ARCHITECT’s R+D Awards program celebrates innovation in architecture and design. Learn more about the competition and enter today. This piece is part of a series of articles that will examine the progress made by past award winners.
Since winning an ARCHITECT R+D Award five years ago, Taktl has been on a roll. The Pittsburgh-based ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC) panels fabricator started as a five-person research and development (R&D) division of architectural products manufacturer Forms+Surfaces. Now, the team is 120 people strong and its manufacturing footprint has expanded seven-fold. Among the early adopters of UHPC in the U.S., Taktl helped to establish a niche market for the material, which is stronger and more ductile than conventional concrete, in its facade panel systems. Now, the material is featured on a host of projects, including Adjaye Associates’ forthcoming National Museum of African American Culture and History (NMAACH). There, it takes the form of the exposed concrete comprising the project's entry canopy. From its Rust Belt base, the company is now looking to expand fabrication to the West Coast. It also recently added its own internal R&D company, Vectr. We checked in with Jason Flannery, director of design and development at Taktl, about where the company is headed next.
ARCHITECT: The market for ultra-high performance concrete has grown significantly over the last five to six years. How has that altered the audience and applications for your product?
Flannery: We started this company because we were excited about the material and felt that it had a lot of potential. We didn’t anticipate how much demand would grow. We quickly [reached capacity] at our original facility, so we went out and partnered with the Regional Industrial Development Corp., here in Pittsburgh, to revitalize a Westinghouse facility from the 1800s. We brought it online a few weeks ago. It’s about seven times the capacity of our original facility.
There’s long been a market in Europe for UHPC but it's much newer in the U.S. Did that impact how you positioned the company?
We were taking a material that wasn’t new but were applying it to architecture in what was considered to be a new way. We launched right as the country was coming out of the recession. We knew that the hardest part would be getting the first few projects, but once we crossed that hurdle, we were able to show people that, hey, this stuff works. Then things got a little easier.
A number of things have happened since. One is the acceptance of and demand for the ventilated rainscreen façade. We spent a lot of time educating people not just about the material but also about what was, at the time, a new methodology in the U.S. for façade construction.
How does Vectr, Taktl’s R&D company, factor in?
To understand Vectr, you have to look at the genesis of Taktl, which was borne from a R&D project at Forms+Surfaces. To the extent that R&D shares resources with production, you’re not going to have very a successful R&D effort. So Vectr is a standalone company with its own physical resources and personnel to explore materials innovations, manufacturing methods, and new applications and markets.
Does that feed into Taktl?
Absolutely. It’s not about research for research’s sake. We really want to bring innovative products to market.
What are some typical applications of your UHPC product?
We have a lot of them. We recently created a standard product line, so a lot of projects are using that very successfully. They’ve taken what we can do that’s unique, which is texture and color, and worked with our standard palettes and created something that looks one-off and custom. A good example would be a basketball training facility (shown below) at the University of Connecticut that we did with Populous; we did a dual texture on the façade that looks like wood planks but also gives the idea of multiple colors, and shifts the building’s color value
What was the impetus for creating a product line?
We had clients that wanted tighter timelines, we can make the product more cost-effective, and, for smaller projects, it just makes sense. We’re able to offer a lot of product for less money and often that’s what it comes down to when deciding whether you stay on a project or not.
Has that opened Taktl up for use in new kinds of projects?
It has. While it’s great to offer completely custom options, a lot of times it’s too much and becomes a big undertaking for us and the architect. A standard product line eliminates the burden of choice. However, the line offers semi-customization. For example, you can take a standard texture and we can tweak the color or we can combine two textures in one panel. We can do things from very subtle modifications of standard offerings to completely custom shapes and panels.
How about some of your higher profile projects, such as the NMAAHC?
It’s an exciting project for us. The material will be used both in a canopy situation—almost like a porch cladding—and as a façade panel. We’re also working with CookFox Architects, in Brooklyn, N.Y., on the City Point development. In this case the product is used as cladding, creating a sort of macro-grid structure on the building. Another is the Washington University Medical Center, in St. Louis, with HOK, which pushes the material with its hundreds, if not thousands, of cast and ribbed corners. We’re also excited about a project we completed two years ago for the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which was a testament to the material and its durability in an extreme environment.
What about the new facility? Why did you decide to stay in Pittsburgh?
We have our roots and a lot of resources in the area. And it’s a good place to operate from a personnel-resources standpoint. We have some of the best engineering schools in the country here, between Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania State University. This region has been very good to us over the years and we’re committed to giving back.
Our model is regional manufacturing, so we’re going to be looking to expand to the West Coast and hopefully onward from there. There are some interesting markets around the intersection of structure and aesthetics, which [are often] treated as two separate elements. We’re excited about the potential for combining them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This post has been updated to clarify how the material is used in the NMAAHC, in Washington, D.C.