Category Archives: Materials

Let There Be Light (Mock-Ups)

Dan Batt (left) and lighting designer Mark Loeffler (right) evaluate the height of the light placement.

There are unknowns in translating design into reality. Luckily, in some instances, we can test concepts right here at Centerbrook.

Our project for The Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut, features an outdoor courtyard encircled by a trellised walkway. The design calls for three dozen or so light fixtures mounted between the steel columns that form the trellis to illuminate the walkway underfoot and the vegetated canopy overhead.

With this one seemingly simple concept comes a number of questions, though. How will the fixture mount? What height would be comfortable for passersby? How far and at what angles will the light diffuse? Is it bright enough? And so on.

A temporary lighting mount for further observations.

To answer these questions and more, project manager Dan Batt enlisted our facilities manager (and former general contractor) Ron Campbell to construct a full-size column mock-up. He then invited lighting designer Mark Loeffler and light fixture supplier David Mainville from Illuminate here to test the setup. The fixture came from Pathway Lighting Products in nearby Old Saybrook.

The mock-up proved to be more than beneficial. A comfortable height was established. Preferences were discussed for mounting. And perhaps best of all, the specified fixture performed as intended.

Mark Loeffler charts the diffusion of the light’s intensity.

Selecting the Right Synthetic Turf

Installation of FieldTurf at the QU soccer/lacrosse facility.

Few topics have recently trended higher in the athletic facility management world than synthetic turf, as both player safety and durability have been called into question. With two different playing fields featured in one of our active projects, we explored the latest and greatest options. Here’s what we found:


Construction is finishing up at Quinnipiac University for a new athletic complex we designed that features a field hockey facility and a dual-purpose soccer and lacrosse stadium. Both venues have begun hosting competitions.

AstroTurf was first used in the Houston Astrodome in 1966.

The first generation of synthetic turf was little more than a carpet (think of a Scotch-Brite pad) laid over a stone base. Then turf made up of longer tufts, spaced further apart, and with sand spread between them was introduced. Today’s state-of-the-art synthetic turf field is a sophisticated system made-up of the synthetic turf itself, which consists of fibers (grass blades) and a backing layer, an infill material which is spread between the fibers, and a shock-pad below the turf. This third generation of turf has the capacity for cleats to release which prevents soft-tissue injuries to knees and ankles, absorbs impact which helps prevent head injuries, and is a more playable surface.

Field Hockey Surface Selection

What to Consider

Choosing a playing surface for a field hockey pitch can be pretty straightforward. Ideally these fields are only used for field hockey. For this sport, the gold standard is knitted nylon turf, and only one major manufacturer makes it. Other manufacturers produce polyethylene tufted turfs at a significantly lower cost. Nylon is more durable than polyethylene. As a construction method, knitting is both more durable and provides a more uniform playing surface than tufting.

The Decision

Given the superiority in material and construction, Quinnipiac quickly chose AstroTurf A12, a knitted nylon carpet.

One of the first QU Field Hockey practice sessions on the new AstroTurf.

Soccer/Lacrosse Surface Selection

Selecting a playing surface for soccer and lacrosse was a far more complex decision. As you might expect, natural grass turf is the holy grail of athletic surfaces. However, natural turf is expensive to maintain, especially with multiple teams using it for daily practices and games. With this new stadium the home to both the men’s and women’s soccer and lacrosse programs, we looked at synthetic surfaces from the outset.

Given its durability, synthetic turfs make good economic sense, and the turf industry is working hard to match the playability of real grass. Also driving the evolution of turf systems are player safety and environmental concerns. This segment of the synthetic turf industry is currently in a period of rapid change and advancement.

What to Consider – Type of Fiber

A primary decision for the turf system is the type of fiber. Fibers come in two forms: extruded monofilament fiber, which is like a strand of string; or slit-film, which is manufactured in sheets and cut into strips. Slit-film looks more like natural grass, and it holds the infill material in place better. Monofilament turf provides much better interaction between the field, athlete and ball.

The Decision

The key consideration for Quinnipiac was the playability of the soccer ball, so a monofilament turf was chosen.

