this building, they're not."

Unconventional Windows

Photo: David Richter, FAIAFor the windows, Richter Architects developed a system with cold-formed steel studs, the type found in drywall partitions, and vinyl sashes. The exposed metal studs, supplied by West Chester, Ohio-based ClarkDietrich Building Systems LLC, were installed back to back to create tube framing.

"The windows become a hybrid of steel and vinyl en lieu of an aluminum window system, which is the conventional way to provide that type of a window system," Richter says. "As you come in you see steel used in a manner that is not commonly used."

Richter says it was designed that way not just for the expressiveness of it, but it actually made practical sense. "It was better from a thermal point of view, better from a corrosion point of view, equal from a cost point of view, and it's expressive," he says. "Performance wise, it worked better. So it wasn't just to show more steel, it was a good solution."

Expressive Ceilings

The ceilings were built with a combination of galvanized metal studs and expanded metal lath, both supplied by ClarkDietrich Building Systems. The C-shaped studs create valances for industrial strip lighting. The metal studs were installed parallel to the lights and direct light downward. They also dress the fixtures.

The lath ceiling is supported by the studs and screens mechanical that above it. Additionally, the galvanized metal lath is reflective. "It kind of sparkles because the light bounces off of it, and it creates a metallic look in the ceiling," Richter says.

Metal lath is commonly used to reinforce plaster and concrete. "It's almost never used in a finished product," Richter says. "Neither of those materials, the studs or the lath, are commonly used in ceilings. And so that is more steel."

Richter says the combination of a relationship with the high-rise tower, outward-looking mindset, openness, and expression of the owner's industry and operation give the building its distinct character. "They're connected to the outdoors, and all of that is part of the building as well as the creative use of steel and the connection to the plant," Richter says. "Nature's a part of it, the humanity is part of it and then the technical, manufacturing side is a part of it."

Voestalpine Texas LLC, Portland, Texas
Completed: February 2016
Square feet: 18,500
General contractor: B.E. Beecroft Construction Co. Inc., Corpus Christi, Texas, beecroftconstruction.com
Architect: Richter Associate Architects Inc., Corpus Christi, www.richterarchitects.com
Installer: AAyon Construction Co. LLC, Adkins, Texas
Castellated beams: New Millennium Building Systems LLC, Fort Wayne, Ind., www.newmill.com
Metal wall panels: MBCI, Houston, Texas, www.mbci.com
Steel mesh: Carl Stahl Decorcable LLC, Burr Ridge, Ill., www.decorcable.com
Steel studs/lath: ClarkDietrich Building Systems LLC, West Chester, Ohio, www.clarkdietrich.com
Sunshades: Stainless Steel Products, Deer Park, N.Y., www.stainlesswires.com

Photos: David Richter, FAIA