Strength and softness meet in a metal mesh room divider.Interior dividers can be functional to a fault. If a partition is all you need, then even drywall would do the trick. A custom-built metal curtain in the University of Baltimore’s new law building, however, brings an architectural sensibility to the problem of dividing one space into two. The curtain bisects the lobby with stainless steel, woven into mesh for a unique and uncharacteristically soft texture. Maryland-based Cambridge Architectural engineered and installed the custom mesh curtain for the John and Frances Angelos Law Center at the University of Baltimore. The building, designed by Behnisch Architekten and Ayers Saint Gross, won best facade in AN's first annual Best of Design Awards. The divider is a continuous 33-foot curtain of architectural stainless steel in the building’s seventh-floor lobby. (A second divider, also designed by Cambridge Architectural, is located near the snack bar on the ground floor.) Made of small triangular volumes between a mesh weave, the curtain’s opacity varies based on the angle of the viewer. The Angelos Law Center curtain is longer than previous applications of similar systems, said Cambridge Architectural’s engineering manager Jim Mitchell. Many dividers the company has installed are less than 20 feet long, and are often split in the middle. The tabs and aluminum tracks that hold the 500-pound curtain in place are marine-grade—that is, they are fit for sailing rigs. The metal curtain can be pulled open and closed like a security gate, but it retains the smooth movement and look of a curtain. “It gives it the appearance more of a tapestry than a panel, which typically is tensioned and rigid,” said Mitchell. The fabric-like texture is made possible by the closely woven pattern. “The larger ones look more industrial, and they’re a little bulky when they fold up. But the smaller spirals tend to fold and roll together.” To make the tightly knit weave, Cambridge Architectural flipped the typical orientation of mesh curtains, running metal crimp rods vertically across the mesh instead of horizontally. The crimp rods, welded once they are woven through, join the triangular volumes of the curtain. The designers modeled the curtain components in SolidWorks before sending the data to production. In the Angelos Law Center, the orientation of the weave was especially important because of the lobby's tall ceilings. Whether it is locked closed as a true divider, or left partially open like a less substantial curtain, the stainless steel weave is durable and elegant. “The architects didn’t want the standard security grate that you see at the shopping mall,” said Mitchell. “They wanted something with that architectural look to it. Our mesh kind of fits that bill. It’s durable and it’s metal so it’s going to last forever, but yet it still has that look. So it doesn’t look like you’re pulling down a screen in front of RadioShack.”
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A high-performance facade weaves a diverse program into a single volume.The School of Law at the University of Baltimore was founded nearly nine decades ago, but for most of that time its classrooms, offices, library, and clinics were scattered among several downtown buildings. That changed last year, with the opening of the John and Frances Angelos Law Center. Designed by Behnisch Architekten with Ayers Saint Gross, the Angelos Law Center unites a diverse program within a single 12-story structure. Its checkerboard envelope, which won Best Facade in AN’s 2014 Best of Design Awards, weaves the building’s three principal components—a classroom and office wing, the library, and a central atrium—into a single volume. In addition, the facade positions the university on the cutting edge of sustainable design. Its integrated approach to energy efficiency has helped the Angelos Law Center win several green-building prizes, and set it on track to achieve LEED platinum status. Behnisch Architekten took a tripartite approach to the design of the facade. The architects wrapped the portion of the building dedicated to offices and classrooms with an aluminum plate and punched window system. “This is the kind of facade that works very well with the kinds of spaces behind it, because those tend to be a bit more regulated and modular in the way they are allocated,” said partner Matt Noblett. For the library, the uppermost of the building’s two L-shaped volumes, the designers chose a frit glass with a pattern they call a basket weave. “The library, from a program perspective, is kind of a big soup,” said Noblett. There are group study spaces, offices, and, of course, the stacks. “[W]e wanted to find a way in the facade to do [something] more neutral, less specific,” he explained. “The basket weave is less specific in how the articulation of the facade related to the program behind it.” The third segment of the facade, transparent glass enclosing the building’s atrium, draws the two other volumes together. The architects developed a unique sustainability strategy for each section of the building. For the office block, National Enclosure Company fabricated a unitized curtain system comprising the window surface, exterior blinds, and a glass rain screen. The Hunter Douglas Nysan blinds move up and down according to an automated program that operates the top one-third and bottom two-thirds of the windows separately. “It’s remarkable to look at the specific data, to see how much more of the year you’re able to maintain comfort without excessive amounts of air conditioning when you have an exterior sunshading system,” said Noblett, whose firm worked with Transsolar on the building’s climate engineering. Outside the blinds is a low-iron laminated glass rain screen mounted on aluminum brackets. While the architects initially designed the rain screen to protect the blinds, it also solved an architectural problem. “It had a tendency to reunify all of the facade into one building,” he explained. “The more you perforate, the less you read as one volume. By essentially shrink-wrapping [the offices and classrooms], you start to read it again as a [single] volume.” The library at the Angelos Law Center is faced with frit glass from Viracon. “We did a lot of study with the manufacturer” to determine the gradient pattern, said Noblett. “What we wanted it to read was as purely white as possible. We wanted the ceramic as close to the surface as possible.” The goal was to reduce solar gain to the bare minimum. “If you were designing the building and didn’t care how it looked, you would just build a solid wall,” said Noblett. “The idea to add frit to make the wall essentially solid, [but] from the interior of the library it still feels like it’s open.” Outside the atrium, Behnisch Architekten installed a fixed brise soleil by National Enclosure Company on the south and west sides. The north side they left uncovered. All of the Angelos Law Center’s windows are operable, which, while not unheard of, is still unusual in a non-residential setting. “It’s hard to argue with a building where you can get comfortable by opening windows versus sealing up and running the air,” said Noblett. Noblett describes designing a high-performance facade as “this game you’re constantly playing between how much light comes in and how much solar gain [results].” By that analogy, the Angelos Law Center is a check mark in Behnisch Architekten’s win column.