It's All About the Design

From design to materials, experts are building to accommodate the economy and suit clients’ lifestyles

Spancrete, which makes precast concrete, has been through multiple business cycles in its nearly fifty years of operation and has adapted accordingly. “Our founder brought our first machine from Germany,” says Clinton Krell, sales. “Our tagline is ‘Building Innovation.’”

The market has been on the upswing in the last year, he notes. “Our industry sees it a bit sooner than some other trades.

“More manufacturing facilities are starting; that sector seems to be more active,” he adds. “It accounts for the bulk of our sales right now. Parking decks, too.”

Multifamily housing projects—which Krell says disappeared during the recession—are also increasing. “It seems to be easier to get financing than it was a few years ago.”

People’s lifestyles have changed with the economy and technology, indicates Mark Udvari-Solner, designer/owner of udvari solner design company. “For the last twenty-five years, for every project I’ve been involved with, we’ve analyzed the flow of homes—how you move from room to room, how people live.”

Years ago homes were teeming with electronic systems. “Now we’re implementing iPads into homes to control them,” says Udvari-Solner. “People are looking for smaller spaces with efficient communications, energy efficiency and sustainability.”

He’s helping simplify people’s lives. “A lot of our base is clients returning after twenty years. They’ve lived in five thousand square feet in a rural area and now they want fifteen hundred. If their children visit, they’ll put them up in a hotel.”

Many clients are more attuned to what they want in retirement—such as the ability to travel—than their former family emphasis. “It’s a big change for builders,” Udvari-Solner says. “Rather than huge homes, people want intimate, functional ones. With the economy, even those buying condos want smaller ones.”

Another trend is involving children in the design process. “I’m blown away by the interest young people have when you ask their needs,” marvels Udvari-Solner. “I encourage them—the needs of a seven-, a thirteen, and an eighteen-year-old are very different.”

Early Involvement 

It’s critical to involve your designer early in a building project. “If you pick a builder and work backward it’s ineffective,” Udvari-Solner says. “The design team needs to get clients to the level where they’re ready to talk with the building community. You need to talk through the design before you discuss building plans.”

When he started his firm, some builders told Udvari-Solner it would never last, that people wouldn’t pay for design. “But we educate clients so they can be successful with builders, so they know what questions to ask. We’re very proud of our momentum.”

With precast concrete it’s also vital to involve the “precaster” early on. “We suggest you work with us in the early design phase,” says Krell. “Spancrete has its own engineering department, which most others don’t, and we’re skilled in value engineering, or knowing the most efficient way to design with precast. You’ll realize enormous savings, not only in materials costs but in reduced building time.”

The Process

When people are thinking about using precast, they often contact Spancrete to ask what can and can’t be done. “We always encourage people designing with precast to reach out so they can design efficiency into a building. We can guide the design team if they want to use precast throughout a building,” Krell says.

“You can use it in virtually any situation where you’d use other building materials, with some exceptions,” he adds. “For instance, a stadium. You can use precast for a lot of things, like the seating and walls, but not the roof.”

Typically, an architect or engineer will know if precast would work. “They’re schooled in different building methods and have often used it before,” says Krell. “Or a contractor who’s used it in the past suggests it to shorten the building schedule.”

Udvari-Solner’s clients often interview three design teams before choosing one. “It’s my responsibility to sell myself and keep the client comfortable with my service,” he says. “If I’m not chosen, I accept that we don’t have good chemistry and ask what I could have done differently. My colleagues and I know we have to win clients’ trust.”

That begins with understanding each client, project and setting, whether it’s new construction, renovation or adaptation. “No project is too small,” says Udvari-Solner. “After an interview where I’ve gathered observations and data, I come back to the client and say, ‘This is the best project for you.’”

The competitive bidding process is helpful, Udvari-Solner finds. “It keeps us more involved in providing guidance. I know the more I can bring people into a dialogue from the beginning, the more successful I’ll be. If I understand the needs, budget, timeline and personality, I won’t create a white elephant.”