An aerial view of the soccer/lacrosse playing surface shortly after installation. (courtesy FIP Construction)

What to Consider – Type of Infill

Infill materials are varied, and have become a flash-point for controversy. Infill is typically a material that has been ground up into small particles and is spread between the fibers of the turf. It helps the individual fibers to stand up and provides shock attenuation. It can be made from crumb rubber (ground-up tires), EPDM or TPE roofing, or from organic materials like cork and coconut.

Much has been made of an alleged increased health risk associated with crumb rubber use in playing fields and playgrounds, but research has yet to support that assertion. We continue to keep an eye on the progress of the EPA’s action plan as new information is made available.

The Decision

Quinnipiac makes every effort to be environmentally conscious, thus the decision to use organic infill was made very early in the process. To aid the school in deciding the type of organic infill, we had two 60’ x 15’ patches of turf mocked-up, and university staff and athletes were invited to test the surfaces.

What to Consider – Type of Shock Pad

Shock pads made up of polypropylene, or rubber, can make a field play better, safer, and last longer.  Before shock pads came into use, infill material alone was used to provide shock absorption, or attenuation. In order to be truly safe, a lot of infill material had to be used. This had a large effect on player performance. Think of running in sand; the softer the sand the slower you run, and the sooner you get tired. A shock pad provides additional impact attenuation, which allows the infill material to be better tuned for optimal performance.

In addition, a shock pad will protect the backing of the fiber, adding to the life of the turf. A shock pad can add significantly to the cost of the turf system versus a turf system with no pad. However, the safety of young athletes is a critical concern that – in Quinnipiac’s case – eclipsed cost.

QU women’s soccer preseason practice on the FieldTurf.

Decision Summary

For its new soccer/lacrosse stadium, Quinnipiac chose a FieldTurf Revolution 360 field – the same as Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots and New England Revolution – along with their proprietary organic infill product and a Brock Powerbase YSR 25mm shock pad.

How We Can Help

Keeping up with the latest developments, in any field we work in, is part of the job description of an architect. Whether it’s state-of-the-art advancements in educational pedagogy, laboratory design, or playing fields; it’s how we help our clients make critical decisions about complex issues.

Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, the latest study conducted under EPA guidelines also concluded that recycled rubber infill in synthetic turf poses negligible risks to human health. The report also stated that cancer risk levels for users of synthetic turf field were comparable to or lower than those associated with natural soil fields.

No Excuses After This

In architecture, where regulations, practices, and technology constantly change, it makes sense to spread the word. At Centerbrook, one of my duties is to serve as curator of the firm’s accumulated design wisdom, which has been compiled into “NEAT Cards” since the 1980s. NEAT stands for No Excuses After This. This effort was initiated by partner Mark Simon, and nearly 250 cards have been created and updated over the past two decades.

Here’s a recent example of a NEAT Card; it gives a sense of the level of detail that we designers have to address in drafting building plans. Unlike baseball, which is a game of inches, winning architecture often deals in fractions of inches. Heaven (or Hell, i.e. costly “change orders”) can depend on details like this:

Be careful how pipe sizes are specified in details such as handrails

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Pipe and tubing (for railings) are measured differently. Pipe sizes are measured by the internal diameter of pipe (ID). Plumbing engineers specify pipe sizes that way because they are concerned with what is flowing within the inner diameter. Tubing, on the other hand, is measured by the outside diameter of the pipe (OD). Pipe railings are often dimensioned and noted as 1 ½” in diameter when, in reality, this “pipe” size does not exist. 1 ½” pipe is actually 1.90” OD 1 ¼” pipe is actually 1.66” OD.

To avoid getting larger diameter rails than desired, do not use “pipe” in the description in detail notes and simply specify the desired diameter. In order to get the required 1 ½” or 1 ¼” gripping surface, you must use “tube” in your description of the handrail.

In addition, knowing the actual diameter of the pipe for railings is critical in the selection of the wall brackets to maintain proper wall clearances. Hardware manufacturers such as Julius Blum have brackets sized for both pipe and tubing sizes. To make matters more complicated, some specialty tubing is also made in pipe sizes (Julius Blum). See link below for a more thorough explanation of pipe and tubing sizes.

How to get what you want… not what you ask for (

Architecture for the Birds


Architects design buildings for the people who own and use them, but there are other considerations. A relatively recent concern is the impact manmade structures, including private homes and skyscrapers, have on birds.

