Wright's Unknown Pearl

The largest of 12 buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College is restored and modernized
August 11, 2010

Most people don't associate legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright with Florida Southern College (FSC). Surprisingly, the small Methodist liberal arts school located 30 miles east of Tampa in Lakeland, Fla., is home to the world's largest on-site collection of Wright structures (see opposite page). Between 1938 and 1958, Wright designed 18 buildings for the 1,800-student university, 12 of which were built.

The Polk County Science Building, completed in 1958, was the last of Wright's FSC structures to be constructed. Originally built for $1 million, the lab science facility, at 64,000 sq. ft., is the largest Wright building on campus, and it contains the only planetarium he designed that was ever built.

Like many of the Wright buildings at FSC, the building was in need of a overhaul after more than 40 years of service. The concrete-block walls had spalled and cracked. The roof leaked. And the teaching spaces were woefully outdated.

"We wanted to bring the building up to modern standards for use as a science teaching facility," says Terry Dennis, vice president of finance with FSC, "while also restoring the exterior and key interior spaces of this historic building closer to its original Wright appearance."

Architect of record Lunz Prebor Fowler Architects (LPF), Lakeland, teamed with consulting architects John McAslan & Partners, London, and structural and M/E/P engineer Ove Arup & Partners, New York City, on a $10.1 million, 16-month restoration and modernization project. Recipient of a Merit Award in Building Design and Construction's 19th annual Reconstruction Awards, the project involved installing new HVAC systems, reorganizing the interior layout and repairing the roof and concrete-block walls.

Other project team members included general contractor Kvaerner Construction, Tampa, (now part of Beers Skanska, Atlanta) and laboratory consultants Earl Walls Associates, San Diego.

 
Completed in 1958, the Polk County Science Building at Florida Southern College is the only planetarium Frank Lloyd Wright designed that was built.


Wright's innovative wall crumbles

The Polk County building was constructed using Wright's innovative textile concrete-block wall system, which he developed in the 1920s. The technique involved stacking concrete blocks and then inserting vertical and horizontal steel rebar through semicircular recesses on each side of the blocks. Liquid grout was then poured into vertical holes created by the recesses, filling the horizontal and vertical voids, thereby sealing the wall.

Wright declared that the walls would "be standing a thousand years into the future." But according to Daniel Fowler, principal with LPF, they began to crumble within a few decades.

"In theory, the grout would flow down the vertical cells and when it hit the horizontal cells, it would fill them because it was so viscous," says Fowler. "There were quite a few areas where it did not cover the rebar, and moisture that absorbed through the porous block caused the rebar to rust and expand, which caused the block to spall."

Blocks with small cracks were patched. Where large pieces of concrete were missing, the entire block was replaced with a replica created by subcontractor Cast Stone Products Inc., Sarasota, Fla. According to Karen Berg, project manager with Beers Skanska, approximately 700 new blocks were formed using wood molds replicated from an original mold. Ove Arup devised a concrete mix containing a rubber-polymer additive that matches the original color and texture. The material was tamped in three layers and allowed to sit for 24 hours. The form was then dismantled and the block was cured for three to five days.

Matching the color of the original block was a tedious task, says Berg. "There is a wide range of colors, from a brownish yellow to a sierra orange, depending on the level of weather exposure," she says. "It required a masonry expert there at all times analyzing shades and making what he called 'cookies.'" These test samples where sent with the order to the subcontractor to ensure a close match.

Numerous leaks in the roof forced the university to abandon part of the building. The cause, says Fowler, was failure in the old roof flashings where the roof intersects the block walls. "The water would absorb through cracks in the block and then run down air space in between the walls," says Fowler.

 
Moisture intrusion caused much of the building’s textile concrete-block walls to crack and spall.


The contractor repaired the flashings and replaced portions of the roof. Where the roof is visible to the public, the team specified a gravel finish to match the old roof. On the highest level, which is out of sight to most, the team chose a less expensive modified-bitumen material with a granular surface, says Fowler.

Squeeze play

Updating the interior to meet building code was challenging, especially since it would continue to be used as a lab facility, says Ken DeBoer, principal with Earl Walls Associates. Consistent with the technology of the day, the building was designed without a central HVAC system. Moreover, Wright's basic skeletal design left very little space for new mechanical systems.

"The fumes in the building were really bad," says DeBoer. "They had through-wall units to cool the spaces, with essentially no exhaust system."

To minimize the impact of the HVAC upgrades, the classrooms, offices and labs were consolidated along the central atrium. This enabled the team to confine the HVAC systems.

Due to low floor-to-ceiling heights, which span just 7 ft. in some areas, air is distributed vertically via risers in the atrium, which link to horizontal ducts suspended from the lab ceilings. Feeding the risers are two supply ducts installed in a new 10-ft.-deep trench under the first floor labs.

DeBoer says low floor heights also required the team to custom-design four of the 30 new fumehoods installed in the labs. "We had to design the sash to function like a double-hung window, because a standard sash would hit the underside of the structure when it was opened," he says.

The design team chose to leave the ductwork fully exposed. "We would argue that encasing it in stone or drywall would make more of an architectural change," says Fowler.

Wright's biggest fans approve

For the building team, vindication of the rehab effort came late last year when the project won over some of Wright's biggest fans and most staunch preservationists. During a tour of the facility, members of the the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy applauded the building team for its modernization strategy.

"Of course, some of them feel that Wright's buildings should be protected as museum pieces, and no change should take place," says DeBoer. "But many thought it was good that this building could live on as a science lab with new technology applied so that it is a safe and effective teaching environment."

Construction Costs

HVAC $3,577,230
Electrical 905,997
Roofing 182,893
Concrete 582,512
Steel 213,970
Masonry 649,909
Laboratory casework 943,792
Finishes 759,048
General requirements 2,239,916
TOTAL $10,055,267