The choice to use cast-in-place architectural concrete and other sophisticated concrete work has proved to be both dynamic and difficult on Plano Independent School District’s new fine arts center, officially dubbed the Robbie & Lynore Robinson Fine Arts Center.

The Texas school district was looking to create a single location for its arts programs at the middle and high school levels and allow the district to host state University Interscholastic League contests and other such events. The $54-million facility will support music, theater and other fine arts programs and is being funded through a 2016 bond program that totaled $481 million.

“Knowing this building was going to be unique to Plano, we spent a lot of time in the beginning making sure we assembled the right team,” says Tony Pearson, assistant director of facility services with Plano ISD.

That team, which includes architect Perkins and Will, design architect Bora Architects and contractor McCarthy Building Cos., has been tasked with the design and construction of the 85,000-sq-ft facility that features a 1,500-seat multipurpose performance hall with an upper-level balcony and lower-level orchestra pit, a 250-seat studio black box theater with retractable seating, a rehearsal studio for music and dance, and a visual arts gallery. Also included are back-of-house areas, art and scene workshops and administration offices.

This is the first project of its type the district has built. “This was new to them, and they hired McCarthy as a CMAR, but also for preconstruction services for cost estimation so that they could continually see the project as we were doing design work at every milestone,” says David McMillin, project architect with Perkins and Will.

A Concrete Decision

The preconstruction work with McCarthy lasted about two years, says Zachary Snavely, project manager with McCarthy. During the effort, the project team weighed several options, and tilt-up walls were considered at one point. But the team ultimately decided on cast-in-place architectural concrete as a way to save time and money, McMillin explains. Another consideration was the fact that the theaters needed to be acoustically isolated from one another, so a dense material was needed. Fully grouted CMU construction was also considered, but costs would have been higher than cast-in-place, he says.

Acoustics also required variation in the interior walls of both theaters, which cast-in-place architectural concrete would accommodate. A carefully designed form liner created vertical-ribbed wall surfaces to showcase the inherently beautiful and “natural” qualities of the material, McMillin adds.

“Redoing one of these walls is a minimum of $50,000, and that wasn’t a mistake we would be OK with making.”

– Zachary Snavely, Project Manager, McCarthy Building Cos.

The design team and acoustical consultant developed a custom-patterned urethane product as the form liner face for the concrete walls in the main theater, Snavely says. “Our solution to ensuring each piece of 4-ft by 8-ft form liner was laid out on the concrete forms correctly was to have our virtual design and construction department model the entire pattern around the main theater and layout the pattern on the formwork shop drawings,” he says. “They then would break down each concrete pour and create assembly drawing packages that showed the cuts required on each piece of form liner and where it would be applied on the forms.”

Crews used three different form liner patterns with cast-in-place thermal insulation, shaping the finished walls to allow for near-perfect acoustics during performances. “The spaces are physically separated using acoustic isolation joints so that structure-borne noise does not travel between them,” McMillin says. “The floors, walls and roof between the sound-sensitive venues are not actually physically connected to each other—there is always a joint between them to keep them separate.”

Meanwhile, the rehearsal studio and two theaters can be accessed through vestibules called sound and light locks, which function as buffers to keep them acoustically isolated from the lobbies, McMillin says. Acoustically rated finish materials such as interior glazing and wall-partition assemblies also contributed to the isolation, he adds.

The design team used both Revit computer modeling and traditional architectural models to study design options and iterations, McMillin says. Some physical models were hand built, while others were 3D printed. “We also used Bluebeam and the program’s studio sessions feature to coordinate with various consultants during design as well as for submittal reviews during construction,” he says.

“Every conduit is modeled for coordination purposes to get everything in the concrete walls before we pour it, make sure we don’t have any clashes, then make sure we’re doing what we need to do to keep acoustic isolation in the forefront,” McMillin says.

McCarthy is also using StructionSite to help with documentation—something the firm uses on most of its projects. The software “allows us to tie the photos and videos we take with our 360-degree cameras on the jobsite directly onto the project plans, room by room,” Snavely says. “It is an extremely useful tool that we use for in-wall inspections MEP, above-ceiling MEP inspections and general progress updates.”

Concrete Complexity

The architectural concrete has been the biggest challenge on this job, Snavely says. McCarthy self-performed the concrete work and completed more than 160 architectural concrete wall placements, most around 40 ft long by 16 ft tall, ranging from 8 in. to 18 in. thick, Snavely says.

“When you do that 160 times, you really have to make sure that you have really solid quality control processes, from forming up your walls and getting them prepared for the concrete,” he says.

Some of the walls reach 85 ft high. The team had up to 90 craftspeople on site during the height of concrete placement last year and has used 10,000 cu yd of concrete throughout the project. To support the heavy walls, crews drilled 300 piers for the foundation, which ranged from 18 in. to 42 in. in diameter and 20 ft to 40 ft deep.

Most of the public spaces in the facility feature exposed concrete walls. “All electrical, audio, video, devices, back boxes, conduit—all of it is going inside these concrete walls, and with concrete, you only have one time to do it right,” Snavely says. That made BIM coordination critical in not just the ceiling, but the walls and raceways as well.

Because concrete is a natural product, no two non-colored concrete pours will be exactly the same color, Snavely notes. To achieve the best possible consistency in color, the concrete supplier had a quality-control manager on site for each of the 160-plus architectural wall pours. “To ensure consistency in the surface finish of the walls, we would seal shut every formed joint of the walls with gasketing and sealant, including the form tie holes, to reduce bleeding,” Snavely says. “We also invested in 44 external concrete vibrators that we would use to consolidate the concrete inside the forms, in lieu of only using internal vibrators, which are more common, and allow the ribbed-pattern to be fully embedded by the concrete material.”

The team also developed intensive quality-control checklists to cover the unique components of the concrete walls. “Redoing just one of these walls is a minimum of $50,000, and that wasn’t a mistake we would be OK with making,” Snavely says.

There have been a few glitches in the process, but the detailed planning has ensured no redos on any of the walls, Snavely says. “The biggest challenge was ensuring that you made zero mistakes in regards to the form liner application or in-wall electrical, AV or theater lighting. These were items that could only be corrected by demoing the wall and doing it again,” he says.

Another element that makes the performing arts facilities unique is the number of additional stakeholders compared with a typical commercial project, Snavely says. Those include specialty consultants for theater, lighting, AV and acoustical components.

Among the consultants on the job were AV and acoustician consultant Jaffe Holden, AV contractor FSG, theatrical lighting consultant Schuler Shook and theatrical lighting contractor Wenger Corp.

Working amid the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed the project team down, but it has changed the way meetings and site tours are conducted, the latter now almost fully virtual. When the owner and design team do visit the site, it’s late in the afternoon after construction crews have left for the day. Any in-person meetings are also held outside, in groups smaller than 10 people, if possible.

In addition to having additional washing stations and being sure to sanitize all public spaces multiple times a week, the project team also has one McCarthy employee whose sole job is to sanitize high-traffic areas and items around the jobsite throughout the day.

Since construction started at the end of January 2019, the project team has recorded more than 332,000 worker-hours with just one recordable incident. The project is on track for completion in March 2021.