Contemporary Stone & Tile Design Magazine

Interview: Holzman Moss Architecture, LLP

April 23, 2007
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Holzman Moss Architecture LLP of New York, NY, has been a pioneer in the innovative use of stone in architecture. The Student Union Building at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX, was expanded and redesigned with extensive use of Texas limestone from Texas Quarries of Cedar Park, TX. The stone was carefully detailed by Holzman Moss Architecture so the building would reflect the Spanish Renaissance architecture of the campus, but also possess its own distinguished look.


Going well beyond the typical “stone library” found at most architecture firms, the offices of Holzman Moss Architecture, LLP in New York are scattered with stone samples of all shapes, sizes and colors. Stone materials can be found lining the shelves, positioned next to building models and sitting on the desks of the firm’s talented collection of architects. Many of these stone samples are unique one-of-a-kind pieces - indicative of the firm’s pioneering use of stone over the years and a reflection of the mindset of the firm’s principal, Malcolm Holzman, FAIA, who has been an innovator in the use of stone for decades.

Holzman Moss Architecture is a successor firm to Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates founded by Malcolm Holzman, Douglas Moss and 25 of its experienced professional staff. The firm’s work in natural stone has been defined by using the material in unique, yet economical formats that truly take advantage of stone’s three-dimensional qualities. Often, finished buildings designed by the firm utilize stone materials initially regarded as “scrap” material by the producers - a practice that has required a great deal of time and effort to learn the properties of various stone materials. Recent work completed by the firm includes The Globe News Center for the Performing Arts in Amarillo, TX; Frisco City Hall in Frisco, TX; and the Texas Tech University Student Union Building in Lubbock, TX. Ongoing projects include a new student center at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO; Thomas Jefferson Hall at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY; the Center for Contemporary Arts at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV; and the Wylie Civic Center in Wylie, TX, among many others.

Recently, Contemporary Stone & Tile Design conducted a roundtable discussion at the firm’s offices to discuss their past, present and future use of stone in the firm’s work. Participants included:

Malcolm Holzman, FAIA

Brad Lukanic, AIA, LEED®

Eddie Kung, LEED®

Steve Benesh

CSTD: Can you briefly describe the firm and the type of work that you do? Benesh: A good portion - about 50% of our work - is academic. We have done many student centers and libraries. The other portion of our work is civic - private performing art centers such as The Globe News Center for the Performing Arts in Amarillo, TX. We have also done several City Halls as well as some museums.

Lukanic: I think that we are largely working on buildings that are intended to have a purpose for quite a long time. So, they are not buildings that you construct for just 10 years and then tear it down. They have a purpose.

Holzman: I would say public buildings. The public comes to the building, they get used in ways we plan for as well as some other ways. So, these normally happen in a community setting.

CSTD: How much of your work utilizes natural stone?

Lukanic: It’s a material that is a regular part of our vocabulary. We like to use it in a lot of projects. I think that just using natural materials or regional materials is a very important part of our buildings. Every material has a different type of quality, and we use that quality in our architectural projects.

CSTD: Many firms use stone for “feature areas,” such as the building base or entry surrounds, but your work tends to use it more extensively. How are you able to do this with such restrictive budgets out there these days?

Kung: Often times, we try to work with quarries to see what is the most economical product they have. Often times it is the ashlar pattern or broken edge. In the case of The Globe News Center in Amarillo, TX, initially we had CMU cladding, but then we were fortunate enough to find [natural stone veneer] that was very economical. A similar case was the new student center at the University of Missouri project. [Stone pieces with] broken edges were economical enough that we were able to use them for the majority of the building and incorporate sawn pieces as features in other areas of the building.

Benesh: Some of the cost is also associated with minimizing the handling by the fabricators and masons. The broken edge stone at the University of Missouri allows us to use individual stone that is not tooled or placed in a specific location. That is one way to keep the masonry costs down. Larger-sized blocks are another way.

Kung: Labor is definitely a big factor. At the Student Union Building at Texas Tech, we had large lintel blocks, and it would have been nice if they were a single large piece, but it would have required additional equipment to put these pieces in place. So we were able to split them into smaller pieces.

