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Avoiding arguments over

architectural concrete
Architects and contractors need good specifications and a realistic understanding
of available technology

BY M. K. HURD
ENGINEERING EDITOR

rchitectural concrete is of- A rc h i t e c t u ral concrete re q u i re s execute at reasonable cost. Choos-

A ten an economical choice


for building surfaces, but it
is unreasonable for the ar-
chitect to expect to get it for a struc-
tural concrete price. And it is equal-
much attention to detail from both
the designer and the builder. Recog-
nizing that special care is needed
from all concerned is an important
step toward avoiding arguments.
ing an appropriate surface finish is a
critical one of these design deci-
sions.

Smooth surfaces aren’t easy


ly unreasonable for the contractor In addition, a realistic awareness For many years designers persist-
to think he can get away with build- of concrete’s potential and limita- ed in specifying large areas of
ing it the same way he produces tions will help the architect prepare smooth, blemish-free concrete, be-
structural concrete. design details that the builder can lieving them to be readily attainable,
while contractors found them diffi-
cult or impossible to cast in place
consistently to the quality required.
Although concrete can be made di-
mensionally accurate to close toler-
ances and its surface made smooth
without offsets, it is virtually impos-
sible to do vertical cast-in-place
work that is completely uniform in
color and free from bugholes (small
surface voids resulting from air bub-
bles left at the form surface during
placement and compaction).
Smoothly formed surfaces also can
be blotched by color changes, poor-
ly consolidated concrete, and leak-
age at lining joints or corners.
Some color differences, such as
h yd ration discoloration caused by
local variations in water content of
the concrete, extend below the con-
A preconstruction mockup is recommended by the experts (Ref. 1) to help the crete surface. Color variations in the
designer and builder reach agreement on architecturally acceptable details. The concrete also can result from va ri a-
mockup is a full-size sample built at the jobsite with the same materials, tions in temperature, humidity, and
methods, and crew as in the finished work. Here, effectiveness of several tape stripping time.
materials in concealing joints in the form material was studied. To overcome these problems,
Smooth off-the-form concrete
surfaces reveal more of the
normal, minor surface
irregularities such as bugholes,
although the structure may be
quite acceptable from
normal viewing
distances. A similar
elevator tower was
built with a textured
form lining which
conceals minor
variations and
enhances overall
architectural effect.

some designers specify patterned entire construction crew through a


and textured surfaces rather than dry run of placing procedures be-
smooth ones. Among the options fore any concrete was delivered.
available are abrasive blasting, me-
chanical tooling, aggregate exposed Drawings and specifications
by chemical retarders, and textures Contract documents are the de-
imparted by form liners. Others signer’s basic tools for communicat-
may choose precast concrete, where throughout a given job—if pleasing ing with prospective builders. Ar-
control achieved by plant produc- surfaces with minimal defects and chitects who understand the
tion and horizontal casting elimi- variations in color and texture are to limitations as well as the full poten-
nates most uniformity problems. be attained. tial of concrete will not only prepare
This calls for tight control of the effective drawings and specifica-
Uniform practices a must forming and concreting operations. tions but also provide the opportu-
Quality and detailing of form- Astute planning is required to nity for prebid conferences and cre-
work are of critical importance for achieve the necessary control and ation of preconstruction mockups.
architectural concrete, but architec- yet maintain the efficient operation The objective should be to leave no
tural effects may be vitally influ- which provides a suitable margin of important items open to the imagi-
enced by many factors other than profit for the builder. Precautions nation or interpretation of the
f o rm w o rk. Types or brands of ce- which seem costly in the short term builder, yet leave room for the
ment; sources of fine and coarse ag- help avoid costly arguments later. builder to use his expertise.
gregate; mixing and placing tech- We know one superintendent Establishing an understanding
niques and slump control; and who canceled an architectural pour on a number of details will help
curing time and temperatures all when the head of his vibrator crew avoid arguments over results. Some
may significantly alter the finished reported sick; by substituting other points to consider include:
concrete in spite of the greatest care personnel he might have risked los-
■ A clear definition of architectural
taken with the formwork. UNIFOR- ing the uniform appearance of the
concrete areas
MITY is the watchword—using the c o n c re t e. On a major white con-
same materials and practices crete job, another manager put the ■ A clear definition of expected sur
face quality
USE LESS RELEASE AGENT
■ Limits of formwork deflection
■ Construction tolerances
■ Joint and tie details

On some jobs these are taken care


of as matter of course without inci-
dent, but each one is a possible focal
point of arguments when some-
thing else goes wrong.

