Architects Roundtable: RTK

April 3, 2002
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RTKL has been involved with modernizing the north half of the Ariel Rios Federal Building, which is located in the Federal Triangle in Washington, DC. The building, which is clad with Indiana limestone, will undergo extensive preservation work.


The Ariel Rios Federal Building was originally constructed between 1931 and 1935. The lower courses of the limestone was detailed with archways and deep jointing.
With offices throughout the U.S. as well as several international offices, RTKL has provided architectural services for a broad range of project types, including government, corporate, retail/entertainment, mixed use, historic preservation, health care, hospitality and interiors. And in executing these projects, the firm has often in-corporated natural stone into its designs.

In this Stone World roundtable, four members of the firm offer a look at their use of stone in their work. The session, which included representatives from two RTKL offices, took place at the firm¿s Washington, DC, office, and it included:

¿ Kathryn Barnard, Associate Vice President, Washington, DC, Office

¿ Helen B. Jeffery, AIA, Associate, Washington, DC, Office

¿ Raymond E. Peloquin, AIA, Vice President, Baltimore, MD, Office

¿ Karl W. Stumpf, AIA, Vice President, Office Director, Washington, DC, Office

Stone World: To begin with, I¿d like for everyone to introduce themselves and briefly discuss the kind of work that they do.

Jeffery: I am in the Hospital/Health Care Studio, and my career is focused on medical-related work.

Peloquin: My focus is retail/entertainment work, but my expertise is in mixed-use, so I have experience in corporate high-rise offices as well as hospitality.

Barnard: I work with the interior architecture group, and our primary focus is corporate interiors.

Stumpf: My focus is preservation work, especially government and hospitality.

Stone World: Can each of you briefly discuss how often you use natural stone and for what types of applications?

Jeffery: For hospital work, it is mostly a trim and feature element. [Stone] is perceived as an expensive option in hospitals, which are already more expensive than other building types because of the demands of patient care.

Peloquin: I think [our stone use] varies. We also do a lot of work internationally, so it varies by location. Internationally, we¿re doing large projects in places like Dubai, and stone is readily available and cheaper than some of the materials that we would use in the United States. So for our foreign projects, we use a lot more stone than we do domestically.

Certainly, the major driver in the United States is price. For our retail/entertainment projects or higher-end retail projects, stone is going to be used as flooring or as accents. For our corporate projects domestically and internationally, stone is going to be used on the exterior. And stone is especially used in the lobbies [of corporate projects].

Barnard: We¿ve seen a change in the applications of stone over the past 10 years. I think it is because the emerging dot-coms didn¿t have a lot of money to spend on the build out of their spaces. In the early ¿80s, I used stone everywhere, but over the past 10 years, people have not wanted to spend that kind of money in this country. We still use stone for repositioning of new lobbies and for typical corporate clients that have money to spend. However, even with our more conventional corporate clients, the use of stone has been limited to reception desk transaction ledges, conference and credenza tops, and portions of the floors in the elevator lobbies and reception areas.

Stone World: Speaking of the dot-coms, one architect told me that they were seeing less use of premium building materials because owners are spending more money on the technology of the building, making it wired for the Internet and other advanced communication. Are you finding that as well?

Barnard: We are finding some of that, but the issue is mostly speed-to-market and budget with these clients. The introduction of stone or wood to a job immediately increases a budget from $40 to $70 per square foot. These new companies want to get in quickly and get the most bang for their buck using new and innovative materials.

Jeffery: But your comment is the definition of the health care market. There is so much technology in the building, and you get the feeling that every dime spent on the outside of the is a dime not spent directly on patient care.

Stone World: But with health care being what it is today, we have seen a more "capitalistic" approach by many health care providers -- who are doing more advertising on television and radio and trying to appeal to the general public. Has that also translated to the design of health care facilities? In other words, are you seeing more use of premium materials such as stone for health care facilities?

Jeffery: Absolutely, design is extremely important. It depends on some of the building types. There are more residential building types; and building types for women; and building types for children. Across the board, design is extremely important, but there is still a need to value-engineer. As I said previously, hospitals often must prefer to spend the money where it directly translates into patient care, but design is absolutely crucial.

Stone World: So do they have any budget for stone? Let¿s say a hospital opens a new Breast Center, and they want to attract people and make them as comfortable as possible once they get there. Are you seeing more use of stone for something like that, or has it always been that way?

Jeffery: I can¿t say it¿s always been that way, but it¿s certainly easier to bring it into the project [in that case]. The issue that I¿ve had is keeping it in the project between the time you draw it and the time [it is finished].

