Quilted Beauty: Intricate masonry scheme turns a black-box theater into a campus showpiece

An intricate masonry scheme turns a black-box theater into a campus showpiece.
August 11, 2010

An architect's dream at the drafting board can oftentimes turn into a contractor's nightmare during execution.

But in the case of the stylish brick exterior of the black-box theater at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Mass., it was the contractors who were left dreaming.

"Every morning they'd tell me they had been dreaming in patterns all night long," says project architect Arthur Duffy of the masons from Northeast Masonry Corp. who crafted the brick wall. "They were never bored laying this brick." Duffy's firm, HMFH Architects of Cambridge, Mass., conjured up the complex, quilt-like design scheme to distinguish the new black-box theater from the surrounding classroom buildings on the 16-acre campus. The theater is part of school's new three-story, 30,000-sf Visual and Performing Arts Center.

"Black-box theaters are usually buried inside the bowels of a building because they don't need windows," says Duffy. "But here, the theater was going to be the showpiece of the school with its own lobby and entrance, so the client wanted to show it off."


The pattern of the brick at the Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Mass. is composed of bricks stacked horizontally and vertically in multiples of three to form a flowerlike pattern. Photos: Beaver Country Day School

The pattern consists of bricks stacked horizontally and vertically in multiples of three to form 2 2/3-foot-square, flowerlike shapes. As Duffy describes it, the flowers were spaced eight inches apart, creating a 3 1/3-foot-square module that aligns with the typical floor-to-floor elevation change of 13 1/3 feet.

To accentuate the pattern along the 50-foot-high walls, the flowers were inset 5/8 inch, creating a stamped look that leads the viewer's eye up the wall at angles, according to Eric Gagne, president of Northeast Masonry, Pelham, N.H. A special diamond-shaped brick was placed in the center of each flower as the finishing touch.

Gagne says the pattern was difficult to execute, but his crew was up to the challenge: "We always seem get involved in the projects that other masons run away from," he says. "I guess we're bored with traditional brick-and-block construction."

Armed with a set of large-scale color diagrammatic drawings that mapped out every brick and elevation change, the masons, with general contractor Erland Construction Co., Burlington, Mass., built mockups of the wall system to establish an efficient method for re-creating the pattern.

"It's not a traditional masonry job where you lay a row and then another on top," says Gagne. The process involved stacking bricks into a series of squares.

Duffy was at the job site for a few hours every day to answer questions and help the subcontractor work through issues. He even made modifications to the pattern to account for unique conditions, such as where the brick intercepted the roof.

"We were finding the problems together and could correct them very quickly," adds Gagne.

Duffy says this is by far the most complicated brick design his firm has attempted.

"You can't look this one up in a book," says Duffy. "It's definitely unique."


Clad in a stylish brick exterior, the three-story black-box theater at Beaver Country Day School is the centerpiece of the school's new Visual and Performing arts center. Photos: Beaver Country Day School
         
 

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