Identify architectural
concrete areas
The architect should be sure to
designate in the contract docu-
ments all areas that are considered
a rc h i t e c t u ral. The American Con-
crete Institute (ACI) Committee 303
has emphasized this by adding the
thought to its definition (Ref. 1) of
architectural concrete:
Actual size photos of concrete surfaces show how quality of finish depends
on thickness of form release agent. Less release agent gives better concrete which is exposed as an
results. For the sample on the left, the applied film thickness was 2/1,000 interior or exterior surface in the
inch. Release agent used in casting the specimen on the right was completed structure, definitely con-
10/1,000 inch thick. tributes to its visual character, AND
is specifically designated as such in
It’s a rare manufacturer who of concrete cast against a surface the contract drawings and specifica-
attempts to market a product by with 0.002-inch thickness of re- tions.
telling its customers to use less of lease agent, and the other with
it. But this is just what an Ohio more surface voids cast using a Preconstruction
company is doing today to pro- release agent thickness of 0.010 samples, mockup
mote its form release agents. inch. The company proposes How does a specification define
Recognizing what many au- that these photographic samples an architectural concrete surface
thorities agree on—that too be used by owners, designers, that will probably be evaluated on
much release agent on the forms and builders in identifying posi- the basis of a visual inspection? ACI
will increase the number of bug- tively the quality of surface finish Committee 303 has suggested pre-
holes in the concrete surface— desired for a given project. bid conferences, design re f e re n c e
the company has developed a se- These concrete specimens samples, and pre c o n s t ru c t i o n
ries of full-size, unretouched were cast in a horizontal position mockups.
photographs of concrete. The and may not represent surface A prebid conference among ar-
pictures represent six distinct variations that arise in vertically chitect, engineer, and prospective
classes of concrete, based on the cast concrete. Usually there are bidders can be called to explain the
distribution and size of bugholes more bugholes near the top of owner’s special expectations and
appearing on the concrete sur- vertical members because there re q u i re m e n t s. A meeting like this
face. All the concrete specimens is less weight of concrete above gives contractors a chance to point
were cast from the same concrete to aid in consolidation. Nonethe- out trouble spots—specification
mix using steel patio block forms, less, creation of these photo- provisions that make it impossible
under identical conditions ex- graphic standards makes an im- or too costly to achieve the desired
cept for the thickness of the re- portant and valid point about the effect.
lease agent. The best surface was use of release agents on architec- The architect may present a de-
attained with a release agent film tural surfaces. It should stimulate sign reference sample or samples
less than 0.0005 inch thick. architects and builders to give showing desired surfaces, color, and
Portions of two of the full-size more thought to standards for at- texture to be referenced for bidding
photos are shown here, one piece tainable surface finish. purposes. Such a sample should be
at least 18x18 inches, 2 inches thick,
cast in a vertical position if it repre- tention to the formwork is neces- 1 inch.......................for heights
sents a vertical concrete surface. sary to minimize the visual impact of 100 feet
An even more realistic approach of the joint pattern. or less
is to provide for a pre c o n s t ru c t i o n ACI Committee 347 (Ref. 3) rec-
mockup, a full-scale sample built by ommends that construction joints 1
⁄1,000 of height.......... for heights
the successful builder before start- be located at joints between form above 100
ing construction of major work. The panels. Joints between form panels feet, but not
mockup should be large enough to or in the form lining material re- more than
show floor, wall, and column con- quire positive sealing for most 6 inches
struction, with joint details and smooth surfaces and for many tex-
form ties, and abrasive blasting or tured surfaces. Although mortar- For the outside corner of exposed
other surface treatments that may tight joints can prevent the forma- corner columns and control joint
be required. It should be built at the tion of projecting fins of concrete, g ro oves in concrete, deviations are
jobsite using all the same forming, watertightness may be specified to limited to half of those above. A 1-
placing, and consolidating practices p re vent hydration discoloration. inch deviation is the maximum per-
that will be used in the real work. A The uniformity of a concrete sur- mitted from lateral alignment.
repaired area and patched tie holes face can be destroyed when va ri a-
should be included to show ahead tions in total water content of con- Deviation from cross-section
of time that satisfactory color and crete and moisture movement thickness for beams, piers, and walls
texture match can be achieved. within concrete during setting is limited to:
Once the mockup has been com- cause color variation in concrete.
pleted to the satisfaction of the ar- When water containing cement par- +3⁄8 inch,- 1⁄4 inch......if thickness
chitect, the contractor has a perma- ticles leaks from a form, a blemish is 12 inches
