Universities Teach


The creative Pura Block can be fit with a water filter to purify a river or help provide potable water to developing areas or areas recovering after disasters.

Iowa State takes 1st place with Pura Block in National Unit Design Competition

Each year, the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA) invites students in university architectural programs to reimagine what a block can be in the Unit Masonry Design Competition. Student teams are challenged to design a new concrete masonry or hardscape unit that can be mass-produced on an existing block or bigboard machine for applications beyond what is currently available in today’s marketplace.

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The competition’s objective is for future designers to understand the relationship between a specific material and a form using that particular material. Emphasis is placed on making a series of related decisions about a material and its form and then understanding implications of each decision. This deep understanding of concrete masonry, its forms and uses helps demystify masonry and will benefit students in their professional careers.

NCMA provides guidelines regarding size and angle to ensure structural integrity of units in production, during curing, in storage and transport. Additionally encouraged is making maximum use of the mold size for maximum productivity. Local producers or masonry associations may provide valuable expertise and materials to teams throughout the creative process. Students work with form, pigmenting and texture as well as gain a clear understanding of the design versatility concrete masonry units afford.

Three competition finalist teams are invited to present at the NCMA Midyear Meeting, where the winner is named and awards are given. This year, finalist teams from Iowa State University, Mississippi State University and North Carolina State University presented their creations at the NCMA meeting in Seattle.

First Place: Pura Block

Iowa State University, Ames IA Arch 348 Sci Tech: Assemblies and Materials

Noah Torstenson, Christopher Shoemaker, Gregorio Melchiorri and Jasen Langley. Professor Bo Suk Hur.

Professor Bo Suk Hur, Jasen Langley, Christopher Shoemaker and Noah Torstenson from Iowa State University

For the competition, members of the Iowa State team dove into gaining an understanding of how the masonry unit functions, its diverse uses and its strengths and weaknesses. They also researched the manufacturing process and considerations architects make when specifying masonry products. Their design is a new take on a traditional breeze block. Units feature tessellating compound curves, reminiscent of a bow-tie, can be dry stacked to create an interlocking screen wall for providing indirect sunlight to a curtain wall, obscuring a mechanical area or adding privacy. The unit can be stacked profile-down to produce wave-like patterns that can cast beautiful shadows, making it an excellent option for feature walls.

The team went beyond the confines of traditional usage, however. They developed a concept for the unit to be fit with a water filter. This theoretically allows the units to be laid as part of a dam that could help purify a river, which could help provide potable water to developing areas or in areas recovering from disasters.

A cap contains interior elements and provides a good-looking exterior. Activated charcoal particulate filters out negative chemicals, while the filter itself, along with the permeate collector, help absorb chemicals. The installed filter is subtle, sealed in place with rod and sealant.

Ultimately, students designed a unit that is a structurally viable and aesthetically beautiful alternative to a traditional CMU, encouraging architects to leave exposed what traditionally they hide, giving the CMU new life in an architecturally-focused design landscape.

Second Place: The Slant

Mississippi State University, Starkville MS Materials Course

Associate Professor Jacob A Gines, Grace M Sheridan, Kayla C Perez, Joseph D Thompson from Mississippi State University and Fred Dunand, Saturn Materials

Kayla C Perez, Grace M Sheridan and Joseph D Thompson. Professor Jacob A Gines. Inspired by the idea of movement and how water flowing over a surface creates depth, the MSU team allowed the idea of movement to drive the design. Visual movement is created by light playing over the highs and lows of this concrete masonry unit.

The Slant design boasts that 216 units fit on one pallet and features acoustic benefits, blocking out sound to 1000 Hz

The team used digital modeling programs to test various designs and configurations, then finalized dimensions and details before creating a physical prototype.

Cognizant of the fact that units needed to perform, the team strove to ensure their design efficiently incorporated many attributes, while maintaining an innovative form. In order to enhance acoustic performance, the team incorporated channels in their design and fashioned them into openings for larger cores. These larger cores provide an air space and an opening in which sound absorbing material can be placed, without affecting the look of the façade. This design can provide a sound absorption of around 1000 Hz.

The Slant can be arranged in three bond patterns and can be incorporated into dry stacked or mortared wall systems, each creating a distinctive appearance.

The team also took care to make sure their design could be efficiently produced, stored and transported. They had the added advantage of the department’s relationship with Fred Dunand, owner of Columbus MS based Saturn Materials, who turned their prototype into a real, full-scale unit, proof that their design is feasible within the constraints of today’s typical molds, machines and manufacturing processes. Dunand has since begun production of The Slant.

Third Place: Concealed Mortar Unit

North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC ARC 232 Structures and Materials Course

Nabila Bustilos-Francis, Abigail Gillin, Ashley Teer Professor Vincent Petrarca

Abigail Gillin, Ashley Teer and Nabila Bustilos-Francis from North Carolina State University

As the name suggests, the Concealed Mortar Unit conceals mortar joints with a ½” lip in which the mortar sits. This allows for a strong concrete-to-concrete connection and provides an aesthetically pleasing look. The team’s goal was to create a lightweight, strong, sustainable unit with hidden mechanics. The angled façade aids run-off, enhancing durability and hindering effects of weathering.

The team researched ways to reduce environmental impacts of production, including replacing some cement with recycled cementitious aggregates such as fly ash, silica or steel dust and the carbon curing process by which recycled carbon dioxide is mixed into the concrete during early stages of production, creating a stone-like material that improves compressive strength. These production processes result in less cement use, fewer emissions and increased unit strength. That’s the right path for carbon-reduced or carbon-neutral concrete.

Reduced Carbon Concealed Mortar Unit is customized so, when stacked, mortar isn’t visible from the front providing stronger bond than just mortar alone.

Design concept came from roof shingles that layer and are angled. This familiar practice is easily understood. Further inspiration came from an AIA Triangle joint lecture at NC State by Klartech Manufacturers and Winnipeg based 5468796 Architects. They work with aluminum in new and creative ways and focus on creating construction systems that conceal joints and fasteners. The team enjoyed the challenge of applying methodologies to concrete masonry.