Holzman: For the Wylie Civic Center in Texas, the job has only been programmed so far. Initial discussions with the construction manager allocate $20 per square foot for the exterior wall. From this data we were able to determine a material cost. The CM budgeted $8 for brick, so our question is whether we can find a stone for $8 that we can use. That is the challenge. So, as Steve said, we look for stone that is not handled a lot or stone that is not highly finished. Frequently, it means figuring out how to use a stone creatively and make it fit the budget.

CSTD: When you are posed with those challenges, how do you go about finding a stone?

Holzman: Well, we have a sense of who might be able to provide what we want. The stone for the University of Missouri is $4.50 a square foot, so we remember those kinds of numbers from earlier discussions. So even if you go back to people four or five years later, and discover that the numbers have changed, there is a base level cost that you know about. You can discuss the supply of the material at that cost.

Lukanic: We start every project with a dialogue with the stone quarry and stone fabricators before we actually begin drawing. We have a discussion with them because fabricators and quarries are never the same in terms of operation. Understanding what they can produce in the most economical way is informative. It makes us think about how to use the stone economically instead of trying to make the fabricator fit the material to the way we drew it.

Holzman: [For a Spiritual Center at Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ], we visited a Bluestone quarry in Alcove, NY. We saw large sheets [of stone] that were big enough to consider using one piece for the entire floor [of small portions of the project]. The question was whether we could afford to do that. So, sometimes you go to the quarry and just find things.

The stone isn’t cheap, so we are still debating if we are going to fit this into the job and get it to make economical sense.

CSTD: Very often, your firm uses stone in a non-traditional way (i.e. using material often deemed by the producers as scrap; using remnant stone, etc.). Can you go over some examples of these projects?

Lukanic: For Frisco City Hall [in Frisco, TX], the granite columns are a good example. Cold Spring Granite is producing miles of countertops every year, and the scrap pile grows. By visiting the quarry, and seeing this remnant slab material, we could consider using it in different ways; the granite columns were sheathed in this material.

CSTD: When you are doing this type of work, do the stone suppliers ever question what you are trying to do?

Holzman: Yes.

Lukanic: All the time.

CSTD: How do you convince them that it is possible?

Lukanic: Earlier, Steve mentioned labor. The projects that are being built today have a huge amount of cost associated with labor. A lot of architects require pitched stone edges and this calls for labor. So the first conversation to have with the quarries is to say “We don’t need that. Lippage is fine on adjacent stones.” However, that usually isn’t enough of a conversation. The next step on the project is to visit these people, and once they size us up and understand that we are for real, the conversation changes drastically.

Holzman: Sometimes you don’t get those options. With the Frisco project, we had a mock-up built at the site. We had the limestone in the traditional Texas color, and then we had the non-traditional Texas color, which was more rose tinted. We proposed it because it was a better mate with the red granite. Some of the building committee understood this match, but many didn’t. [The non-traditional color] was rejected. The traditional color was satisfactory otherwise we wouldn’t have presented it. On the entry tower we suggested use of the giant rough-back blocks. The building committee reviewed the mock ups. One committee member queried, “Wait, is this stone finished?” The city officials decided that stacking 8-inch-high cut pieces was preferred. We would have preferred doing it [with giant blocks], but they didn’t. So you can present the information, show it to the client, and they make the decision. Sometimes they make the one you want, and sometimes they don’t.

CSTD: Have you often run into owners who philosophically don’t like the idea of using “scrap” stone?

Holzman: Well, I think that once they actually see what it looks like, it makes a big difference. The [Frisco City Hall officials] actually took a lot of time to look at the columns that were made with countertop ends. They walked around the mock ups and had questions about it, but after they looked at it, they said, “This is great. We don’t know how you did this, but we like it. We can have this on our building.” Every community is different and you need to pay attention to them, because if you don’t, then they are probably not going to make the building presented.

Lukanic: I think that two things we do help our clients tremendously. One is that we build mock-ups and the client can get up and touch it, and it is something [beyond] a sheet of paper that they can get close to and understand. The other thing that we do is take them to the stone quarries, when they can go. When they understand how the material is produced and can see things in that way, they are much more understanding of what we are trying to achieve.

Benesh: The University of Missouri project is an example of that. They just couldn’t wrap their heads around the drawings for a stone building until they went to the quarry and saw some mock-ups, even though many existing campus structures are clad in stone.

