Italian Kiln Technology Meets Leading Architectural Design at BVTC

SOURCE: Ceramic Forum International
DATE:Jan-Feb 2010

Italian Kiln Technology Meets Leading Architectural Design at BVTC

Located in Orchard Park, NY, Boston Valley Pottery, Inc. was founded in 1889 and has been producing clay products for 120 years. Privately owned and operated, and doing business as Boston Valley Terra Cotta since 1981 the company has become one of the leading manufacturers of architectural terra cotta for restoration and new construction. The product portfolio comprises extruded, RAM pressed, slip casted and manually formed sculptural units. With about 140 to 160 employees and a large-scale state of the art production facility, Boston Valley Terra Cotta is committed to excellence in the restoration of terra cotta buildings, an important part of US heritage, but has also entered the international segment of leading advanced architecture with a very up-market portfolio of rain screen panels (up to 600mm x 1560mm in size x 40mm in thickness and can profile up to 150mm in depth). BVTC has complemented its traditional terra cotta product portfolio (sculptures, ashlars, bandings, copings, columns, balusters, etc.) with ceramic rain screen systems (façade panels, baguettes, louvers, etc.) following a development period of almost one decade. At Ceramitec, the President of Boston Valley Terra Cotta John B. Krouse (JBK) explained this to us the history of this particular project, the importance of technology suppliers like Forni FICOLA/IT, who has recently installed the new kiln technology.

cfi: How was the rain screen panel project initiated?

JBK: In 1999 I was invited to Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ New York office to discuss terra cotta rain screen systems. I was fascinated by the idea of developing a panel system for interior and exterior tile cladding, which could offer individual design possibilities to leading architects. Five years of technology development and market studies followed. In 2004 we were able to present the first products to the market. In a nutshell, a decade has passed from the dream of launching and outstanding product line to profitable sales of rain screen panels.

cfi: What were the main technological hurdles in this project?

JBK: At first we worked on sourcing consistently high-quality raw materials. We have good clay mines in the United States but we had to set up a scheme for selective mining to ensure the product consistency. We blend the various components in-house, to achieve standard and custom colour clay bodies that meet project specific aesthetic and performance requirements. With Forni FICOLA and their equipment design services, we found an experienced partner whose driers, automated glaze line and kilns to ensure a uniform fired colour. The combination of equipment and technical expertise this company supplied us has increased our production and performance capabilities. We have fewer rejects in drying and firing, but on the other hand a very flexible technology enabling us to respond immediately to enquiries and set up test series.

cfi: How are projects with the leading architects initiated?

JBK: It is extremely important to give the architects knowledge with regard to colours, how to design the panels and the various cladding systems. After those presentations and discussions, they come back to us with their design solutions, which are transferred by our experts to mock-up production. Computer-aided shop drawings generate the information necessary to assist the fabrication process and installation with section details and setting drawings. Cladding installations, which show how the tailor-made prototype panels will appear, enable the architect to optimize his product design.

cfi: What are specific properties of your products to enable these design solutions?

JBK: It is not only the vast and boundless magnitude of colours and shapes. The extraordinary plasticity of our clay bodies achieves a richness of surface texture and ornamental detailing. Their high compressive strength in the fired state contributes to an extraordinary load-bearing capacity. Substantial weathering propensity creates a barrier impervious to the elements and resistant to fading.

cfi: Are you planning to further develop the surface properties, e.g. for easy-to-clean products?

JBK: We are continuing our R&D especially for the rain screen panels. One issue is the modification of surface properties. We are at present working with an international well-known designer, Christine Jetten, on the development of a range of coloured glazes.

cfi: The investment in new drying and firing equipment with Forni FICOLA in the year 2009 reflects a good market performance in spite of the crisis in the US building sector. What have you been able to detach yourself and your rain screen panels from the decline in this sector?

JBK: While advanced systems and methodologies economize manufacturing costs and lead times in order to meet the rigorous demands of contemporary building specifications, the commitment at BVTC to craftsmanship, quality, and service remains uncompromised. Both are important when we develop new rain screen products (cost and design performance). But also governmental programmes were in favour of our activities (The USGBC LEED Program providing tax savings for energy-efficient building concepts, grants for public buildings). End-users in the US are also very open-minded with regard to using “green” products and consider the lifecycle of the material, the possibilities for reusing the components and material efficiency in general. With ceramics we have a good standing here. One success factor for sure is that we have set up facilities to guide the architect from his idea to his individual product, but also to advise and train builders on this outstanding technology.

cfi: Thank you for talking to us.