Track 2: Materials over Time: Points of Change

General Abstract

2 - A Modern-Day Guidebook to Dealing with Terra Cotta Flat Arch Floor Systems

Wednesday, September 26
8:30 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: HYATT-Grand EFG

At the turn of the 20th century, terra cotta flat arches were a popular floor system in steel framed buildings for industrial and office construction. They combined lighter weight construction with the same fireproofing abilities as standard brick arches. As with other constructions of the time, these systems were proprietary and were “designed” using allowable load tables based mostly on load testing.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the proprietary nature of the terra cotta flat arch makes evaluating these systems problematic for the modern engineer. Allowable load table literature rarely survives to the present day and the specific “brand” of your tile is typically unknown. Renovations of buildings with terra cotta floors typically will need cored penetrations for new piping and electrical systems and large openings for new stairs. New concentrated loads from above due to anything from toilets to sculptures, or hanging loads from HVAC systems below will alter the loading conditions of the existing floor structure. How should an engineer today approach these modifications with rational analyses when there were no real calculations or "code" for the original design? What do the architect and preservation professional need to know about what can and cannot be done? In an additional twist, how does the design team approach the repair of existing damage that can be uncovered during construction, which "by the numbers" shouldn't be stable?

It is important for all parties to understand the mechanisms - as well as the limitations - of this system from the start of the design process. The way details are shown on the drawings, as well as how the floor system is managed in the field by the contractor will have a big impact on the success of the renovation from both a design and cost perspective. There are various unique issues and methods to be aware of.

This presentation will discuss challenges with adapting these floors for new uses and what kinds of considerations should be brought up with the entire team (owner, architect, engineer, contractor) before construction begins. Examples of challenges and common issues from past projects will be presented as a basic “guidebook” for approaching a new project with terra cotta flat arches. Specific project examples will be used as case studies, including the renovation of an original academic building into dormitories and a warehouse building into a hotel.

Learning Objectives:

Alex Vandenbergh

Senior Engineer

Alex is a Senior Engineer at Silman and has worked on many renovation and preservation projects of all types. After encountering the challenges of terra cotta flat arch construction on a project early in his career, Alex wanted to delve deeper into understanding a system that was so widely used and yet has so little information available today. Alex has worked on a number of projects with terra cotta flat arches and has encountered a variety of "lessons learned" to share with the rest of the preservation community. Alex is a licensed engineer in the state of New York.


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Chris Gembinski

Building Conservation Associates, Inc.


Chris is the Director of Technical Services for Building Conservation Associates, Inc., providing quality control and technical oversight for all BCA projects. Through his investigative work on hundreds of historic properties, he has developed extensive expertise in historic construction techniques and building systems, architectural materials, preservation design solutions, and construction management. Various aspects of his research and design have included masonry restoration, plaster restoration, historic finishes analysis, wood and metal window restoration design and stained-glass restoration. His work includes the design and management of conservation and preservation construction for: The Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, Grand Central Terminal, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Central Park Police Precinct, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and Trinity Chrch, Wall Street, as well as development ventures such as the Victoria Theater and Moynihan Station Redevelopments.


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2 - A Modern-Day Guidebook to Dealing with Terra Cotta Flat Arch Floor Systems

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