Holzman: You can show a little tiny sample to a client, but it never works. Because it is only so big and you can hold it in your hand. But when the client can actually stand next to a stonewall, it looks a lot different. Lay clients often don’t understand that drawings allow for estimating the cost to build something. They see all the joint lines, and not the materials. When inspecting a mock-up, you don’t see those lines. Clients are confused by the drawings, seeing the real thing makes it a lot easier.

CSTD: As you mentioned, you and members of your firm have visited the stone quarries on many occasions. Can you explain what takes place during these visits? How does understanding the extraction/production process help you understand how best to utilize natural stone?

Benesh: I was recently looking for material to use for the Center for Contemporary Arts at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. There is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife building nearby constructed with a certain type of limestone. We finally tracked it down, and it is really a matter of trying to figure out what it is you are looking for - doing a little detective work - to find what works best for your project.

Holzman: Operators and fabricators sell standard products. We go to their operations to see what is not in their dimensional stone line. For example, when we went to Fletcher [Granite], we looked at their curbing production. When a representative from the company was here yesterday, I asked if they could take their red granite and put it in the curbing line so we use a split product. Their splitter is 42 inches, and I would take a 42-inch red block any day. He said, “That is probably too big because of the way that particular material breaks, but we can probably do 36 inches. I’ll check on that.” So, we visit to see what they are doing.

CSTD: Once a stone material and finish is selected, how often does a member (or members) of the firm have to be on site to supervise the installation and the stonemasons? Kung: Oftentimes, such as with the Missouri project, we were working with the mason early on to get them to understand what we were trying to achieve as well as to get their assistance in getting the cost down to where it needs to be. We did a mock-up for the project to set the quality control of the material and installation. Often, we do a lot of mock-ups in the beginning of a project. It is a very important tool for us.

Lukanic: I think Eddie is touching on an important point. Instead of showing up at the site after the mock-up was complete, Eddie made sure he was there at the beginning before the first stone was set. He was able to have a conversation with the mason about the fact that the stone is irregular - 7 inches to 2 inches - and ask, “How do we want to set the stone? Do we want to set it out? How much shadow is acceptable?” Throughout those two days, Eddie was making adjustments in the field to get the character and the texture desired. From that, the mock-up becomes a quality-control standard. For any new mason or laborer coming on to the job, it is a point of reference - a point of acceptance - and it allows us to not be on the job during every part of the installation period.

CSTD: Do you have a hard time finding quality stonemasons to do this type of work?

Holzman: Yes. They are disappearing.

CSTD: That is something that I have been hearing. How do you go about finding good ones? I imagine that since there are so few, they charge a premium.

Holzman: Ten years ago, we did the [University of the South] project at Sewanee, TN, and we were using stone extracted on the campus. The initial pricing was from masons from Nashville. Their pricing was twice our budget. So, we asked other masons to come up from Texas to do the job. For Thomas Jefferson Hall at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY, the general contractor is using a masonry company from Syracuse - although the campus is closer to New York City. Fletcher Granite supplied the stone. They came down from New Hampshire to talk to the masons about the installation of the stone; how to set it up and how to put it into place. There is a degree of education that goes along with every job. You get some experienced masons, a “master” mason, a mason with experience, and they go on site to train people who may never have worked with stone. Maybe they laid a brick or block, because that is more common. So there will be crews in training as they are actually making the building. It is a very difficult process.

CSTD: What is the process for choosing stone for one of your projects? Do you start with color, or something local to the project’s location?

Benesh: I think it varies with the project. Sometimes we gravitate towards a regional, economical stone, and sometimes we have to go a little further to get something that is a little more textural, or we have to find a certain color. It’s not something that just pops into our head, and we say we are going to use this particular stone that is 20,000 miles away and costs “X” amount of dollars to get here.

Lukanic: I think many of our clients have a sense of pride about locale and region. The George A. Purefoy Municipal Center project, in particular, is an example of this. There is a huge sense of pride that the building has regional material on it (Texas granite, Texas limestone). So in that case, it was a natural tendency to try and find local materials because that client aspired to using materials that were from Texas.