Barnard: I¿m working on a project now that is a woman¿s health center for excellence. The doctors, as well as the client, are very interested in having quality design, and using materials that you don¿t necessarily see in a typical medical office building.

Jeffery: [Design is most emphasized on] projects where the clients are healthy, which is why we keep referring to women¿s facilities. Women giving birth to babies are healthy. They¿re not in an emergency situation, so they can shop around. And for projects such as pediatrics, where the adults are the ones shopping around, it is really important to draw with design.

Another use of stone for health care work is fountains. There are a lot of interesting fountains in health care as a relaxing, stress-relieving type of feature. They¿re thought of as a Zen-type feature, so you can really keep stone in a project that way.

Stone World: Looking at the firm¿s work by project type, I see that many of you have worked in several different sectors. How does the use of stone differ based on project type? Which projects these days are most conducive to the use of stone?

Stumpf: First of all, all of our government work consists of building 100-year buildings. We¿re doing a federal courthouse addition right now in Little Rock, AK, and it¿s all limestone and granite. In that case, we¿re putting an addition on an existing limestone and granite building, so you¿re going to stay with those materials. Plus, the government has those types of budgets. They expect [stone].

The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is another example. For an addition to the Capitol, there is no question of using stone for both the exterior and interiors.

Peloquin: [We¿re using stone] for office buildings that are more than just speculative buildings of three to five stories. On one of the projects that we¿re doing, 750 East Pratt in Baltimore, we¿re using stone in the lobbies, and certainly on the exterior of the building.

We¿re not using as much natural stone, necessarily, for our retail/entertainment projects. A lot of the retail/entertainment work these days is "Main Street" retail, which is incorporating more residential [elements] into it. You find masonry, but not as much stone, and I think that¿s because of the cost point you¿re trying to get.

Jeffery: For the health care market that is also residential -- nursing homes, hospices or psychiatric facilities -- there is a big interest in [achieving] a residential look, and then it¿s easier to bring in stone. We may have a fieldstone base and certainly a stone fireplace. Even if it can¿t by code be a real wood-burning fireplace, it still has to have that stone image.

Stone World: Speaking about owners, you had mentioned some corporate projects that have used stone and some retail projects. What are the differences between the different owners with regard to their knowledge of stone? For example, how does working with the developer of a commercial project differ from working with the board of directors of a hospital?

Peloquin: I think it goes back to what Karl was talking about. When you have a client that is building for 100 years, they are looking for stone because they want that permanence and the importance that natural stone brings to it. When you look at a retail and entertainment [venue], it¿s not a life span that¿s going to last more than 10 years before it¿s going to be renovated. So there isn¿t a desire to bring [a feeling of] permanence.

So I think the sector or building type has a lot to do with the developer¿s attitude or the owner¿s attitude towards using stone. As the life span of the building increases, the more likely you are to be able to get them to understand the need for stone.

Stone World: Obviously, budgets are a big consideration for all project types. What are some of the ways in which you can detail stone so that it is not only specified, but actually ends up in the final project and is relatively cost effective?

Barnard: What comes to mind immediately is thin-set versus thick set [installations] of flooring. However, the limitation with thin-set is that the stone has to be 12- x 12-[inch] tile.

Stone World: Speaking on the installation side, what kind of craftsmanship are you seeing in the field?

Barnard: We work with the contractors enough where they know the level of quality that we¿re looking for. Typically, they will not hire an inferior installer. Working with inferior installers hasn¿t happened to me very often.

Peloquin: I wouldn¿t say that I¿ve seen any bad installers over the past 15 years working in this region.

Stone World: Moving to historical preservation, I know that the firm has worked on some very high-profile buildings. At what point are you usually called into a restoration project? Are you doing feasibility studies?

Stumpf: It depends on the type of client. If it¿s a private client, we usually start at the beginning with a feasibility study and building analysis. But with the government clients, they procure a design firm at the beginning of design. They will have already done their primary work.

Stone World: Do you work much with historical societies, and how does that affect a project?

Stumpf: Yes, especially here in Washington, DC. There are more regulation authorities here as far as preservation than anywhere. In all honesty, it helps a project because they have a very high standard of what they want and what they are looking for, and they¿re on the side of keeping materials true to what they should be. They¿re in favor of using stone instead of precast.

The difficulty is that they¿re looking for one thing, but the client may be on the other side and is very concerned with costs. So you have to bring those two together and come up with something that works for both sides.