nent onsite standard of what is containing more than the usual or less
expected before the arc h i t e c t u ra l amount of aggregate may appear.
work begins. There may be streaking, mottling, or + 1⁄2 inch, -3⁄8 inch.....where
On major projects requiring inno- a darker appearance as a result of thickness is
vative techniques, a mockup may be less water being available for hydra- from 12 to
built in advance under separate tion of cement. Hydration discol- 36 inches
contract to determine the feasibility oration penetrates concrete to a
of proposed specifications. considerable depth and cannot or- +1 inch, - 3⁄4 inch.....where
dinarily be concealed by abrasive thickness is
Joint treatment blasting or surface tooling. Fo rm s more than
Construction joints, control should be as watertight as possible 36 inches
joints, and isolation joints are all to minimize the problem.
necessary parts of architectural con- Design deflection of formwork el-
crete; yet they represent potential Construction tolerances ements for most architectural con-
disruptions to the architectural de- Dimensional tolerances for archi- crete is satisfactory at 1/400 times
sign. The architect usually adjusts tectural concrete must be consid- the span of the formwork member,
the design details in some way to ac- ered in design of the formwork. If no unless the architect calls for special-
commodate them. Rustication construction tolerances are given in ly restrictive tolerances.
g ro oves at joints in vertical surfaces the contract documents, the form
are frequently used to obscure the designer will rely on standard con- Camber
joints. Location, number, and de- struction tolerances such as given in In designing forms, the builder
tails of such joints should be indi- ACI 117 (Ref. 4) for guidance in do- traditionally plans to compensate
cated by the designer on the con- ing the form design. Where more ex- for any expected settlement or de-
tract drawings. The formwork acting tolerances are required to flection of the forms themselves.
designer uses this information to achieve the architectural effect, they The architect or engineer specifies
p re p a re details on the formwork must be specified by the architect any camber needed to compensate
drawings showing how the joints are who is advised to remember the for deflection of the structure after
to be executed. If the designer has added cost of specifying greater ac- forms are removed. The architect al-
not positively indicated construc- curacy than that normally attain- so should indicate any camber de-
tion joint locations, the builder able by local craftsmen. sired to compensate for optical sag
should include proposed locations Current standard recommenda- (the illusion of sagging in long
on the drawings when they are sub- tions (Ref. 4) for building construc- members that are perfectly hori zo n-
mitted for approval. tion cover basic elements only, lim- tal).
Where grooved joints are not ac- iting deviation from ve rt i c a l If no camber is specified, the
ceptable to the architect, special at- alignment to: builder can request guidance rather
than risk a sagging span of concrete. occur later. equally careful attention to detail
Howe ve r, satisfactory performance If adhesion between the form face and consistency in performance to
by the contractor is generally judged and concrete is greater than cohe- give us structures that the entire in-
on the basis of elevation after settle- sion within the concrete, surfaces dustry will be proud of.
ment or deflection of the formwork may scale and corners spall. Some
and before forms and supports are research indicates that a compres- References
removed. The contractor should not sive strength around 300 psi is 1. ACI Committee 303, “Guide to
be held responsible for immediate enough to prevent this kind of dam- Cast-in-Place Architectural Concrete
or creep deflection of the structure age during stripping, but concrete at Practice,” American Concrete Insti-
tute, P.O. Box 19150, Detroit, Michi-
after the shoring has been removed. corners and edges may be vulnera- gan 48219, 1982.
ble to site damage from other activ-
Stripping time 2. M. K. Hurd, Formwork for Concrete,
ities. It is wide to provide protection American Concrete Institute, fifth
Minimum requirements for form at corners and edges after form re- edition, 1989.
stripping time are commonly speci- moval; for white concrete, larger ar- 3. ACI Committee 347, “Guide to
fied for obvious safety reasons. The eas may require protection. Formwork for Concrete (ACI 347
structure must be strong enough to R-88),” American Concrete Institute,
support itself and the applied loads, Conclusion 1989.
but beyond load-carrying capacity This article warns against some of 4. ACI Committee 117, “Standard
Specifications for Tolerances for Con-
and structural safety, there are the many specific items over which crete Construction and Materials (ACI
added concerns for arc h i t e c t u ra l disputes have arisen on architectur- 117-90),” American Concrete Institute,
c o n c re t e. Even when concrete al concrete work. Careful attention 1990.
is strong enough to show no imme- by the designer to establish reason-
diate distress or excess deflection it able standards and to communicate
is possible for edges and corners to them completely will ove rc o m e PUBLICATION#C900759
be damaged during stripping and many of the problems. But good Copyright © 1990, The Aberdeen Group
for excessive creep deflections to results also call for the builder’s All rights reserved

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