Lord Aeck Sargent: Architects Roundtable

May 5, 2004
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Based in Atlanta, GA, Lord Aeck Sargent is a fusion of the architecture firms Aeck Associates, which was founded in 1942, and Lord & Sargent, started in 1983. The two firms joined forces in 1989. Today, Lord Aeck Sargent has grown to 115 employees, and operates branch offices in Ann Arbor, MI, and Chapel Hill, NC.

With four design studios -- education, historic preservation, science, and arts and culture -- the firm has a diversified client base and has designed projects nationwide. Revenues were $15.4 million in 2002 and approximately $18.8 million in 2003. Lord Aeck Sargent has received more than 55 national, regional, state and local distinctions, including multiple American Institute of Architects Honor Awards for Excellence in Architecture and three R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year and Special Mention awards.

The firm prides itself on its responsive design approach, technological expertise and exceptional client service. It strives to design new structures that are meant to last indefinitely, yet are flexible enough to adapt to future changes to their original intended function; handles everything from the delicate restoration and rehabilitation of centuries-old buildings to the design of complex, interdisciplinary science research laboratories; and provides a high level of interaction with its clients throughout the entire planning, programming, design and construction process.

Among some of Lord Aeck Sargent's most notable works are the design of the Georgia Public Health Laboratory, Riverside Military Academy, Mt. Carmel Elementary School in Atlanta, and the Georgia State Capitol building. These projects are not only innovative and illustrate the firm's attention to detail and technical expertise, but also demonstrate various -- and often unique -- uses for natural stone.

Recently, Stone World had the opportunity to sit down with some members of the firm to discuss the function of natural stone in their designs. The architects spoke about cases where stone provided a distinctive look for contemporary buildings as well as restoration projects where they really had to spend time to research the history of the existing stone and develop careful plans to clean or replace it. The firm also discussed some of the more technical aspects of working with natural stone and shared some thoughts on the stone industry as a whole, which will appear in the September 2004 issue of Stone World.

Participants in the roundtable discussion included:

Joseph Greco, AIA, LEED Accredited, Principal
Richard E. Robison, R.A., C.C.S., Principal
Antonin Aeck, FAIA, Principal
Susan M. Turner, AIA, Principal
• Mary Catherine Martin, AIA, Senior Architect

SW: Can you describe the work done by your firm?

Aeck: The work of the firm, which has been going on now for more than 61 years, is hard to describe in a word or two. But talking about our current situation, we are a family of specialty practices. We have four studios at the present time -- science, historic preservation, education, and arts and culture. In addition to having those specialty practice areas, we have three offices. We have headquarters in Atlanta, and branch offices in Ann Arbor, MI, and Chapel Hill, NC. From those centers, we accomplish projects -- architectural, interior design, planning and preservation type services. We've grown an average of 20% in each of the last five years.

Robison: In any of those practice groups, they tend to be whole buildings as opposed to interiors only or a shell only. It tends to be an entire building for a dedicated user who owns the building.

Aeck: As you might expect, not everything fits neatly in a basket like that. There are clients for whom we've done mosques and clients for whom we've done unusual kinds of projects -- one-of-a-kind assignments. We do whatever we need to do to serve a client.

SW: How often does your work include natural stone?

Greco: We hadn't really thought about it until we sat down to count how many of our projects used natural stone in the last four or five years. We were actually astounded by how many of them there were, and how many different types of uses we've found. The projects ranged from historic preservation work-- where you are really restoring the stone and trying to understand the original use -- to a project like the Georgia Public Health Lab, which is a very contemporary building with contemporary use of an indigenous stone, cut granite found in the Georgia area. We've actually used this type of stone a number of times as well as rounded Creek Rock that is an indigenous stone for some projects in North Carolina. We were surprised that 35 to 40% -- or maybe even 50% -- of significant recent projects had some element of stone in them.

Aeck -- I joke that the first half of our long professional career was spent trying to stay out of rock with our foundations because we didn't have budgets. Then we started using it to build our buildings, and we are much happier in our second half.

SW: I was told that this Georgia Public Health Lab is made from salvaged tombstones.

Aeck: We don't know the exact quantity of it, but we understand that in some measure it was essentially scrap granite that was brought out and broken on site and put into the wall.