Stone World: Do you find that the historical societies have a good working knowledge of the practicalities of stone? For example, are they aware of the cost of doing solid stone columns or some other aspect of stone that may have been done in the past, but is excessively cost prohibitive now?

Stumpf: They generally do. Most are understanding in that they are looking for a certain [aesthetic], but they don¿t necessarily care if the columns are solid as they were originally. They¿re fine with some type of veneer, as long as they get the right appearance. They understand that you can¿t build buildings today the way you did in the ¿20s and ¿30s.

Stone World: How about when you have to replace stone for preservation work? Are you able to find the stones that you are looking for? I know that there is a lot of Indiana limestone in Washington, DC, which you can find, but how about other stones?

Stumpf: We¿ve been pretty lucky on a lot of our projects, especially with limestone, but also sometimes granite. Actually, the suppliers have been very aggressive in knowing about the projects and coming up to us saying, "We know that we can get something out of that quarry." Sometimes, it is the exact same quarry that was used for the building back in the ¿30s.

So we¿ve been pretty lucky so far. If it¿s a common stone, we¿ve had good success in matching it.

Stone World: In the retail market, with many retailers being challenged by Internet sales and a cautious economy, what is the overall effect on design? Are you finding that retailers are spending less money on design, or are they more inclined to use premium materials in order to lure customers?

Peloquin: I don¿t think that retail in general has been affected by the Internet in a substantial way. People are still gregarious animals, and they want to go to someplace to be in civic space and be with other people. Retail is never going to go away. The Internet may grow and grow, but even at this point, it is a relatively small portion of the retail sales in this country. In fact, a lot of people who thought that they could get away with just doing it on the Internet are still finding that they have to have the bricks and not just the clicks.

I think that the cautious economy has only kept people from starting up projects that they might have started up if things weren¿t so iffy at the moment. But actually, we¿re finding that there is a lot of strength in the retail work going on because people are jumping into the front end work.

Stone World: Over the past year, especially since September 11, have many projects been placed on hold?

Peloquin: It¿s been a mixed bag. We¿ve had some projects end, but they weren¿t necessarily because of September 11. They might have been because of the unease of money backing. But we¿re seeing a lot more activity in the retail/entertainment sector. Last year was not a good year for that.

Stumpf: It doesn¿t necessarily mean that projects were stopping, but maybe projects are starting slower. But that¿s really changed at the beginning of this year. January was very much back to normal, and a lot of things that had been on hold are starting.

Stone World: This has been a concern for the stone industry. Although they¿ve been very busy of late and it seems as if the recession hasn¿t really hit, they¿re wondering if everything will catch up with them after they finish supplying existing projects. There is a concern that the overall workload will eventually slow down.

Stumpf: They¿ll probably find a bit [of a slowdown], just looking at the projects that we have had over the past couple of years. Last year, just in this office we had a lot of major projects finishing up construction. So this year will be a little slower as far as construction starts.

Stone World: Can you explain some of the practicalities involved with using stone for hospitality work, such as hotels?

Stumpf: There are two things in regard to the hospitality [market]. One is the level of the property. Your four- and five-star hotels are still going to be using stone like they always have been. But on the lower end, below four stars, you start seeing clients looking at the cost issues and going to some type of ceramic tile or using stone in much more selective ways.

Peloquin: I think you¿re also seeing in a lot of hospitality work that even at the higher ends, they¿re sometimes looking for the funky, off-beat [appearance], and you don¿t see the use of stone that you used to. You may see rubbed concrete or some other funkier stuff such as glass tiles. That may just be a passing fancy, though, so I don¿t think it is the death knell of stone in the higher-end properties.

Stone World: Over the past few years, I¿ve been to a lot of fabrication shops where they have computer-controlled machines that can execute 400 identical vanity tops almost automatically. I was wondering if architects have been made aware of these developments, and if there has been some kind of cost reduction as a result of this? Or are fabricators who are using this equipment still charging the same amount?

Peloquin: I can speak directly. We¿re moving out of our existing offices of 10 years and into new offices in Baltimore. We¿re designing the building that we¿re going into. It¿s a Class A office building, but the cost of the stone vanities is so much that the developer is continually wanting to downgrade that. And we¿re not looking for anything truly unique and expensive. So while they may have a new way of cutting those things, I don¿t see that cost savings is being passed along to market.

Jeffery: In my opinion, the stone industry¿s competitors have the same equipment, so Corian is also fabricated that way, and wood is fabricated that way. So if there is a savings, it¿s in all of the competition.

Stone World: How do you find out about new stone materials on the market?