The American Bird Conservancy estimates that as many as one billion birds die each year in the United States from collisions with buildings, with glass being the primary point of contact. The group is one of several organizations educating the public about this problem and proposing solutions.

Staring Contest by Michael Leland
Staring Contest by Michael Leland

Members of the Centerbrook Sustainability Committee recently viewed a webinar on this topic led by, among others, Keith Russell of Audubon Pennsylvania. He pointed out that birds have excellent peripheral and color vision (much better than ours) but inferior depth perception. They also take the reflections on glass literally.

Studies have shown that most collisions occur during the day and that the species most affected are brightly colored songbirds. Nighttime accidents do occur and can be reduced simply by killing or at least dimming “vanity lighting” – lights that serve no practical purpose for inhabitants or security – during the fall and spring migratory seasons. Certain types of landscaping also can be an attractive nuisance for birds by mimicking, in combination with glass, a natural setting that birds try to traverse.

Awareness of this issue led the US Green Building Counsel to offer a LEED credit for Bird Collision Deterrence. It emphasizes creating “visual noise:” establishing patterns on glass that birds can recognize using color, texture, opacity, or ultraviolet materials. Screens on the outside of the windows are helpful, too. Keeping openings small and reducing the quantity of glass correspondingly lowers the incidence of bird strikes.

Our offices are located along a small river and millpond, and our fringe benefits include sightings of various avian species, among them: Black-crowned Night-herons, Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, Great Egrets, Osprey, Baltimore Orioles, Belted Kingfishers, and Great Blue Herons. Facilities Manager Bill Rutan reports that bird collisions are not an issue here, that, in fact, a number of species make their nest on or about the building.

As with other sustainable features, “bird-friendly” approaches can be integrated seamlessly into building design without sacrificing style or increasing costs. It is another option for clients to consider, one which can become a point of pride.

Chairs for Children


When you’re a kid you don’t think about why you don’t like the chairs at school. If asked, you might say that they’re hard, or maybe really old if your school hasn’t been renovated in years. As an interior designer who has specialized in education (pre-k through college) for the past fifteen-plus years, I have spent a large amount of time thinking about chairs in schools. The problem was I wasn’t focused on the right things.

In fact, years ago I felt pretty confident that I was specifying good chairs for students. Multiple sizes per classroom were used to accommodate the increasingly varied sizes of children. Hard plastic was out and soft plastic was the norm. As long as I picked out some cool colors everyone was happy. Teachers talked about desk shape and size (one person vs. two) or tables vs. desks. If there was any discussion about chairs on the part of the school staff, it centered around which glides were better so as not to mar the floor (Tip: it’s the cheap vinyl composition tile, not the glides that are the problem). And never hearing any complaints afterwards, I assumed everything was fine.


Now designers – and most everyone else – have come to expect that any adult task chair will be ergonomic. After all, it’s common knowledge that everybody is different and thus chairs should be adjustable to prevent strain, etc. Also, most of us probably know that the reason this has become so important is, in part, because our society is so sedentary (it is suggested that everyone get up multiple times during the day to stand and walk around). I also was well aware that elementary school students spend the majority of their time sitting in one classroom, and that recess has been shortened to 15 to 20 minutes in many school districts. While middle and high school kids do get up to change classes periodically, obesity rates are on the rise among all school children, so it was clear to me that students would benefit from more movement. Despite this knowledge, my classroom chair selection remained basically the same throughout the years because I didn’t see what the function of a chair itself (i.e. sitting) could have to do with activity.


That changed about five years ago when I attended a lecture by Dr. Breithecker, a German Health and Kinetics Scientist. Citing research, he asserted that physical activity for children is not just important from a healthy heart, healthy weight perspective, but also that brain development in children is affected by movement. Giving students increased opportunities to move while seated stimulates increased levels of attention and concentration. In fact, having kids sit still while they are learning actually hinders their ability to learn. He pointed out that this was true for children of all ages but much more so for those who were not yet fully developed. He proved his point by involving us in mini bouts of activity during the lecture: and this did keep me more alert and engaged, and to my surprise, I still remember that lecture better than many that I have attended since.

The take-away from all of this is that classroom chairs for children need to facilitate a range of natural movements, not hinder them. The best chairs are those that can be sat in forwards, backwards, rocked in, swiveled in, and perched on – because activity needs to take place in the classroom during the learning, not just between lessons or outside at recess.

