“The Panelite also has a very tactile nature. That is something I really liked about it. It works from afar, but as you get closer, it works even better. It’s magical close up…perfect at an institutional scale.”
– Terry D. Steelman, FAIA, LEED AP, Senior Principal, Ballinger

The Fascitelli Center is a new interdisciplinary hub at the College of Engineering, University of Rhode Island. As part of a comprehensive master plan for the College, Ballinger proposed demolishing five obsolete buildings that were obstacles to the College’s growth, and designing the new building as a bridge between the science and humanities precincts of the campus.

The key design feature of the five-story building is a truss support system, which eliminates the need for interior support columns and allows for uninterrupted open interiors and ample daylighting.

Ballinger chose Panelite panels to enclose a spiral stair and create feature wall and ceiling elements. Key factors in their choice of Panelite were its translucency, light weight, structural integrity and color options. Our CEO Emmanuelle Bourlier interviewed Terry D. Steelman, Senior Principal at Ballinger, to learn more.

EB: The University of Rhode Island website says of the FCAE “All of that open, light-filled space is the centerpiece of the building’s design, which University leaders saw as a way to enhance collaboration among faculty and students across all engineering disciplines.” Can you comment further on the role of daylighting and how your choice of Panelite factored into it?

TS: The entire project was about diffuse translucency. We did a lot of research into materials, and we were intrigued by the color options with Panelite and the fact that it could be curved in large units, while being strong enough to resist lateral forces and act as a railing. Daylighting was an important component and we also designed light into the project so that the stair column would glow at night. One of my favorite photographs is of the building at night with the glowing yellow column rising through the building. But seeing it in real life – it is absolutely stunning.

The project is essentially a 200 ft, 5 story bridge. So the entire project, the bridge and the openness, the daylighting, are all meant to emphasize collaboration. The glowing yellow column was meant to provide a focal point. When you are dealing with engineering and sciences, there can be a lot of intensity in terms of information and visual stimulation. We wanted to achieve a measure of clarity and focus.

EB: You chose to enclose the spiral stairway with yellow translucent honeycomb Panelite panels, creating a stunning visual feature that plays a significant part in the experience of the space. How did the final installation compare with your expectations and design intent? Were there any aspects that were surprising, or any that exceeded your expectations?

TS: There were essentially two requirements for the material at the stair enclosure. We had to create a completely enclosed smoke barrier, so the stair needed to enclosed top to bottom. First, we wanted to allow light transmission; we didn’t want people feeling claustrophobic, walking into a solid tube. Second, the material had to be lightweight as the stair enclosure is essentially suspended.

We also used Panelite on a large wall next to the stair and in a ceiling application that is not visible in the photos. We chose the yellow because URI’s school colors are yellow and blue. The yellow color became a symbolic reference for vertical circulation. Throughout the building, every time there is a stair or an elevator, there is a yellow element to facilitate wayfinding. The way the panels transmit light was very valuable to the project. The Panelite also has a very tactile nature. That is something I really liked about it. It works from afar, but as you get closer, it works even better – it’s magical close up!

EB: That is so wonderful to hear. I have been doing this for 23 years now and it never gets old, I am so thrilled to hear when a project is enthusiastically received, when the designers are happy and the end users enjoy it. Do you think that the tactile nature you describe has to do with the layered nature of the panel, with the honeycomb in between the facings?

TS: Yes, it has to do with the layers as well as the fact that it has some thickness to it, but not too much. It rides that line nicely, having enough substance to hold its own but not so much that it gets clumsy. It’s very elegant. It holds up well at the institutional scale, and we do a lot of institutional projects.

There was a debate in the office as to whether we should use yellow facings on both sides of the panel or frosted clear on one side and yellow on the other, as we did, to increase the transmission of daylight and make the yellow slightly less intense. I thought the yellow on both sides would be too much. I can’t help wondering what it would look like with the yellow on both sides…

EB: It’s funny how with projects like these, they look so wonderful and thoughtfully detailed; people only see that beautiful, finished product and they don’t realize that the designers continue to question their choices.

TS: I think we could have detailed it better. The product is very cool and I would definitely use it again but I would think more about how it connects to other materials. There was an opportunity to show the very fine edge of the ceiling panels, have them appear to be floating.

It did exactly what we would have liked it to do, but we can’t help re-thinking our design decisions, wondering, could we have done it better? I like to try new materials; I have a history of trying cool new things and I know that each time we work with them it will get better. We get better at detailing them and the outcomes keep getting better. Until it gets boring and then it’s like, ok what can we do next?

EB: Hopefully we can keep you challenged and excited to keep working with our products! We have some new developments coming down the line. Did you consider other alternate products to achieve the curved panel installation? If so, which ones? What led you to choose Panelite?

TS: We looked at all kinds of materials, everything from polycarbonates to metals to straightforward drywall. We covered the landscape of options and Panelite hit the sweet spot. The lightweight and strength were important. This is a 4-story stair hung off a rod, with no gravity supports, only lateral supports at each floor. So the lightweight nature of the material was very important. And its ability to connect at multiple points.

EB: How would rate the ease of design, of installation, and of maintenance of the Panelite panels? Have you received feedback about the Panelite installation from those who use the space regularly?

I can’t comment on maintenance because the building isn’t fully occupied due to the pandemic. This was a very complicated stair and all I can say is the panels came with the radius promised! We didn’t build a lot of slack into the system so the precision of the materials being produced to our custom specification was important. No panels were broken, which was a relief. I don’t know how easy it was to install but the end result looks great.

We don’t have feedback from occupants yet, again due to the pandemic, but the Fascitellis were happy and the project won an important design award in which the use of materials and light were cited, so Panelite was implicitly acknowledged.

EB: Do you have any additional comments? Would you choose to use Panelite again?

TS: Absolutely we would use it again, I am especially interested in the transmission of light and the way it allows us to play with color. We do a lot of university projects, and it is a good way to introduce school colors. Also, I see that you have an exterior IGU product?

EB: We do! ClearShade is our honeycomb IGU and it is ideal for schools because it amplifies diffuse daylight, which is so important for well-being and productivity in students, but it also blocks solar heat gain. So you increase well-being and save on both lighting and HVAC loads, energy-wise. It can also be used to create visual privacy for safety in schools. I will send you some additional information and samples.

Thank you so much for your time today, Terry. I appreciate your enthusiasm for our product and I really enjoyed our conversation.

Project: Fascitelli Center at University of Rhode Island, RI
Architect: Ballinger, Philadelphia
Photos: James Ewing / JBSA
Installer: All Panel Systems

Project details:
Panel type: Bonded Series B-EXC-YT Yellow Transparent
Installation details:
Vertical joints: butt-joint detail with a simple floor and ceiling channel system to capture the panels.