Few buildings in the U.S. undergo such rigorous testing
Starting in April, beams of steel will rise at the construction site at the corner of Main and High streets in downtown Buffalo, providing passersby with their first glimpse of the new University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, which will open in 2017.
But earlier this month, personnel from UB, LP Ciminelli, HOK and Gilbane/LiRo got a sneak peek while at the Construction Research Laboratory in Miami, where a 30-by-36-foot mockup of part of the building's facade was constructed.
It took several weeks to construct the mockup, which then was subjected to simulations of powerful rain and windstorms to see how the building's exterior will hold up against the elements.
"The building mockup passed with flying colors," said Jennifer A. Kuhn, project manager for the new medical school building. "This kind of testing is only done on very large, complex projects."
The primary components tested were a glass curtain wall and its high-performance terra cotta rainscreen. The glass walls and skylights will naturally illuminate the new medical school's signature feature, a light-filled, six-story glass atrium that will join the building's two L-shaped structures. A fly-through video of the interior, made by HOK, is available here.
"Fewer than approximately 10 percent of buildings constructed in the U.S. undergo such testing," said Michael Drozdowski, project manager with Gilbane/LiRo, the construction manager for the project. "If you tested every building in the nation like this, the majority would fail. These are very rigorous, comprehensive tests that are typically done only on very large, custom projects."
He was onsite at the testing lab for most of the testing, which ran from mid-January to early March.
It took 15 workers from LPCiminelli and their subcontractors about a month to construct the mockup. They used the same glass and terra cotta panels that will comprise the building's curtain wall, the exterior "skin" of modern, high-rise buildings that maximizes light-penetration, thermal-efficiency and water-diversion functions.
"We do this kind of performance testing on complex projects so we can provide assurance that the exterior wall as constructed will perform to all the criteria that the architects and engineers are expecting," Drozdowski explained.
Wind-pressure testing involved using an engine repurposed from an airplane.
"As its name suggests, High Street is one of the tallest points in the City of Buffalo, so it's a fairly high-wind-pressure area," noted David Schwartz, principal and senior project manager at HOK, the firm that designed the medical school. "For that reason, the building was tested to the maximum wind pressure that the site will realize: sustained winds of up to 50 or 60 miles per hour. We also modeled wind pressures to make sure that the building will be comfortable for pedestrians entering and leaving the facility."
How wind may affect the weight of snowdrifts on the building's rooftops during and after Buffalo's snowstorms was studied earlier.
The panels take advantage of local manufacturing expertise: They are being custom-made by Boston Valley Terra Cotta in Orchard Park, which, Schwartz said, is one of the premier firms in the country that manufacture these panels.
"Terra cotta was selected for a variety of reasons," Schwartz said. "It reflects and acknowledges the history of Buffalo's architecture with colors emulating those on the Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin Martin House. The terra cotta panels also have an appealing, hand-made quality."
Schwartz said the rainscreen is designed to allow rainwater to fall behind the terra cotta panels while reducing the pressure against the building so that, if wind blows rain into the panels, the water will simply drain out at the bottom and away from the building.
"We were trying to force it to leak," Drozdowski said, "trying to create the worst-case scenario so we can make any necessary modifications before beginning construction in Buffalo."
Even though off-site testing is complete, additional testing on the building will continue at the site.
"All of this testing ensures that the quality control that occurred while we were at the testing lab will be the same quality control in Buffalo," Drozdowski said.
After a crawler crane is installed in early April and the steel is delivered, steel erection will begin for floors one through three. The 280-foot tower crane is expected to be erected in July to allow for construction of floors four through eight. Steel construction will take nearly all of 2015. The exterior envelope of the building will begin to be installed in late 2015 and will extend into 2016.
Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is beginning a new chapter in its history with the largest medical education building under construction in the nation.
The eight-story, 628,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in 2017. The new location puts superior medical education, clinical care and pioneering research in close proximity, anchoring Buffalo's evolving comprehensive academic health center in a vibrant downtown setting. These new facilities will better enable the school to advance health and wellness across the life span for the people of New York and the world through research, clinical care and the education of tomorrow's leaders in health care and biomedical sciences. The school's faculty and residents provide care for the community's diverse populations through strong clinical partnerships and the school's practice plan, UBMD.