Winner: 2006 Construction Excellence Awards: Gold (Ceilings, West Region)
Winner: 2006 Construction Excellence Awards: Founder's Award

GSA San Francisco Federal Office Building

Two conversations bracket the story of the wood ceiling installation at the GSA Federal Office Building in San Francisco. In 2001 Tim Christ, of the architectural firm Morphosis called an acquaintance at 9Wood to ask if perforated wood ceiling panels could be facetted. In 2006 Thom Mayne, founder of Morphosis, cheered the 9Wood/PCI installation team for having executed his facetted wood ceiling panel design. "I looked for misalignment at the perforations as they folded across a facet. They were freaking perfect!" he exclaimed. Between this foothill and peak the project team faced an exacting trek traversing design, manufacturing and installation challenges.

Many individual and enterprise-wide efforts were needed to synchronize and execute this large and complex interior finish. The facetted perforated wood wall and ceiling design, as conceived by Mayne, was not just complex, but large — 27,618 square feet, over 1739 panels, well over half of which were unique. Two million holes were drilled, 76 different geometric planes were hung with T-grid, 35 unique angles were controlled in empty space, and 7,496 linear feet of special molding was extruded.

Thom Mayne is known for his sharp corners, violent eruptions, and fragmented forms that have led some to call him the architect of dislocation. In 2006 when he captured the Pritzker Prize (the architect's Nobel) he was saluted for upending traditional expectations. Among many design elements in the building, he sculpted the high, three-story elevator lobby interiors to express this design philosophy. "I [have] fought violently for the autonomy of architecture," he said in a recent New York Times interview. "It's a very passive, weak profession where people deliver a service. You want a blue door, you get a blue door. Architecture with any authenticity represents resistance. Resistance is a good thing."

To create resistance in the interior lobbies he set the grey cement walls against the warm maple ceilings. These perforated wood panels were to receive his signature fragmented treatment. While the wood tiles were laid out in a 3'x 8' grid, canted planes were broken at acute angles across this grid and the panels folded along them. Actualizing Mayne's folded geometry in open space constituted the core challenge to executing this ceiling. Constrained panel dimensions required the production system to accommodate both the theoretical and as-built phases of the project — all in a short production window.

The first step was gathering the ceiling team. This involved 9Wood as the manufacturer of the perforated ceiling and wall panels helping at the specification and design end. It involved PCI, the acoustical drywall subcontractor, installing the panels working at the contract end. It relied on Bay Area Pinnacle Distribution to act as the go-between, linking installer and manufacturer. It also included numerous wood and metal suppliers along the value chain.

Because the marriage between the wood panel geometry, to be executed by 9Wood, and the T-Bar suspension grid, to be executed by PCI, was fraught with risks, an Engineered-to-Order approach was conceived. Dubbed "Integrated System Testing," the 9Wood team hosted an installation dry run at their facility in Oregon — prior to the submittal of shop drawings — an uncommonly early approach.

Once the panels were built, PCI sent their superintendent and mechanic to hang the grid and install the 20 mock-up panels. There was much debate between the 9Wood, Pinnacle and PCI teams regarding the best installation approach. In the end, this proactive collaboration improved the outcome enormously. Once hung the architects and general contractor flew in to review the I.S.T. Changes in the design were entertained and negotiated, and incorporated into the shop drawings. The geometry was so complex that the entire space was drawn in 3D coordinates and submitted to the architect not just in 2D drawings, but as 3D electronic models. During the entire project the 9Wood engineering team referenced their 3D model for the creation of every production drawing. "We stuck with the 9Wood team," recalled Tim Christ of Morphosis, "because of my confidence in their 3D capabilities."

The project involved plywood fabrication using special fire-rated particleboard and White Maple veneers that needed sizing, perforating, and edge profiling. Three foot by eight foot panels were standard. The challenges began in fabricating the folded panels. As Jayson Hayes, the 9Wood master craftsman responsible for their execution recalls, "The biggest challenge was making a furnituregrade product for a project needing production scheduled fabrication, and holding tolerances all the way through to keep the panels on module." These panels were constructed from the approved 3D model dimensions of each element and translated into panel dimensions using 60-inch digital calipers (not a common measuring tool in wood working).

Phase Two is where the installation and fabrication of the perimeter panels began. Not only did this phase involve navigating the as-built with its inevitable tolerance issues, but the schedule was in crisis by the time the finishes were ready to be installed. Special brackets were fabricated to fold the grid in the correct planes, then jet lines and digital bevels were used to accurately map the 3D model. Perry Alberigi of PCI recalls, "The hardest part of installing the grid was getting the complex geometry and orientation to come together for the proper layout."

Nathan Pfeifer, the head of 9Wood engineering was sequestered for three months to process nothing but field dimensions provided by Alberigi as fast as they arrived at 9Wood. "After three and a half years of laboring on this project," recalled Pfeifer, "the field dimensions finally started coming in for the perimeter panels, and now there was a very limited time frame because of the job site schedule. It hit me that it was finally 'go time.' Field dimensions, to the millimeter, came as 2D unfolded views of each level. I used these to create the 2D and 3D fabrication drawings, which in turn modified the theoretical 3D model I had already drawn. The updated control models based on the as-built conditions allowed us to ensure that the folded panels would fit perfectly in their specific field locations like a giant jigsaw puzzle."

All 1739 special panels had to be drawn, checked, and double checked before release to production. Pfeifer created a three-ring notebook of drawings and dimensions for each of the 13 ceiling levels. These he would hand off to Hayes and his fabrication team. A database was created just to keep track of every panel for labeling and shipping accuracy.

"The manufacturing complexities and tight tolerances required for both the wood fabrication and grid installation was a given. What folks don't always recognize is the pivotal role of the local representative, in our case Jim Ratzlaff of Pinnacle Distribution," comments Charley Coury, 9Wood senior project manager. "Communicating at long distances between installer and manufacturer is still a challenge, even in the 21st century. Jim kept information flowing and the project going. It seems he lived at the job site." For his part Ratzlaff adds, "The most impressive part of the job for me was 9Wood's manufacturing accuracy. Most of the panels were unique. If you look at the number of remake panels, it was so small — I was just amazed."

The building, like a Matterhorn, rose above the skyline of San Francisco. Inside, as Mayne pointed out, "We used skip-stop lobbies. You get off every third floor and walk up or down, which results in both exercise and social connection." In these lofty lobby ceilings he placed the canted and folded Maple panels discussed in this brief article. Here the journey ended for the collaborative team that fabricated and installed Mayne's ceiling design, helping reach his goal of "integrating context, office, and environment" across the summit of architectural design.

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