SW: How did that come about?

Robison: In north Georgia, there is a very significant cemetery/monument industry.

Aeck: In fact, right outside of Athens is [a replica of] “Stonehenge,” although it leaves a little something to be desired.

Greco: When we're looking for another masonry material to compete with brick on relatively limited budgets, it certainly rules out some applications of stone. We found that this particular application [at Georgia Public Health Lab] essentially is relatively competitive with brick masonry and provides another option. This was done five or six years ago. It won the Laboratory of the Year Award in 1998. It's a pretty innovative laboratory design in addition to being a very striking image. It's very efficient. In a lot of ways, it's just a rectangle in the plan and the way it's set up it has service to the rear of the building. That's where the “dirty corridor” is. It has a large open laboratory area off to the left and a working administrative zone in the middle. And to the right of it -- just beneath the clerestory -- are the laboratory's offices. So what we've done by sloping the roof is to bring light very deep into the building. It effectively saves a lot of money, and therefore, theoretically affords stone.

Aeck: If stone is expensive, it's offset by very inexpensive material. We also used Victorian shingle. It's copper, and has been made to last for 100 years too. When you average the cost per square foot, this was successful enough that we've used this palette again. It's a successful blend to get an acceptable unit cost for the exterior wall treatment.

Robison: The size of this building is like a large supermarket or maybe a small to medium Wal-Mart. The shape of the slope ceiling and clerestory lighting allows you to be back in the depths of the building and still see the light of day outside. You're seeing the sky and the trees outside. It makes a tremendous difference for the people who work inside. This is basically a factory. It's not a research facility. It's where thousands upon thousands upon thousands of samples come from all over the state of Georgia from clinics and offices. There's TB tests, smallpox tests, polio tests and other public health types of tests. They are collected and centralized here, and they're analyzed for the children and the adults of families here in Georgia. It's an assembly line environment that could be very dull and dreary if not relieved by natural daylight.

SW: The pattern of the stone on this building seems like it would be very dependent on the talent of the mason.

Aeck: That's the Clack family here in Georgia. They have been doing this for generations.

SW: Do you see a mock-up beforehand, or do you visit the site a lot while it's going on?

Greco: We typically have a mock-up panel and describe what we want. In this case, we basically told them it was more or less a random pattern. They did a mock-up, and I'm sure we left it in place over the course of construction, and that became the standard of quality that was expected. I think part of the idea is that you obviously want good craftsmanship, but the design did not require a very specific pattern in order to still be nice and keep the integrity. They are sort of built like rubble walls, and that was the idea. So there was a lot of room for flexibility in that.

Another project is Atlanta Global Health Action in Decatur, GA. This is just up the street from the Georgia Public Health Lab in Decatur. It's quite a bit smaller building. It's about a 20,000-square-foot building on a very limited budget. The whole budget is in the vicinity of $130 per square foot for the building. It has some training rooms on the upper levels and primarily offices on the lower level. It's a very similar palette of materials [as the Georgia Public Health Lab] with the granite and the copper but in a different way. It's more of a stone wall as opposed to a series of stone piers.

SW: You had mentioned the stone industry in northern Georgia, have any of you gotten out to any of the quarries or fabricators?

Turner: When we were trying to source stone for the Georgia State Capitol marble flooring restoration, Scott Thompson, who is our historic interior specialist working on the project, went out to the quarry in north Georgia and helped to select the actual slabs to use. We were having some difficulty getting proper matches.

SW: Have there been other cases where you have had to match an existing material and you had to go through some pains to match the source?

Aeck: At the University of Georgia, we did a building for the athletic association, and that building was expanded. We took the front wall of the building and actually moved the bay forward. By and large, we are able to take existing stone and simply reset it in the new location, but there was some breakage, and there were some additional pieces needed to extend the additional bay. And so we had to go through some pains to get good matching, but we were ultimately successful.

SW: What type of stone was that?

Aeck: Because it was for the University of Georgia, it was red. It was from India as I recall.

