High Companies creates artful facades with precast concrete

Cris Collingwood//April 17, 2023

The ConRAC Parking Solutions parking garage at Newark Liberty International Airport features unique precast, prestressed concrete panels that depict life in New York City. PHOTO/NATHAN COX PHOTOGRAPHY

High Companies creates artful facades with precast concrete

Cris Collingwood//April 17, 2023

Building panels made of precast, prestressed concrete not only add texture and style, but they can be used to create walls that look like they bend, bow and wave.

Denver, Lancaster County-based High Concrete Group specializes in designing projects that represent the area they are in.

The company, part of family-owned High Companies, has created a parking garage that looks like the rolling hills of Pennsylvania; a round parking garage designed with imbedded artwork depicting New York City; and even an office building that has one side that looks like a ship’s bow.

Sean Dixon, vice president of construction, said the panels, which are all manufactured at the company’s plant from custom molds, add aesthetic features that create profiles that can look like twists and projections.

1200 Intrepid is designed to look like the bow of a ship with one side of the building curving out from the foundation. PHOTO/NATHAN COX PHOTOGRAPHY

“Architects and project owners ask us how we can make their project look elaborate,” he said. “They don’t want a garage to look like a garage. It’s been fun.”

One project, the parking garage at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Children’s Hospital, is designed to resemble the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania.

“This started as a standard garage,” Dixon said. “The architect proposed options and the design took six months.”

The result is a series of panels that are laid out to make the building look like the sides are rolling. Dixon said most of the panels are the same size. The way they are connected creates the look and feel of the movement.

Another project, 1200 Intrepid, an office building at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, is designed to look like a ship’s bow. When standing on the sidewalk next to the building, the roofline hangs way out overhead.

“The engineering team created the installation system where there is very little tolerance for safety reasons,” Dixon said.

He explained the 14-inch-thick panels twist out slightly both vertically and horizontally on a steel frame to create the bend in the wall.

“This is a self-supporting precast system that took a lot of coordination to make work,” he said. “It took a lot of time. We can put 12-20 panels a day up on a project like the parking garage, where with this project, we installed 4 pieces a day.”

The Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Children’s Hospital parking garage is designed to look like the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. PHOTO/FINE LINE PHOTOGRAPHER IN LANCASTER.

The steel frame system has safety measures in place so that if a panel comes loose, it is suspended on the steel frame from multiple directions so as not to fall.

Recently, High Concrete received three awards for their projects in the 2023 Precast / Prestressed Concrete Institute’s Design Awards for their creative efforts.

The company also recently received an AA rating from the institute, the governing body of precast, prestressed concrete. The institute created higher standards in October 2021 and during the latest recertification, High Concrete earned the highest level.

The precast, prestressed panels not only add aesthetics, but are prefabricated on the company’s site which reduces the amount of time needed at the construction site. Dixon said the time reduction increases safety because it reduces the number of people needed at the site.

“Prefabrication is the wave of the future,” said Jamie Sweigart sales director. “It increases safety and speed and reduces costs.”

“We are not affected by weather which allows us to work continuously,” Dixon added.

The company’s 400 to 500 employees operate on a 24-hour schedule to ensure the concrete is cured properly. High Concrete also has a plant in Springboro, Ohio, which employs around 200 to expand its reach.

Melissa Reid, director of marketing, explained that transporting the panels to job sites becomes cost prohibitive after a certain distance because they are so heavy.

With the Springboro plant, the company is able to service areas that cover Indianapolis, Chicago to Kentucky.

In addition to creating panels that make buildings look round, waving or bowing, the company can imbed stone, brick, even terra cotta into the concrete, allowing them to create facades that fit in with older buildings in cities and on medical and educational campuses.

The Alumni Parking Garage at Lehigh University is an example. Reid said the panels were inlaid with stone to blend in with the look of the campus.

After the panels are cast, masons are brought onsite to adhere the materials to the panels before transport.

High Concrete uses local suppliers as much as possible to keep work in the community. Molds are created from polystyrene and Styrofoam with computerized machines.

Dixon said the forms can run $75,000 so repetition is key to keeping costs down.

An exception to that is the ConRAC Parking Solutions parking garage at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Dixon said the unique design of each panel required a special one-time use mold.

Reid said the company worked with an artist from Seattle, Washington, to create unique curved panels that resulted in a round structure depicting all things New York City, including the Statue of Liberty, the transit system and more.

Lauren Rose, design team leader, whose team works directly with architects, project managers and owners to design projects, said High Concrete is unique in that the company creates both structural and architectural exterior panels.

“Most companies focus on one or the other,” she said. Her team’s job is to design the system to incorporate all the systems necessary for a complete construct.

To keep up with demand, High Concrete made a capital investment in 2019-2020 to add technology such as laser cutters, enhanced the mold shop and increased the size of the mixing plant.

During the renovations, the architectural plant and the structural plant were switched to provide adequate space for on-site work.

“We are getting a lot more requests to incorporate other structures into our panels,” Dixon said. “We can even put windows in them right here and transport the whole system to the job site.”