In the world of fashion, couture is a mystical term, imbuing images of chic designer catwalks and attention-grabbing trends. Like rare garments, custom building façades have the power to stoke our collective imagination, their geometric complexities and intricate cladding inviting first impressions of awe and intrigue. And as architects and contractors have continued to push the envelope into avant-garde aesthetic territory, building skins—like the one enriching Houston’s downtown streetscape on the Marriott Marquis hotel—have become an exciting frontier for artistic expression and innovation.
It’s only fitting that this $245 million hotel, which opened in time to delight thousands of fans flocking to Houston for the 2017 Super Bowl, boasts a façade like none other in the city. In fact, from the moment the project was a mere dream, a burgeoning hope to boost commerce and downtown hotel capacity, owner RIDA Development Corp. prioritized the development of a shell that would rival even the most riveting of interior finishes. When RIDA retained joint venture partners, Balfour Beatty Construction and WELBRO Building Corporation, along with core and shell designer, Morris Architects, to realize this goal, the team was keenly aware that collaboration would be key.
But none could have possibly predicted just how mutually dependent the roles of designer and contractor would become on the building exterior. From the moment the blueprints were unveiled, it was clear that the Marriott Marquis represented a stark departure from hospitality industry tradition. Through a unique “L” shape, the hotel successfully exploited enhanced spatial dimensionality. And far from a mundane, glass and steel monolith, the Marriott Marquis was slated to become a rich tapestry comprised of six diverse skin materials, several of which would undergo modifications through constructability and value engineering reviews . Morris Architects had successfully articulated a vision for the hotel’s skin that included patterns of transparency and opacity punctuated by striking reveals, yielding a symmetrical yet simultaneously unpredictable design, but it took the knowledge and passion of seasoned builders to execute this concept within a demanding site.
Take, for example, the issues with which Balfour Beatty and WELBRO contended on the Marriott Marquis’ north face, which is located a mere 25 feet from the city’s new METRO line. Today, this elevation—covered in five of the six total materials—is an animated and appealing surface that sets the tone for the overall project. But there’s quite a story behind this showpiece. The first design iterations called for the inclusion of a precast concrete wall system. Cognizant that the process of setting over one-hundred 28,000-pound precast panels above live public transit tracks presented obvious safety hazards as well as avoidable cost implications, Balfour Beatty and WELBRO recommended the substitution of phenolic panels. This decorative high-pressure compact laminate (HPL) offered the owner an ideal blend of beauty, durability and longevity—not to mention weighing in at less than 50 pounds per panel. Additionally, the decision positively impacted the project schedule. Had Balfour Beatty and WELBRO proceeded with precast, tradesmen would have been limited to working a mere four hours a night when the trains were not in service.
Even with the incorporation of this vastly more efficient material, the Marriott Marquis’ north façade could serve as a master class in coordination and craftsmanship. Not only did this elevation require four trades to labor within close proximity, but it also necessitated the erection of scaffolding reaching a towering 127 feet. And because that scaffolding occupied most of the access area, it could only be fed sideways, creating less than ideal conditions for material transport.
Balfour Beatty and WELBRO’s influence on the Marriott Marquis’ skin may be most manifest within the vertical and horizontal reveals that protrude from its plaster surfacing. Commonly employed for enhanced architectural effect, reveals serve both pragmatic and artistic purposes; when designed and constructed effectively, they can not only break up an expansive panel or deflect the eye from superficial inconsistencies but also imbue a solid surface with texture, shadow and viscosity. To achieve this outcome through the Marriott Marquis’ plaster reveals, Morris Architects had elected to eliminate control joints, deeming that they would dilute the design.
Due to industry standards regarding the height to width ratio for plaster panel size, coupled with the material’s proclivity to expand and contract, Balfour Beatty and WELBRO advised the project team that these control joints were necessary to relieve stress and minimize cracking resulting from thermal movement. Working hand-in-hand with the architect, Balfour Beatty and WELBRO devised a solution that rendered the control joints more aesthetically pleasing without sacrificing the reveals’ potential to become one of the Marriott Marquis’ most distinctive exterior embellishments.
“The reveals were a great example of the symbiotic relationship the building team maintained with the design team,” affirms Brian Phillips, senior project manager. “They needed us to bring field-ready knowledge to the design, and their inspiration was invaluable in creating a building shape and skin like none other in downtown Houston.”
Rarely do building envelopes radiate with the spark of genius, but with its unique blend of materials and patterns, seamed and stitched together by masterful artisans, the Marriott Marquis is virtuoso indeed. An unorthodox coat of many colors. A multifaceted mural that stands as an enduring metaphor to the cross-discipline dexterity indispensable to its making. And just like a piece of high fashion is less about the label than the personal style of the one who sports it, this hotel has a swagger all its own. Construction couture at its finest, we’re sure even Vogue would agree.