Turner: The matching work that we went through on the Georgia State Capitol for the floor tile was really kind of a challenge because Georgia Marble was quarrying at a different location in the quarry. And the colors and the veining in the tiles in the Capitol were actually much more highly figured than what was coming out of the quarry currently. So, what we really ended up having to do was deal with an awful lot of waste. We had to pick the slabs out very specifically. In addition, the stone had yellowed and soiled over the years, and the new matches were just so white and different that we actually had to sort of pre-soil the floor. We went through a bunch of different scenarios trying to figure out how to do it.

SW: How did you do it?

Turner: It was ultimately a dirt mix. We were concerned about some of the organic materials like using chewing tobaccos, which we did try. Pepsi worked really well, but we were afraid of how it might continue to change over time. So, we steered away from that and just went to dirt.

Another thing that was difficult there -- and we actually never did receive a match -- was a very dark border material that very highly figured. It is coming out of the quarry right now with a much lighter background. We simply couldn't find a good match to it anymore.

SW: What do you do in that case? Do you try to detail it in a way that you acknowledge that?

Turner: Yes, we actually did a combination of things. First of all, we treated what was there as extremely precious. We always treat historic materials as precious, but in this case we really went the extra mile. Where they were broken and even had multiple fractures, we tried to put them back together again. So, we really didn't lose anything that we absolutely didn't have to lose. Where there were holes in it -- and in some cases there were holes where they had drilled through for mechanical and such -- we put a patch in. We were fortunate that these were right up against the walls, so they didn't get a lot of foot traffic. We were able to get someone who did decorative graining to come in and actually color the surface so that we could keep the big tile and just fix the little area. And then when we simply just had to replace it, we used the closest match we could.

SW: Would you say that this firm has a specific design style or philosophy, or does it pretty much vary from project to project?

Greco: The studios have essentially the same basic philosophies, although I think there are a lot of technical differences in historic preservation, where rather than creating new, it's more about trying to find and understand the initial building and the initial intent, and to restore that.

As far as our philosophy goes, we believe that most of our buildings are going to be around a long time. They need to be durable, and they need to be timeless -- not highly stylistic necessarily, but something that will endure well. We believe strongly that building materials have an inherent integrity, and we try to use materials in that way -- in some kind of honest, straightforward way. A lot of our buildings have a real strong play between solidity and mass, and light as well. We really believe that all natural light should be brought into all the spaces -- well deep into the building. So you will see that a lot of our projects have clerestory [windows.] Those are some of the key ones that I think occur from project to project.

Turner: I think Joe said it very nicely. We're always trying to strike a balance. With Historic Preservation Studio projects, there are often adaptations that we have to make to an historic structure to help it function in today's world, and we are also preserving it for future generations. I think our design philosophy tends to be very stewardship-based in that we realize that we have a resource that we're working with, and we have an obligation to keep it intact for future generations. At the same time, we have to keep it functioning and working, and so we have to understand them before we can work on them. And we work really hard not only to understand the history of the building and how it has changed over time, but understand its materials and how they will react to different treatments and repair methods. So we really strive for compatibility with existing materials, and we take a stance of trying to preserve what is there as much as possible. We also want to make our changes very compatible and truly match existing materials so where we are working with stone, we work very hard to try to match the stone, the mortar and all of the components.

Robison: The High Museum of Art was designed by Richard Meier more than 20 years ago. High Museum officials also wanted to restore the Meier Building to its original -- as it was christened just over 20 years ago. So we undertook that as a renovation project. I guess this is considered one of the 20th century's great icon buildings, so we undertook it very much as we would a building that is 100 years old. Meier was here recently and gave a lecture, so we were quite gratified in how well it turned out. Part of it was the stone restoration.

Martin: Yes. We restored some of the interior finishes. Someone was trying to sell the head of maintenance over there on the idea of sealing the stone. And they had actually used a sealant on this granite a number of times, and he wanted us to give him some direction as to whether that was a viable thing. We actually did tests on it -- testing the staining. We tested several different things -- red wine, CocaCola, coffee with sugar, coffee with cream. We actually found that the granite with the sealer on it stained, but the bare granite did not stain. It was actually less permeable than the sealant itself. The sealant itself was the thing that was getting the stains on it. So we ended up making the recommendation that they leave the stone natural, which is what they should have done. One of the things that I think is just something people have learned in the past 20 years is that you can see the staining and leeching from the joints, and that's just a reaction between stonework and any silicone. It's on limestone. It's on granite. We moved away from that, and I think most everybody has. We actually went back with the traditional hydraulic lime to put back in there. There's almost no way of getting rid of those stains without destroying the stone itself.

