Architectural firms specializing in multi-unit renovations and construction are increasingly specifying a new alternative in fireplace surrounds with less cost, weight, and installation time than solid cast stone
For the Barton Creek Landing Project, a beautiful 250 unit interior and exterior apartment complex renovation in Austin, Texas, the specification of a stone fireplace surround and mantel highlights the extent to which architects and contractors are collaborating to specify products that not only provide the right look – but also the right price and ease of installation.
In this economy and with the challenges of securing financing, many developers are renovating existing properties rather than taking on new developments. According to Randall Owen, AIA + LEED, AP, and partner in the architectural firm Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects (Austin, TX), the Barton Creek Landing Project lent itself to this approach.
“The location of this particular project is really incredible with its proximity to downtown and adjacency to the greenbelt; the property is gorgeous,” explains Owen. “For the owners it made more sense to renovate the 24-year-old development as opposed to tearing it down and building something new or selling it. It’s doing well already, because a lot of these units have already turned over.”
As the architect of record, Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects was brought in to provide the design and to oversee construction. As part of the renovation each unit would keep its existing firebox but receive a new surround and mantel.
From a design perspective, Owen was interested in a natural stone look. “For me, smooth, cut stone lends itself to a more contemporary look than rustic wood,” says Owen. “We wanted a very simple surround and mantle with modern, clean lines to match the rest of the renovation.”
Unfortunately, cut stone or cast stone, the precast concrete alternative to cut stone, can weigh up to one ton, or 2,000 lbs. Shipping alone for a surround of this size can cost $800 or more, in addition to the cost of the surround itself.
The weight of cut or cast stone is also a factor in the actual installation. Contractors may have to utilize lifting equipment to bring the material indoors and during installation, and employ multiple helpers. All totaled, installation can take up to 2 days.
Factors that multiplied by 250 units made installing cast stone prohibitive.
United Multifamily Construction, Inc., the contractor responsible for renovating the interior of the units for the project, brought an innovative new lightweight product to Owen’s attention that has the look and feel of real stone – but isn’t solid cast stone.
The product, from San Antonio-based Mission Stone, involves a layer of cast limestone cement over a lightweight Styrofoam core, providing the look and feel of solid cast stone without the weight, cost, or installation issues.
A ½-inch thick layer of limestone cement is hand cast around the foam core and subsequently hand-polished with a grinder to give it the look and feel of real cast stone. At that point the surface presents a white color, but various water-based stains can be applied to provide different color variations, including custom finishes.
The final product weighs less than 200 lbs for the average mantel and two legs and can be installed with common construction adhesive.
Owen researched the product in more detail, then coordinated with the manufacturer on the design, color and finish options and specified the product for the 250 units.
“We decided to specify the lightweight alternative,” explains Owen. “This product really looks like cast stone and it met our cost and installation requirements as well as the aggressive schedule.”
According to Owen, it’s an architect’s responsibility to understand the installation issues when specifying a product. “We’re called upon by the property owners to know about the products we specify, including the installation issues. If something turns into a headache during construction often times the contractor will say, ‘well, that’s what the architect specified.’”
For a project involving 250 fireplace surrounds, the installation time of 1-2 hours each – rather than the two days for solid cast stone – was a major selling point.
Although the Barton Creek Landing project didn’t require it, Owen notes that there can be significant weight issues that may require structural reinforcement when installing a cut or cast stone mantel and surround.
“There are custom installations in large custom homes that have a more substantial surround and often a hearth as well,” explains Owen. “Both cut stone and cast stone are extremely heavy and such a large point load may require structural reinforcement in the flooring or walls to install it and support it.”
Another concern was the potential for stone to crack during shipping, installation or even after the unit was occupied. “With natural stone you can have weak points in the stone that are not visible but can crack or break later. You can eliminate a lot of waste, cost and headaches by not utilizing stone that may fail later,” says Owen.
Although architects don’t always specify proprietary products, the collaboration between contractor and architect in specifying the Mission Stone product paid off in this case.
“We encourage early involvement with the contractors and more of a team approach to project delivery. This usually results in a smoother process throughout construction where nobody is pointing fingers,” says Owen. “We’re all after the same end result -- a good project the entire team can add to its portfolios and everybody is happy. This was certainly the case at Barton Creek Landing, a happy owner and happy tenants.”
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