In a neighborhood of glass and steel, Fiterman Hall stands out. The new building, part of the CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College downtown campus, is designed by Pei Cobb Freed and sits adjacent to the World Trade Center. The 17-story building is fronted in large prefabricated red-brick panels rhythmically relieved by square glass windows revealing multilevel interior atria. At a cost of $325 million, this is not your grandmother’s little red schoolhouse.
The vertical seams between the brick-faced precast panels betray the interlocking nature of classic red brick and the smooth prefab surface contrasts the tactile quality of hand laid masonry. Regardless, the panels certainly place Fiterman apart as an institutional structure amidst corporate America’s continued penchant for glass.
Brick paneling is hardly new, but with prefabricated buildings making inroads, it’s hard not to view them as another form of value engineering requiring less union hands at the construction site. But David Sovinski, director of industry development for the International Masonry Institute (IMI), said that their membership doesn’t have a problem with the material. IMI is an alliance between the International Union of Bricklayers, Allied Craftworkers, and contractors who promote masonry construction. He noted that IMI union members are better trained to install the panels, as they are with most enclosure methods except glazing. Their main goal, regardless of the method, is to keep trained union hands on the site. “They get man hours off all kinds of construction,” said Sovinski. “You can always go to a factory in rural Pennsylvania for nonunion cheaper labor, but our training is more productive. If you use a trained craft person you don’t get callbacks to fix mistakes.”
The completion of Fiterman Hall is probably one of the more high profile uses of the material in Manhattan, but with the Gotham West tower swiftly rising on Eleventh Avenue and 44th Street, it won’t be the largest. There, more than 1,200 apartments will stretch over almost an entire city block. Gotham’s 11th Avenue tower and midblock low-rise are already getting brick panels slapped on as fast as you can say “prefab.”
Once again, at Gotham, the panels appear smooth, uniform, and manufactured. “I prefer laid in place, I think it’s a better system,” admitted Sovinski. “When you see these fake solutions, it just looks poor.”