He spends a lot of time discussing people’s life patterns and how they spend their days. “If I can get into individuals’ thought processes up front, it helps set the tone for accommodating what they think they need instead of just jumping in. I encourage them to work within their means and their comfort levels. For example, if the land needs improvements, by the time the house is built the costs may be unrealistic.”

 

Udvari-Solner asks about:

• The property’s features

• Needs, objectives and wants

• Budget parameters

• Desired move-in date

 

“If it’s in two years, I can structure my services accordingly,” he says. “If it’s in six weeks it’s a different project.”

He adjusts his services for each client. “If people have built before, we can streamline our services. If they’re new to it or to the community, we can recommend builders to suit the design.”

New or Renovate

Precast concrete is used mostly in new construction. “You can use it for renovations as well, but there are very particular criteria for where it’s feasible,” Krell says. “I find people trying to use it in areas I wouldn’t have thought possible, but that’s not a focus for us.”

From his perspective, new construction versus renovation is like night versus day, Udvari-Solner says. “With new, you have a clean slate. You’re not starting with a particular area or a given structure. The challenge is helping clients understand building costs and guiding them toward what they can afford to build.”

He shows clients the costs of similar projects in his database and actual costs of other projects in the area. “I help people be realistic; I don’t quote under budget to misguide them.”

With a renovation, he does thorough research to investigate if clients can do what they want in a particular setting. “It might be a historical building or a highly controlled architectural district,” he explains. 

Sometimes Realtors consult him before people purchase homes. “I want them to know of any headaches before they buy. The home might need extensive work and may not be worth buying or renovating.”

Structural and Architectural Precast

Spancrete specializes in parking structures, multifamily housing and total precast structures like data centers and sports facilities. For single-family homes it’s very commonly used for garage floors, especially if there’s a habitable space underneath, because it can support the cars above the space.

“People often have workshops, theater rooms or safe rooms for severe weather below the garage,” says Krell. “On the first floor clients often have precast flooring with radiant heating/cooling systems that use the benefit of the floor’s thermal mass.”

Precast retains heat or cold longer and absorbs heat like a thermal battery. It helps regulate temperatures and save energy. It also minimizes vibration and noise transmission. 

“You can put carpet, ceramic tile or other flooring over it and you’d never know it’s precast,” Krell says. “It’s not as common, but some people pour concrete over it to make it even and polish it. Precast may be more expensive up front than a wood floor, but with an efficient heating system, energy costs are lower.”

His company offers structural precast, which supports a building and isn’t visible. “It’s the bones of the building,” says Krell.

It also offers architectural precast, which can be viewed from a building’s exterior and makes a design statement. “You can cast architectural details into a panel, or tint it, or use a special aggregate,” Krell says. 

“It’s durable and low maintenance,” he continues. “And it’s a finished product—you don’t need another trade to come in and finish it.”

udvari-solner design company has designed homes for all manner of settings, including over forty lake homes. “It takes creativity and vision. You can’t take a plan out of a magazine and throw it on any property,” says Udvari-Solner. 

“I love to be involved with all aspects of a property—planning access to a lake or waterfall, designing a setting that fits the composition of people’s lives,” he continues. “We’re doing some exciting things with timber frame architecture, like twenty-foot doors opening to lake views. I get great satisfaction when clients call and say, ‘You listened and understood.’” 

Some of his designs include unique features such as underground tunnels or a full indoor gymnasium. “People want real things, like a bowling alley in the basement or a driving range opening from a door in the home. I love to show people they can bring their passions into their homes.”

Practical Environments

Indoor bowling alleys aside, Udvari Solner creates practical, simple living environments. “We incorporate sound, high-quality materials—products some people think they can’t afford. But if you reduce the overall mass of a home, you can achieve your dream. We help people understand how they can live in eight hundred square feet coming from five thousand.”

 He’s very sensitive to green building and sustainability. “And I’ve been very excited about adapting design to the economy since the recession.”

Educating clients, quality work and referrals have built Udvari-Solner’s business. “I’ve done this all my life,” he says. “Residential design has always been my passion. I take pleasure in helping people enjoy the process and in building lifelong relationships. 

-Judy Dahl

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