Holzman: For The Globe News Center in Amarillo, TX, we worked to get the client to understand that Lyons, CO, is near the pan-handle of Texas. When you look at the map, it is less than 500 miles from Amarillo. It would be farther to go from Amarillo to Houston than Lyons. So the material [that we used] was from that region. I think that once you see the material, the question is then how to install it, how to use it and how to make it look good in relationship to all the other materials. The mock-ups serve a couple of different purposes. One, they let the client actually have a view of the building before construction actually begins. It helps them - especially if they are out fundraising - to really get excited about the project. As Bradley said, the University of Missouri client really didn’t understand the scale and the scope of the masonry. So, the mock-ups gave them a chance to say, “Well, this will be a real stone building, similar to other buildings on campus.” Mock-ups also give us a chance to look at it and see where construction difficulties might arise. The notion of using remnants from Cold Spring [at the George A. Purefoy Municipal Center] resulted from looking at pictures of their operation from a previous visit. The question was, “How do you get the ends of those granite pieces to adhere to the concrete? How do you tie them in? How do you erect it? Can you pre-cast it and keep the concrete from moving to the front face of the granite?” Redondo Manufacturing is a very good precaster in San Antonio, TX, and they did a small initial mock-up for us. It was an experiment, so it might not have worked, and this might have been a failure, or Redondo might have told us that it cost too much to fabricate it; luckily they didn’t. From their point of view, it was complicated to do. Nonetheless, it was a successful mock-up. It also led us to see what problems to anticipate. “How do you align the pieces?” Because maybe quadrants would be better than quarter points for certain things. We obviously know how to turn the columns, but some things require more invention than others.

CSTD: What have been some of your more positive experiences in using stone? Are there any projects that you can point where something happened that was unexpected or particularly satisfying?

Lukanic: After completing the Texas Tech project; I spent a Saturday there after a football game, and I watched people come into the building for the first time. And as you look at them looking at the stone, they do a double take. It is something that is unfamiliar to them because the stone is being used in a different way - I am referring to the Turkey Track limestone. Some of them would come up and touch the Turkey Track, and for them, it was a material that they may have seen everyday, but because it wasn’t used in just this way, it caused them to take a pause. So, materials in that way can elicit a response from people that is unusual.

Holzman: Many people think that stone isn’t affordable. You might come to a client and suggest a stone building in your initial meeting. The first response is frequently, “We can’t afford it.” Subsequently, you end up building it in stone for them, and that is very rewarding. This, in fact, was the circumstance with the George A. Purefoy Municipal Center, and the entire building is made of stone. We are currently designing the Wylie Civic Center. The Wylie construction manager visited the Frisco project and took one look at the stone and estimated - just off the top of their head - that the project cost $100 a square foot more than it actually did because they saw the stone. So, there is this sense of reward when providing a sense of permanence or richness, and it is economical. A lot of people don’t understand how economical some of our structures are; that they aren’t always priced out of every client’s pocketbook. I also believe that because of the way we use stone, the material looks like it is a permanent installation. It doesn’t give the sense that it is a 10- or 20-year building that if you came back 20 years later, might not be there. The George A. Purefoy Municipal Center is a permanent building; it is going to be there to represent that community for the next 100 years. Now that we have used stone this way for a long time, the question is why can’t we use it better? This is leading us in another direction. It also has to do with our concern about the environment and sustainability. We are now exploring the use of stone as a structural material. This went out of fashion 100 years ago, when the structural steel building frame took over construction methodology. Today, no one thinks that stone can structurally support anything and then there are seismic concerns. If you can figure out how to deal with the seismic concerns and locate the right structural engineer - not every engineer wants to use stone structurally - we will see a lot of interesting things happen. It could mean the elimination of a lot of steel structure, which in turn, is great for sustainability. This notion of using stone structurally is something that we are interested in, and we are just at the beginning of starting this approach. It seems a little funny because it was the way you did things 100 years ago. Everybody made stone-bearing buildings. In Chicago, they made 20 stories-tall buildings - and they are still there. So why can’t we do that anymore? Everybody has a reason for it, for example, few of the building codes allow for this. It is a very difficult proposition, so it is going to take us a while, but we are working on it.

