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New Thinking | What a Block Can Be

Students get creative for Unit Design Competition
Medley Block units may be arranged to form a wave pattern fieldstone, stringcourse or diagonal striation patterns.
Medley Block units may be arranged to form a wave pattern fieldstone, stringcourse or diagonal striation patterns.

Begun in 2000 at North Carolina State University School of Architecture, in partnership with Adams an Oldcastle Company, Johnson Concrete Company and Carolinas Concrete Masonry Association (CCMA), the Unit Design Competition has been embraced by the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA) and, since 2004, the final presentations and award ceremony has become a featured event at the annual mid-year meetings. The NCMA Foundation provides travel and hotel accommo­dations for finalist teams and their professors as well as cash prizes.

Unit Design Competition Task Force Chair Frank Werner praises this opportunity for partnership between industry and academia. He recognizes that in his position as director of business development for Oldcastle, he frequently meets practicing architects who had competed in the Unit Design Competition while students of architecture. As the program has grown from NCSU to other universities nationally, Werner estimates more than 1200 students have participated in this unique masonry program.

Competition guidelines ask each team to consider a block from concept through application and to create a unit that can be produced using existing equipment and materials, yet enhance the designer’s palette. Teams are to design a new concrete masonry or hardscape unit that can be conceived as a mass-produced unit for architectural and/or landscape applications, capitalizing on the advantages offered by concrete masonry. The unit should conform to practical considerations, such as fitting the 16" wide (deep) x 8" high x 24" long box in which actual units are cast, having a consistent cross section in the z (vertical) axis when being cast to accommo­date extrusion, occupying at least 90% of the box each cycle for cost and production efficiency, and finally, having enough shape stability to avoid crumbling or cracking in production or transit.

Submissions must include an overall view of an assembly using the designed masonry unit(s), as well as non-masonry components such as adjoining materials, masonry accessories, etc. to show how the units would be used in an architectural application. This is a series of perspectives, axonometric or isometric drawings and notes to briefly explain the intended appli­cation. Also required are prototype models of the unit. This may be made of any material as long as it represents the proposed colors and textures of the units proposed. Multiple pieces, made to full- or half-scale, are produced to demon­strate interplay of the units. 

The Finalists

This year’s three finalist teams presented their designs to attendees and were recognized for their outstanding innovative achievements at the NCMA mid-year meetings in Chicago in August.

University of Southern California – First Place

The Unit Design Competition is a required assignment in a sophomore-level course Materials and Methods of Construction within the Bachelor of Architecture degree program at the University of Southern California. Approximately 100 students participate each year, led by three faculty members (John Frane, Aaron Neubert, Eric Nulman). The competition was first integrated into the course’s syllabus in 2011 by Professor Gail Peter Borden.
From a faculty perspective, the competition has been an effective exercise in challenging students to consider new design possibilities within the constraints of an established production process and maximizing the potential of a material’s specific properties. Students realize that when designing, they are not limited to the standard set of CMU shapes, but can collaborate with their local block producers (in USC’s case, ORCO Block) to establish a new product to match their project’s design criteria.

The competition begins with a class field trip to ORCO for a plant tour and a presentation on the basics of CMU by employees of ORCO and a local mason. Each student team receives a binder with a hardcopy of the presentation and additional product information. Students spend the next three weeks working on their unit design, concluding with a graphic presentation of their work on campus. At this presentation, the local team is selected to compete at the national level by a team of judges that included a representative from ORCO, a local landscape architect, a local architect and a local mason. After this year’s winning team was selected, ORCO assisted
them remotely to optimize their design for production and respond to the judges’ comments.

Jury Comment  The design has taken into consideration the new ASTM C90 require­ments for web configuration which will result in a higher R-Value. Units all fit together, both in the mold and in the field, in a very successful modular layout.

Georgia Tech – Second Place

The NCMA Unit Design Competition is presented every year to Masters of Architecture students during the second semester of their first year as a two week project within the overall curriculum of a structural design class that focuses on the use of concrete and masonry in architecture.

Georgia Tech has participated in the competition for the past several years and views it as a unique and fulfilling competition for its students. Professor Russell Gentry uses the competition to help students gain insight into the design, implemen­tation and ramifications of concrete block. During the competition the group begins to understand how
the design, production, transport and use of a block can affect an overall design.
Sponsor, Block USA, historically offers a plant tour to enhance the experience, but due to scheduling conflicts this year, students had to forgo that opportunity. Gentry and the Georgia Tech School of Architecture clearly demonstrate their investment in the competition by providing students with many resources about concrete and masonry, as well as related industries, encouraging students to think outside the box, and assembling a first-class jury for feedback on the student designs.

Jury Comment They did a great job of making all the modular components fit together, taking advantage of many configurations.
This unit can do several things while utilizing one component. Though thoroughly thought through for site elements (stairs, pavers, planter boxes), the unit can further serve as a suitable structural element within the building envelope.

North Carolina State University – Third Place

The ARC 232 Structures and Materials course is a require­ment at NC State for sophomore undergraduate architecture students and for first-year graduate students
with no prior architecture background. The course introduces students to building material properties, manufacturing techniques, structural concepts and construction practices. As part of the course, students learn about concrete masonry ­— its properties, how it is made, how it is laid, how it is typically used, the variety of sizes and shapes available, and more.

A long-standing component of ARC 232 is BlockFest, a local masonry competition. For BlockFest, students break into teams of four that are typically made of three under­graduates and one graduate student. Teams may choose to participate in one of two ways:

  1. design and build a dry-stacked masonry structure or
  2. design a new concrete masonry unit. The dry-stacked wall is approximately 4' tall, has to fit within a 6' x 6' area. By dry-stacking CMU, students learn to design with a masonry module, under­stand structural strengths of different bonds, realize the importance of a good foundation, understand the relation between design and construction and understand the difficulty of the construction craft.

By designing a new concrete masonry unit, students learn about the manufacturing process, dimensions of masonry modules and their bonds, resistance to heat transfer (R-value), thermal mass
and the potential for aesthetic design. The winners of the new concrete masonry unit then updates their designs for submittal to the national NCMA Unit Design Competition.

In preparation for BlockFest, students take a plant tour of Adams, where they are introduced to the manufacturing process, equipment and tooling. Adams arranges for a mason to demonstrate how to mix mortar, butter a block, lay the block and jointing. Students are then given the opportunity to try for themselves. It is invaluable to the students to learn the skills that masons’ possess.

Jury Comment Entrant followed protocol on unit dimensions and tolerances which allows for appropriate jointing and fill material. Entrant shows an obvious understanding of masonry standards
and constructability. The mold is identical to the panel experts’ expectations on how one would be created.

Digital Edition

Illustration courtesy of National Concrete Masonry Association

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