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A Jewel of a Box

Judges Award 1

An architectural school demonstrates the sophistication of metal building systems

The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) occupies the old Santa Fe freight yard building in the Arts District east of downtown Los Angeles. The building is a very long and narrow structure that served as the transition point for freight moving from rail to truck. When it moved there in 2003, the school carved out a comfortable existence, modifying the building to meet its needs.

But a new technology arose that couldn't easily be wedged into the old freight building. Model building and prototyping has changed from something done with wood and glue to something done with 3-D printers and computer modeling. Those instruments needed a new location, so the leadership contacted AGA Architects, Marina del Rey, Calif., to design what they were calling the "Magic Box."

John Bencher, principal of AGA Architects, was a graduate of SCI-Arc and had done quite a bit of work for the school. "It's really a digital prototyping kind of facility," he says. "They had an old analogue shop with band saws and drill presses for physical model building, but as things moved into digital prototyping, the facility had become cramped and inefficient. The goal was to provide one, small centralized addition." A magic box.


A Design Challenge

Besides wanting to meet the new technology need, SCI-Arc also wanted to showcase the capabilities of metal building systems for its students and the larger design community. Bencher's firm contacted Butler Manufacturing, Kansas City, Mo., who through its regional manager brought in Bremco Construction Co., Long Beach, Calif., an experienced Butler Builder. Bremco Vice President Greg Darling, says, "The architecture school does some pretty avantgarde stuff. They had a blank canvas and were looking to do something cool. It's a kit of parts and they wanted to see what it could do. Plus, they liked the cost effectiveness."

The result is a small, 4,643 square-foot, two-story building that pushes the envelope on metal building systems, houses some high-tech machinery that requires advanced mechanical systems, and fits neatly into a space between the south end of the building and the famous Fourth Street Bridge, which features heavily in movies and television shows.

The Magic Box attaches to the building on the second level at the loading dock so students entering the building walk up to the second level or down to the first level. The aggressive use of glazing and daylighting opens the interior to older neighborhood.


Pushing the Edge

"The traditional understanding of pre-engineered metal buildings is they've very cost effective," Bencher says, "and have a delivery schedule that is very competitive. We looked at it as a language … and we had some additive and subtractive ideas about the pieces we could add to the language to get to things you don't normally see.

"We wanted to evolve the language," he continues. "It's clearly a metal building. It's just been extended in terms of what it can do. For example, the idea on the first floor is one quarter of the building is exterior to be used as a work space. Undercutting the building and have a voice where you don't usually have one."

Stretching the vernacular of metal building systems in new ways can create some difficult engineering and construction issues. The team worked in close collaboration with Butler engineers to resolve any challenges. "We had a structural steel mezzanine to support the second floor," Darling says. "The Butler columns are designed to take the load of the mezzanine, but we had to add other still to take the whole load. It was a hybrid approach."


Let in the Light

Not only did the structural changes offer challenges, the cutting-edge technology housed within the building offered a whole new set of requirements, including the likelihood that the technology will soon change, and with it, the requirements. "Almost every room had a distinct approach to ventilation," Bencher says. The building required special exhaust fans for fumes as well as dust collection. On the electrical side, there were different voltage and phase requirements depending on whether the machine was a 3-D printer or a CNC router.

And all of that is wrapped in an envelope that takes advantage of natural light. A translucent daylighting system from CPI Daylighting, Lake Forest, Ill., features on the roof and sidewalls, and diffuses light into the center of the building. "We wanted to get some additional skylight roof and wall panels on there," says Darling. "One of the things is CPI wanted at least a 1:12 slope and the roof was 1/2:12 slope. So we had to create an extra slope for the skylight panels."

A large bi-fold door on the north elevation opens the building to existing school. "The whole north side is clad in storefront glass," says Darling. "In the middle bay, there's a neat bi-fold door and bi-fold skylight that come together." Schweiss Doors, Hector, Minn., supplied the doors and their dramatic opening extends even further the language of the building.

The Magic Box sits like a jewel on the rough edges of the Los Angeles Arts District and it speaks to the sophistication and capabilities of metal building systems. For that, the judges awarded it the special judges award in the MCN Building and Roofing Award.

Photo Credit: Sanduku Photography


SCI-Arc Magic Box, Los Angeles
Completed: September 2015
Total square footage: 4,643 square feet
General contractor: Bremco Construction Inc., Long Beach, Calif.,
Architect: AGA Architects, Marina del Rey, Calif.,
Metal building erector: Pascual Steel Erectors, Perris, Calif.
Metal building system: Butler Manufacturing, Kansas City, Mo., www.
Daylighting System: CPI Daylighting, Lake Forest, Ill.,
Doors: Schweiss Doors, Hector, Minn.,