Barnard: We have a library, and we have a librarian who keeps things fairly up to date. But around here, working with the stone suppliers has always been a joy. They¿re very responsive, and they give us any data sheets or installation advice we need. They are always very timely in the delivery of materials. For most of the stone sources that we use, our local suppliers can get us what we need.

Stumpf: The suppliers make sure that our library is up to date.

Peloquin: We have resource libraries in every one of our offices. Suppliers also come in and do seminars with people to let them know about the products. We encourage all of our staff to attend those so that they can know how to use those materials.

Stumpf: It works for them as far as a sales tool, because the more you know about their products and are comfortable with them, the more likely you are to use them.

Jeffery: [When a supplier introduces a new product], I don¿t want just a photo. I want to know how to detail it. If you give me a way to use it, it¿s much more likely that I will be able to use it. If there¿s just a sample, it¿s just not in our repertoire enough.

We once had stone taken out of a project because it wasn¿t domestic. And that particular client had a buy-in-America requirement. If we had picked an American quarry, it would have been different.

Stumpf: It¿s like all of our GSA [General Services Administration] work.

Stone World: Does the stone have to be fabricated in America as well? I know of a quarry in Vermont that is owned by an Italian company, and a lot of the stone that is quarried is shipped to Italy for fabrication and then shipped back to the U.S. and sold here.

Stumpf: My understanding is that if it is a U.S. company sending the stone overseas to be fabricated, and you¿re still buying it from a U.S. company, then it¿s OK.

Stone World: What are some of the practical lessons about stone that you¿ve learned over the years?

Jeffery: One reason I would recommend stone is that I consider it to be relatively vandal-proof. So for an elevator cab or an elevator lobby in an urban hospital, or in a place where people are going to be carving their initials, stone is worth the money. It¿s worth the money in other places, too, but you can make the case of "What else would you use?" Stainless steel can be scratched.

Peloquin: I think we¿ve learned some negative rules as well, like not to use black marble next to a fountain because it stains rather badly. Also, I think every architect and designer in the world ought to be told not to use limestone at ground level, because nobody seems to understand that it leeches the salt up from the ground.

There is a building which we did years ago in Baltimore for the city, and it has limestone right down to the ground, and that¿s just not a good use of stone.

Stumpf: One of the larger lessons people tend to learn is that stone is a natural material, so they should let it be natural. Don¿t expect perfection out of it, and take advantage of its natural qualities.

That is what¿s nice about preservation work. Since it is a permanent material, when you¿re looking at conservation or repair work, you don¿t often have to do a lot. If it chips or it has imperfections, it¿s just part of the material wearing over time. And it can wear nicely over time, such as when stair risers bow. That¿s part of the beauty of it.

Stone World: How extensive are most of your restoration projects in terms of what is done to the stone?

Stumpf: It depends on the condition of the building and how much dirt is on it. It might just be a water wash, and from there it might range from using a mild chemical to true patching, repair and replacement of pieces.

At Federal Triangle, where we modernized for the EPA, there are a lot of stone carvings and friezes out there that were actually carved in place. We actually have photographs that were taken during construction when they were just blocks.

Stone World: Once a stone installation is completed, who -- if anyone -- recommends a maintenance plan for the stonework?

Peloquin: It¿s included in our specifications to try to and alert people that it¿s necessary, but a lot of times, it falls on deaf ears. If people haven¿t worked with and maintained stone before, they don¿t understand that the requirements are different than just waxing down a tile floor.

I think it would be worthwhile for the installers to be a little more proactive in searching out specific maintenance plans. Then, you won¿t get the reaction of owners after something goes wrong because they didn¿t maintain the stone properly.

Stone World: Are people becoming more aware of the maintenance requirements of stone?

Peloquin: I think young architects and designers sometimes think that they can just put anything on the floor, or anywhere, and they don¿t realize that people might not know the correct way to maintain it. It¿s fine to put black marble on a floor, but if a guy is going to come out with a bucket and wet mop it every night, it¿s going to look nasty very quickly. There are installations where I don¿t think architects were taught very well in school, and that¿s only something that you pick up through making mistakes.

Stumpf: And it has ramifications when you get down to the preservation work. When you have flooring with many coats of wax on it, and there is a real build-up, you have to look at the cost of actually stripping that down. And maybe you¿re not going to [strip away the wax], so I think it has a real life-cycle effect.

Peloquin: I really think it would be worthwhile for installers to see it as a role of theirs to seek out the owner or whoever is going to maintain the building, and say, "Now that we¿ve installed these products, these are the ways in which you ought to care for them if you want them to last.

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