CSTD: Taking the other approach, what are some of the practical lessons that you have learned about stone? Have you ever tried to use a stone, but it just didn’t work out?

Holzman: I think that the greatest difficulties that we had in the past were whether the people in the stone industry would believe us the first time they met us. Because we said that we didn’t want to use their thin-cut material. They talked to us and we could see that they were wondering if they are going to see us again. They wonder whether they are wasting their time with us. There is this sense of credibility about architects making stone structures in what I call the “archaic way” - piling up the blocks and using mortar. There is a sense of skepticism in the stone industry. The first time we went to TexaStone Quarries [to source stone for the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts], we saw all the discarded roughbacks. We said that we wanted to make the new building out of these pieces, and that we would need 400 of them. Because it was the first meeting and it was just enough “talk”, the answer was “we can supply them.” We went back and drew it that way. When we came back, they realized that we were actually going to do it. They said only 100 roughbacks were available. The building has stripes because we didn’t have enough [roughbacks]. When people are skeptical, you have to do more work to actually convince them that you are serious. I think that it requires many visits, many telephone conversations, exchanges of drawings, and building mock-ups for fabricators to understand what you are doing. The difficulties are not really about the end result, but about getting the process started. We have, since our initial introduction, gone on to make many buildings with TexaStone Quarries. Getting started was fun.

Lukanic: I think for me the most interesting aspect is the realization that working with stone is really a process; not a conclusion. So that whether you are designing it for the first time, doing a mock-up or actually finishing the building, it is a process leading to getting it right. You can’t just leave it and say that you’re done with that part and don’t have to return to it until the building is complete. Each mason or masonry contractor has a different way of thinking about how they are going to set up the stone, so that conversation has to happen as much as when you first visit the quarry.

CSTD: Do you have to spend a lot of time educating your clients about maintenance and the fact that stone is a natural material and has imperfections?

Lukanic: When we did the mock-up for Frisco City Hall, they were a little surprised at how much shell was within the material. There were a huge amount of questions. “Is that what we are going to have on this building, or is that just not finished?” So, there was education that it is a natural material, and the fossils are present.

Holzman: There is a big difference between actually understanding an idea and the physical reality. Everyone can understand that it is a natural material and it is not uniform. But as soon as you show a client a mock-up, and the two pieces next to each other aren’t exactly the same color, they say, “Is this the way it is going to turn out?” The reality is that it takes the physical examination for people who aren’t in the design or construction business to understand that variation is actually a good thing.

CSTD: Most architecture schools don’t offer much education in terms of using natural stone. When you bring an architect into the firm, or you are educating some of your younger ones, how are you able to give them an education on how to use and detail stone?

Benesh: I had no idea when I first started what I was getting myself into with regards to this material or a variety of other materials. It takes a lot of research and a lot of telephone calls. Also, general office discussions with Malcolm and [firm principal] Douglas Moss to understand the full relationship of it and how it is detailed. There are any number of ways that a wall can be erected, but how is it actually detailed? Does it have piers, windows, shapes? It takes a lot of research. It takes a lot of looking at previous projects to really understand how it was made. Kung: I think I learned the most by speaking with the people in the field. They have experience, and they probably have done this type of work before, so they can talk about how it is going to be assembled. Also looking at previous projects and talking with the owners is very helpful. With every project, we try to approach it in an innovative way so that each project is different. So in a sense, you are learning something new in each project.

Lukanic: I think that is the biggest challenge for the younger staff, because often people come in and want to know if that is the “right” way to detail. You often get the question: “Is this detailed the right way or wrong way?” The reality is that it might not happen the same way twice. I think it is really useful to take them to the quarries. A couple of years ago, we did the “Texas Tour.” The entire staff went to visit TexaStone Quarries and their fabrication plant. I think that for the younger staff - many of them who have not seen material bigger than a [sample size] - to see a quarry block in the process is revealing.

Holzman: Also, seeing the finished installed project makes a difference. Today, with Photoshop, you can do the elevation drawing of a building by importing the stone patterns and dumping it on the facade. It looks like you have a stone building. But actually “making” that stone building is a lot different than photographing it. I try to talk to people every day about the buildings we are designing; I’m certain to mention that if they are going to use stone, use it in the way in which it appears as a permanent material.

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