All told, Yale University’s new Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges have nearly 1.5 miles of façade—entirely without repeat. To do all of that detailed masonry work by hand would have been both time- and cost-prohibitive, so the team at Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) turned to contemporary architectural technologies and methods to create a Collegiate Gothic complex on a more realistic modern timeline.
One of the strategies that the team used to speed up construction and reduce costs was look to the prefabrication of systems where efficiencies could be had. “Some of the major prefab items were precast panelization,” says RAMSA associate partner Kurt Glauber, AIA. “We’ve done that on a lot of other projects, so as we went through each phase of the project, we were looking for cost-effective ways to do this.”
But prefabrication doesn’t preclude ornament, although some of the most ornate parts of the complex were achieved through prefab methods. The panels of the highest point in the complex, Bass tower, for example, were all prefabricated. “It is so tall and very slender, so making it work structurally was difficult,” Glauber says. In order to maintain the proportions that the team wanted for the tower, traditional construction methods quickly proved not to be feasible. Turning to precast panelization, Glauber says, meant that “we didn’t have to have staging that went up 190 feet, it helped with the weight, and got us the quality that we wanted as well.” For that last part, the quality, Glauber says that it was crucial that the team at RAMSA spoke with the precast prefabricator early in the process. “We were talking about these things from the get go, asking: ‘What can we do and still maintain the high level of detail that we want?’ ” he says.
In identifying areas of the project where prefabrication could help speed construction, some elements came quickly to mind, such as the 73 staircases in the complex. “That was one place we looked to be very efficient—structurally, as well as aesthetically,” Glauber says. “It was all about getting that detail to be flexible enough but repetitious enough” to gain efficiency in the fabrication, and still achieve the desired result.
Other elements were less obvious, including the 45 ornate chimneys, some of which connect to functional fireplaces, but most of which hide mechanical systems to keep the roofscape clean. “We thought at first that it might not be worth doing, but having those prefabricated was a huge savings,” Glauber says. Working with Alma, Quebec–based precast concrete company BPDL, the team at RAMSA designed each chimney to mimic brick and stone detailing—an aesthetic that meant each chimney structure required eight precise pours during fabrication.
The question of where and when to deploy prefabrication at the Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges is part of a larger, ongoing, conversation for the team at RAMSA. “We’re trying to get the same level of quality that was done 100 years ago,” Glauber says. "How do we get that with newer processes?” There’s no doubt that the process helped speed construction on this project, which was completed just shy of three years after the groundbreaking. Glauber offers a comparison to illustrate the point: “The bay windows are so complex, with so much intricate stonework, that it was more efficient to prefabricate those,” he says. “We did do some by hand, and they were complex, and took a lot of time.” In particular, a bay in Pauli Murray College, which features a decorative DNA motif designed by RAMSA, “was all done in a traditional handlaid way, like you would 100 years ago,” he says. The fact that that bay was such a focal point demanded the hand-craftsmanship, but “if we had done every bay in that method, it would have been a schedule bust.”