Images and chairs shown above are from VS America

Barn Raisings, Here and There

Photos courtesy of The Barn Raisers

When I heard that The Barn Raisers of East Haddam were soliciting volunteers to a local raising, I jumped at the opportunity. Having participated in one during my time in rural New York Amish country, I wanted to experience a for-profit version in Mystic, Connecticut and compare the two.

One of the reasons I became an architect is my affection for tectonics. Heavy timber barns – with their expressed connections – intrigue me. The naked joinery, held together purely by shape, gravity and wooden pegs, is a thing of beauty. Continue reading Barn Raisings, Here and There

New Life for Urban Trees

Elm Bench, Bradley Airport

Just up river from Centerbrook, in Haddam, a new company has emerged devoted to giving dearly departed timber a new life by artfully transforming it into fine furniture. These expressive pieces evoke the life form from whence they came. Having used locally sourced wood in many of its projects, often from trees cleared from a building site or sustainably harvested on a client’s land, Centerbrook has a natural affinity for these two intrepid entrepreneurs, who launched their business in the teeth of the recession.

To Zeb and Ted Esselstyn, brothers and partners in City Bench, trees represent more than raw material. They view them as important strands in the web of life. For example, a venerable maple that presided over the lawn of the Ivoryton Playhouse is sorely missed. Beneath its protective boughs generations of aspiring actors (Katharine Hepburn among them) learned their lines. Nonetheless, when it died it was destined to join America’s burgeoning waste stream – that is until Ted and Zeb rode to the rescue. Continue reading New Life for Urban Trees

Out of the Water Closet

Porcelain Stoneware floor from Ceramica Atlas Concorde

Porcelain has a long pedigree, going back millennia to China, later Italy, and lately anywhere someone can generate 1,280 degrees Centigrade to fire clay. Dense, durable, fire-resistant, and non-porous, porcelain is a common material in our homes. For example, fine china is made of it, as are commodes and bathroom floor and wall tiling. Made right, it is made to last.

Recently porcelain manufacturers have introduced a unique component to the finish glaze process, so that the end product actually reduces air pollution and kills harmful bacteria. We are more familiar with materials inside buildings, such as carpets and finishes, which can degrade the quality of the air by off-gassing VOCs (volatile organic compounds). More on porcelain’s remarkable air-cleaning development further along.

In a world where nothing is static, porcelain is changing and assuming new roles. For one Centerbrook designed project, a new academic wing for a high school, we are looking into the possibility of using porcelain for flooring. This product has a particular glaze look: a natural wood grain pattern that can mimic oak, cherry, or any other wood surface. The tile sizes are designed as “planks” to further complete the illusion. The only way you could tell the difference is if you walked on it barefoot: porcelain is a wee bit colder to the touch. Continue reading Out of the Water Closet

Colorful Architecture

Photos: Jeff Goldberg/Esto

Picking colors totally freaks people out, from homeowners to Fortune 500 CEOs. Re-painting, even re-re-painting is common. Getting the six exterior colors right at the new Hillside Research Campus at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was critical to its success in blending in: both with the built and natural setting at the venerable institution and also with the character of the surrounding community. Re-painting was not an option.

The project was recently named one of six finalists in the World Architecture News Colour Awards. The jurors pared the international field from 79 to Hillside Campus, two schools in England and Slovenia, an office building in France, a residential tower in Australia, and a biochemistry building at Oxford University in England.  Continue reading Colorful Architecture

Extreme Vernacular Brickwork

Examples of compelling architecture and exquisite craftsmanship are all around us. I have always admired the Deep River Town Hall, just one town north of the home office here in Centerbrook, Connecticut. The building was completed in 1893 on what was then the region’s major artery leading north from the beaches of Long Island Sound. The adjacent trolley line is evidence of that.

Designed by architect G. W. Cole, the town hall is a handsome Flat Iron building of the Romanesque Revival style, and was considered at the time to be quite avant-garde. In 1976 it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. The exterior is fashioned of common and local clay brick (probably from New Haven), which is accented with granite foundation, sills, and water tables that serve both structural and ornamental functions. The graceful beauty of the building is in its detailing, execution, and uncommon footprint. Continue reading Extreme Vernacular Brickwork