- Written by: Molly Shaw
- Produced by: James Logan
- Estimated reading time: 6 mins
Since 1978, Midwest Curtainwalls has been solving tough curtainwall challenges, whether it’s defending buildings from the elements or crafting a one-of-a-kind, eye-catching façade, the Cleveland-based company is an expert in these complex systems. Throughout a long-running history, Midwest Curtainwalls has risen to the challenge, meeting the needs of architects, owners, developers, contractors, curtainwall consultants and glazing contractors.
Midwest Curtainwalls was born out of a family foundation in 1978. “I grew up in the glass and glazing business,” shares Don Kelly, company president. “My grandfather founded Sterling Plate Glass and Paint Company in 1922, the same year my father was born.”
Reaching for new heights
Kelly wanted to follow in his family’s footsteps, but on a larger scale. “Before Midwest Curtainwalls was established, the company was known as Midwest Architectural Metals [MAM], a subcontracting business,” he recounts. “I wanted to change that and do things on a bigger scale, high-rise buildings and larger contracts.” And that is exactly what the firm has done.
Since Kelly joined the company in 1975, almost all of Midwest Curtainwall’s business has been on large-scale buildings. “We eventually got out of the installation business and limited the company’s scope exclusively to designing, engineering and manufacturing,” tells Kelly.
Midwest Curtainwalls remains headquartered in Cleveland, but Kelly says the company’s footprint extends well beyond Ohio. “Now we could find ourselves in any large city in the U.S., from Los Angeles to Boston, Detroit to St. Louis,” he shares. “We have also done jobs in Hong Kong, Spain and London… there are a lot of buildings out there with our signature on them.”
Kelly says there’s never been a job too large or too complex for Midwest Curtainwalls. “The projects other curtain wall manufacturers might shy away from – the ones that pose special engineering challenges or need to be completed in a tight timeframe – those are the ones that Midwest Curtainwalls welcomes,” he measures. “In fact, we specialize in them.”
A one-of-a-kind challenge
Years of industry experience designing, engineering, testing and manufacturing curtain wall systems that perform to the highest industry standards has prepared Midwest Curtainwalls for one of the most challenging endeavors to date: the 150-foot-high, custom glass waterfall at EF Education First’s facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Founded in 1965, EF, “Education First,” is a privately-held company with 15 divisions that offer a range of educational programs from language training, educational travel and academic degrees to cultural exchanges. From Berlin to Beijing, Moscow to Mexico City, Dubai to Denver, EF operates 500 schools and offices in more than 52 countries.
Cambridge is home to EF’s new headquarters, a 10-story building with more than 300,000 square feet of space. Designed by Swedish architect Gert Wingardh, the building was inspired by the Charles River, including a series of horizontal white bands as a take on the cables hoisting the Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge.
The focal point of the new facility is the 150-foot-high, 200-footwide glass waterfall, cascading as the center piece of EF Education First. Midwest Curtainwalls was tasked to design and deliver the multifaceted system nearly from scratch.
Sharp focus on a completely custom build
Midwest Curtainwalls designed the custom aluminum framing as a skylight system with rafters and purlins, creating 42 flat facets with intersecting ridge and valley lines at all sorts of different angles. Most of the rafter and purlin intersections were compound miter cuts and some were severely sharp points.
Crews attached the rafters to the round architectural steel truss system using welded steel plates. Within the facets were 388 framed-glass units. Of the glass frames, only 130 were standard rectangles -the rest were triangles, trapezoids and other shapes and sizes.
“We’re talking about a completely custom job here,” explains Ben Pelster, engineering manager for Midwest Curtainwalls. “We had to come up with a totally different concept to do a curtain wall system and make it so we could ship it out in pieces and perform he final assembly of the entire waterfall in the field.”
Pelster says the EF Education First building was unlike anything Midwest Curtainwalls has accomplished in the past. “We’ve never done something quite like this before -normally it’s more unitized stuff; this was special,” he says.
Precise planning from fabrication to the field
From the Wingardh plans to the specially fabricated components, Midwest Curtainwalls was a vital player from step one to done. “We took the architectural drawings and translated the concept into an actual 3D-model,” tells Mark Kenepp, a lead project engineer for Midwest Curtainwalls on the EF Education First build. “In doing so, we could actually see how the steel and the glass worked together, which was a major step. Anything we changed at this stage affected the entire model.”
Pelster, who facilitated the final steps of preparing fabrication drawings for Newport Industrial Fabrication (NIF), a Maine-based company specializing in architecturally exposed, tubular and structural steel, says the process called for intensive research and follow through. “There were ramifications to every junction and node, requiring close coordination with the steel erector,” he explains. “Preparing these giant triangular sections, we had to lay out the exact installation order for the field. Working closely with NIF was pivotal to the project’s success because every anchor location needed to line up and match.”
NIF is no stranger to tubular, complex and exposed work, so the company was well prepared to tackle the tubular structural steel space frame for the EF Education First waterfall. “NIF was contracted to supply the space-frame steel supporting the waterfall atrium glass,” details Ryan Gerry of NIF. “This scope was quickly expanded to include fabrication and design assist on curtain wall attachments, vestibule/canopy/gutter system work and building connections.”
Gerry says the project was a massive collaboration effort. “The collaborative environment made this project truly unique,” he adds. “NIF, Skanska, Tower, Midwest, SDE and Wilson Architects were able to work together to troubleshoot potential problems before they occurred on site.”
Space-frame constructability was a massive challenge, says Gerry. “At times eight pipe members would intersect at a single node,” he says. “We were able to overcome this with by incorporating a cast steel sphere at the center of the node reducing the overlapping effects of the steel pipe. 300-plus curtain wall attachments were unique at each location and required precise fabrication and layout prior to field installation. NIF was able to accomplish this through substation 3D modeling, 6-axis transformations and 3D survey technology.”
Turning up the timeline
Skanska, the lead general contractor, opened the door to value-adding design modifications to make the iconic structure more constructible to reduce lead times. “From the onset of the project, we were up against a tight timeline – which became increasingly difficult due to the design of the waterfall,” says Ed Ryan, project superintendent for Skanska.
Ryan says the biggest obstacle was the various trades involved in the design elements of the project. “There were many various people working on the design element of the project, and it was my job to manage and coordinate all of the design elements so that they came together,” he tells. “NIF played a large role in the ability to bridge the gap between all of the different people responsible for the overall design of the waterfall due to their expertise in 3D modeling and their expertise in structural geometry.”
But, with careful coordination, all the moving parts of EF Education First became one. “Once we got all of the right people in all the right places, we were able to work together to accomplish the project goals,” says Ryan.
When all was said and done, the design and engineering hours totaled more nearly 8,000 for only 13,300 square feet of glazed framing. “From drawings to 3D modeling to fit everything together, we were successful in design because the project went off without any major field problems,” adds Pelster.
As with many facilities before, Midwest Curtainwalls in collaboration with Skanska and NIF, among others, helped EF Education First put its best face forward with a one-of-a-kind cascading façade.
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