Partnership with UB brings high-tech tools to terra cotta firm

SOURCE: The Buffalo News
BY: Stephen Watson
DATE: May 19, 2013
See the original article at The Buffalo News (expired link)

Partnership with UB brings high-tech tools to terra cotta firm

The type of historic terra cotta restoration performed by artisans at Boston Valley Terra Cotta is painstaking, time-consuming craftsmanship, and the work has been done largely the same way for decades.

Now, a team of students and faculty from the University at Buffalo is helping the Orchard Park company bring the techniques into the 21st century.

Researchers in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning have introduced the designers and sculptors at Boston Valley to new, high-tech tools that are saving time and helping them work more efficiently.

“We’re extremely lucky to be close to this caliber of facility,” said John Krouse, Boston Valley’s president. “I think it would have been extremely difficult to do it without their help.”

The tools – including a carving tool that works in three dimensions and a program that uses photos to create digital images of terra cotta pieces – aren’t intended to replace the craftsmen at Boston Valley with machines and computers.

Instead, they are meant to free the workers from the most onerous tasks, allowing them to focus on work that requires creativity while giving them training in valuable skills.

And UB students get the practical experience of putting academic concepts to the test in the business world.

“It’s embedded learning,” said Omar Khan, chair of UB’s architecture department

The owners of Boston Valley Terra Cotta started fabricating architectural terra cotta 32 years ago, after Krouse and several members of his family bought and reconfigured Boston Valley Pottery, a producer of clay pots that began making bricks in 1889.

The new owners sought to recast the pottery company, located near clay deposits in Orchard Park, as a terra cotta manufacturer with a focus on historic restoration.

The company’s first restoration project was the ornate facade of the Guaranty Building in downtown Buffalo, which led to assignments across the United States and Canada.

Their hundreds of restoration projects have included Craigdarroch Castle in British Columbia, Burnham and Root’s Rookery building in Chicago and the Breakers, the Gilded Age mansion in Newport, R.I.

Today, Boston Valley is one of just three companies in the United States that manufacture terra cotta, which is growing in popularity as a building material in new construction, because ceramics are durable, “green” and sustainable.

“We’re hoping that goes for 20 or 30 years,” said Krouse, a ceramic engineer, referring to the terra cotta revival.

Boston Valley, which declined to provide sales figures, employs 130 people at its 180,000-square-foot facility on South Abbott Road. About half of its business is manufacturing terra cotta for new construction and half is for restorations.

UB Sought Them

Khan and UB researcher Mitchell Bring reached out to Boston Valley prior to the 2011 National Preservation Conference, a major annual event that drew more than 2,000 people to Buffalo when it was held here.

UB wanted to demonstrate a more efficient, less invasive approach to restoring terra cotta details on architecturally significant buildings, and it wanted to work with Boston Valley to do this. “How does computing and craft come together?” Khan said.

The traditional process of re-creating terra cotta tiles, statues and other building features requires drafters to create a two-dimensional drawing of the object. They work off photos, measurements taken by hand or a piece of the object or facade in question if it can be removed.

The drafters’ drawing then is sent to the pattern shop, where sculptors produce a model, typically in plaster.

Plaster is poured over the model to produce a hollow mold, before workers press and form terra cotta into the mold. The terra cotta is then finished, dried and fired in a kiln.

UB introduced Boston Valley to digital fabrication tools already used by students in an architecture department lab.

One, a laser scanner, is used to scan an object that remains on the building or that has been removed from the building. Drafters at Boston Valley were trained to use modeling software to take the data generated by the scanner to create a three-dimensional image.

Another high-tech process, known as photogrammetry, uses photographs taken from a number of angles to create a similar 3-D image, and this process is better than a laser scanner for producing images of complex objects. Both approaches make the drafting process and model-making process easier, Khan said.

The 3-D images created by the laser scanner or the photogrammetry process are then used to produce a model, either using a laser cutter or cutting tools known as three-axis or five-axis routers, which UB also demonstrated to Boston Valley.

The routers get their names from the number of directions the router can move while cutting a piece of foam into a model. Three-axis routers cut along an X-Y axis or up and down.

The fourth and fifth axes refer to this newer router’s ability to rotate 180 degrees in a half circle motion around the piece of foam, creating models with undulating peaks and valleys.

A laser cutter creates a tool, made of wood and metal, that is used in turn to produce the plaster model.

Students at UB built their own five-axis router, following online directions, and used the machine to create replicas of the tiles on the Guaranty Building that were handed out to attendees of the 2011 National Preservation Conference in Buffalo.

Boston Valley officials who used the UB router were so impressed they decided to buy an industrial-sized version for themselves, after UB showed employees how to use it.

The region benefits when more workers are trained in how to use cutting-edge tools and software, Khan said. “We need people who know how to do this,” he said.

Manhattan Maidens

Boston Valley used some of its new fabrication tools on its most recent major restoration project, the replacement of four aging, terra cotta female figures attached to the corners of the top floor of 150 Nassau, a condominium high-rise in Manhattan that dates to the 1890s.

The 19-foot-tall sculptures, known as caryatids, need to be replaced with terra cotta replicas that will be anchored more securely to the building.

A contractor removed one sculpture from the building, piece by piece, and all 54 of them were placed in separate crates and trucked up to Buffalo.

Boston Valley artisans used photogrammetry and a laser scanner to create 3-D images of each piece. The company then produced 54 models, molds and terra cotta pieces for the first of the replica caryatids, which look like angels and were dubbed “Dorothy” by UB.

Boston Valley’s workers are finishing up the project now, and the first of the replacement caryatids is set to be installed at 150 Nassau in August.

For Boston Valley, the new digital tools allow its employees to finish the drafting and modeling process faster, potentially letting the company take on more work as those skilled craftsmen and women focus on tasks that demand creativity.

Boston Valley is using the tools again for their next large restoration undertaking, the replacement of the terra cotta dome atop the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton.

“It’s something that would be almost impossible to do the old way,” Krouse said.

For UB, the partnership offers its students a chance to gain practical experience, and several students, including Linfan Liu and Peter Schmidt, have worked at Boston Valley part-time and shared what they learned in the lab at school.

The architecture department has set up a Material Culture Research Group and also has started introducing these tools to other companies, including Rigidized Metals, bolstering the region’s push into advanced manufacturing.

“We have a lot of really great manufacturers that are going to be retooling, that are going to be moving to far more sophisticated manufacturing processes, and those are all digital, those are all computationally driven,” Khan said.