SW: Is there any variety to the approach of the four different studios, or do they pretty much work in the same way?

Aeck: We have an approach that we call the “Architectural Process Norms,” or “Norms” for short. It outlines the ways we approach all of our work -- from programming a project to detailing it to how we handle the construction phase. We basically say, “Unless you have some reason to depart from the 'Norms,' use this approach.” It's not meant to be rigid, or we'd call them “rules.” But it infuses the way the studios work, and we try -- for obvious productivity reasons -- to take advantage when we figure out how to do something well. We try to use that and teach it.

We have a very extensive in-house continuing education program that we started back in the early '90s called “ Lord, Aeck Sargent University, or LASU.” It sounds a little grandized, but we were really the first architectural firm to offer continuing credits. So we develop “norms” and then we teach them throughout. We have prerequisites for more advanced courses, and we have required courses as you progress from project architect to project manager, etc. That becomes the medium through which we try to develop common ways of working, and I think it's pretty effective and evolutionary.

Greco: I think our design philosophy is very consistent between the studios. It's more of a question of what technological expertise is required for a particular type -- whether it's a museum or a laboratory, or historic preservation or large auditorium. Those are the things that I think differentiate the studios more than the philosophy.

Robison: Throughout the office, there is a shared passion for architecture. It really is differentiated by the kind of expertise that resides there -- whether it is architecture for science, architecture for historic preservation, arts and culture, education. Those are different specialties that individuals in those four studios bring to it, but we're all architects. And we are all enthused about what we do.

SW: Have you found that certain projects that you do are more conducive to the use of stone? Obviously on a restoration project if stone is there, stone will be in the restoration. How about in other sectors?

Aeck: For many of the institutional buildings we design, the use of some stone is a fairly commonplace thing for us and for owners to accept.

Greco: There's certainly no discernable pattern for not using stone, if you have a typical budget for all of these relatively technical buildings. Occasionally, we will have something that it would just be out of the question to use. Budget-wise, that doesn't really come up that often.

At Mount Carmel Elementary School, we used stone on the interior hallway just because it is durable, and it was in a relatively low quantity and overall building cost per square foot was very low. This was done a number of years ago, but it's a very cost-effective building. It has large open space with long-span bar joists. It has sheetrock walls, which used to be taboo in the world of elementary schools, but to deal with this problem of durability, we used the stone where you can touch it, and we used inexpensive material where you couldn't. Nobody has every really been that fond of what concrete block looks like anyway, so we thought it was a good solution.

There's granite on the wall where the kids can touch it, but it's just sheetrock above. I think we did an economical analysis on it, and it turned out that it cost about the same as just building the whole thing out of concrete block and painting it. The whole point is that you don't need the whole wall to be built out of concrete block, you just need it to be durable where it needs to be durable. We try to look for strategies like that to get nicer, more interesting finishes into our buildings.

SW: Can you tell us about some of your other notable projects in stone?

Greco: We have been working at the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, GA, now for about seven years. We have done around $85 million of construction work. We are finishing the Sandy Beaver Center for Teaching and Learning, which is the last building in the main master plan -- an assembly building. In a way, it is their most public building. They have a large auditorium and large rotunda space. All of the buildings on the campus are essentially brick, and with this last one being slightly more public, there was a desire to introduce one other element. As a signature entry element and at the base of the arcade, we spruced it up and added interest with stone.

Another project was the Resource Center at the Atlanta Zoo. This building had some very strange requirements, and there was a lot of pressure from the neighbors who had been used to looking into the zoo and the trees to not have any building of any sort along the street. We were sort of tasked to do a building that was truly part of nature -- in fact, a non-building. This building makes use of a green-planted roof. It utilizes a lot of the same indigenous granite, and it has a cedar and glass curtainwall along the front. You don't really perceive it as a building of architecture; it's really part of the landscape. The main entry of the building has a bold stone arch that was in-filled with the cedar curtainwall.

Editor's Note: A second roundtable discussion with Lord Aeck Sargent -- discussing practical issues and experiences with natural stone -- will appear in the September 2004 issue of Stone World.

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