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Metal Architecture
Monday | 27 October, 2014 | 2:09 pm

Meshing magic

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Cambridge's Pelican mesh pattern used T304 stainless steel with 36 percent transparency and a reflective surface.

Architectural fabricator’s metal mesh systems fuse function with beauty

October 2014 - Persian carpet makers combined complex weaving techniques with silk and wool to handcraft rugs prized for both their artistry and functionality. Similarly, Cambridge Architectural’s artisans weave metal mesh strands into intricate patterns from recyclable materials like stainless, bronze, aluminum and brass. The metal fabric—with its custom designs, textures and finishes—gives architects and contractors durable, sustainable building materials that are visually beautiful. 

The Cambridge, Maryland-based company is one of the largest domestic manufacturers of flexible and rigid metal mesh systems used for the interiors and exteriors of structures that include libraries, hospitals, universities, performing arts venues, hotels and major sports complexes. 

The juxtaposition of metal artwork and function can be traced to Cambridge’s industrial roots. Established as a wire belt manufacturer in 1911, the company produced stainless conveyor belting. As its capabilities and technology evolved, Cambridge began to look for other ways to use its woven metal material. “One of our first architectural applications, interior cladding for elevators, was installed in New York City’s Seagram Building in 1957,” says Gary Compton, brand manager for Cambridge. “You can still visit that building today and see our cladding in its elevators.” 

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Expanding its applications to include external façades, Cambridge helped pioneer use of its metal mesh material as a design option for architects. The Cambridge Architectural Division was established in 2002.

Visual dynamics 

The division’s product portfolio continues to expand with the development of new mesh patterns, finishes and innovative uses. But the appetite for invention doesn’t stop there. To help a customer realize a vision, Cambridge also develops new fabrication techniques and invests in the necessary equipment to build a new product, like the S-shaped mesh panels it designed for the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

The 4,004-room Aria Resort & Casino, considered the crown jewel of an $8.5 billion CityCenter project, opened in December 2010. Cambridge was tapped by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, New Haven, Connecticut, to create an economical yet visually dynamic metal mesh solution that could mask the hotel’s lush pool deck and massive block staircase from public view.

“Pelli Clarke Pelli wanted a curved upper façade system that could shield the area yet provide an element of transparency poolside that would not obstruct the view or hinder airflow,” says Compton. “Visually they also wanted the surface of the façade to shimmer and appear fluid, like fabric flowing across the building’s exterior.”

Cambridge chose grade T304 stainless steel to create a mesh pattern, dubbed Pellican, featuring 36 percent transparency with a highly reflective face. The company makes a standard mesh product using spirals and rods woven to maintain a straight or flat plane. “Pelli wanted the rods to curve in an unconventional direction, which required us to curve the rods themselves,” explains Matt O’Connell, a project engineer for Cambridge. “We also had to develop a new attachment system we could affix the mesh to.” 

Adds Compton: “That meant modifying our patent-pending Eclipse technology by curving its attachment tubes. We worked with the contractor to develop specifications for fabricating custom mounting brackets to secure the curved mesh panels to the building structure. This was a hallmark project that really illustrates the scope of what we do from development of a unique mesh pattern and attachment system to full-scale engineering, project management and installation.”

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Innovation meets function

To tackle the casino project, the Cambridge team developed a mockup 25 feet tall by 30 feet wide to include the façade’s tightest curve and a reverse S-curve to test the performance of its prototype attachment system. Cambridge rolled and formed the structural steel for the mockup, which helped them develop the fabrication techniques required to produce the curved panels. 

“You can draw something on a computer, but we also work closely with the steel contractor,” says O’Connell. “Once the contractor built the framework, we went to the work site and created a template that we both could work from. The template helped us determine that we needed a 4-inch offset for top, intermediate and bottom brackets and our Eclipse tubes to attach those brackets to the framework. The template also allowed the contractor to go ahead and drill the holes for the tubes.”

For Cambridge, each step of the process—from raw tubes to initial polish and fabrication of the curves to exact specifications—required meticulous attention to detail.

Thirty-four curved panels, rolled like carpeting, arrived at the job site. Once the top bracket was installed, technicians would unroll a panel from the top using a crane to lift and attach it to the bracketing. Man-lifts allowed technicians to work their way down the hanging panels, attaching them at the intermediate and bottom brackets with the Eclipse tubes. Tension was then applied to the specified amount of preload. “Tension is critical,” explains O’Connell. “You don’t want the panel to sag or move.”

MM-1014-metalarch-image3Once setup was complete, the upper façade covered 26,000 square feet and consisted of 26 stainless steel mesh panels 17 feet wide by 46 feet tall; eight panels at 17 feet wide by 39 feet high and three panels that are 18 feet wide by 46 feet high. A lower façade, covering 7,400 square feet, was made from flat mesh panels stretched between standard eye bolts to provide a lower-cost barrier.

“The upper façade was the focal point and where the customer put its investment,” says Compton. 

Installation for both upper and lower façades, along with mesh applications that included the parking structure, were completed in 2009. The façades are holding up well, according to Steve Jung, director of architecture for MGM Resorts International Design. 

“We wanted a cost-effective solution that screened away the structural steel and very large exit staircase that we didn’t want to see,” he says. “According to Facilities personnel at the Aria, they have not had to perform any service on the façade. I drove past it recently and it looks good, though it probably could use a power wash. We’re in a very dusty environment here in Las Vegas.”

Large spaces

Cambridge recently used the Pellican mesh developed for the Aria Resort as part of the Cotton Bowl’s $57 million renovation. James Carpenter Design Associates selected Cambridge’s Mid-Balance and Pellican mesh patterns to create form for the Dallas stadium’s end zones while allowing views in and out of the facility as well as air circulation. 

The panels—334 Mid-Balance mesh panels covering 41,120 square feet and 174 Pellican mesh panels covering 8,232 square feet—mounted in Cambridge’s Eclipse attachment system, were installed in 2013. 

The mix of textures creates a series of ribbons pulled inward from the top of the stadium, cinched, and then allowed to flow downward. The design, called Light Veil, was a winning concept for the New York City-based James Carpenter Design in a competition held for this portion of the project.

“For each job we do, the interaction between the architect, the contractor and our firm is critical,” says Compton. “From a metals perspective, the use of mesh and the way we attach it, allows us to cover extremely large areas to give customers something that is beautiful, appears light and transparent, yet is strong and functional.” MM

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