A Professor's Perspective: Concrete Thinking - Lessons in Precast Design, Testing, and Fabrication

September 19, 2023

New Precast Concrete Curricula at the University of Virginia (UVA)

By Assistant Professor of Architecture, Mohamed Ismail, UVA School of Architecture


The UVA School of Architecture in Campbell Hall on the UVA Arts Grounds.


Today, building construction contributes to at least 11% of global carbon emissions, and that figure is only expected to rise due in large part to our wide use of concrete. Global cement production has outpaced that of all other industrial construction materials since the Second World War, and production has increased exponentially in the decades since. It is undeniable that the use of concrete in construction is omnipresent and with projected demands for urban construction and new and restored infrastructure, concrete production shows no sign of slowing down.


Nowadays, designers’ response to concrete’s toll on the environment involves revisiting low-carbon construction technologies and indigenous building materials. While these are valid pathways towards sustainable construction, there are no existing materials that meet the performance criteria and availability of reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete is strong, stiff, durable, and can resist fire and seismic damage. These properties and more have enabled dense vertical construction and durable infrastructure worldwide throughout the last century. If urban construction is projected to double the existing floor area by 2050, we need immediate, scalable, and impactful innovations in concrete construction that meet global demands while reducing our environmental impact. Today, most construction is structurally and materially inefficient, developed to reduce labor over material costs through modular and oversized elements. We can—and should—change this through interdisciplinary design education, starting with architects and engineers taught to design thoughtful, high-performance concrete structures.


Through the support of the PCI Foundation, the University of Virginia School of Architecture will introduce new courses in the undergraduate and graduate architecture curricula to teach students in multiple disciplines and help advance precast concrete design research and practices over the next four years. Working with our industry partners, Tindall Corporation and Metromont Corporation, and our colleagues in the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science, we aim to build competency in precast concrete design and construction and, equally important, work with the concrete industry towards sustainable design and construction technologies that take full advantage of concrete’s performative values and widespread availability.


With industry and academic partners, we will accomplish these goals by teaching new and redesigned courses that encompass the following topics in precast concrete:

  1. Historical surveys of concrete’s technological origins, socio-cultural impact, and its subsequent role in global development. Throughout the 20th century, we built grand architectural monuments—civic and cultural buildings, infrastructure, residential developments, universities—that highlighted a growing understanding of concrete’s structural potential.
  2. Building science workshops that introduce students to the standards and practices of the precast industry. Students will be introduced to contemporary precedents in precast construction and will work with industry partners and our engineering colleagues to understand how and why we build the way we do.
  3. Advanced research seminars that bridge between the complex analysis of building
    performance metrics and our design choices.
  4. Design studios that bring together the preceding topics through design projects that are
    both realistic and thought-provoking. This will draw from the insight of our industry partners and local designers working to develop resilient and cost-effective design solutions to wide-ranging architectural problems.

The Icon in Richmond, VA, by SWA Construction and Tindall Building Systems, Petersburg, VA. The project was featured in the PCI Journal. Tindall’s Lightweight All-Purpose Beam (T-SLAB) (photo, right) was featured in the article.


About the University of Virginia and the School of Architecture


In 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and inaugurated a bold experiment — a public university designed to advance human knowledge, educate leaders, and cultivate an informed citizenry. More than two centuries later, this vision is thriving as UVA students, faculty, staff, and alumni challenge convention, break barriers, and pursue the greater good.


The School of Architecture was a cornerstone of founder Thomas Jefferson’s concept for the university. Instruction in architecture began in 1919 as part of the School of Fine Arts, which later led to the official establishment of the School of Architecture in 1919 as part of the School of Fine Arts, which later led to the official establishment of the School of Architecture in 1954. The School of Architecture at UVA includes the oldest architectural history department in the nation and top-ranked degree programs in architecture, landscape architecture, urban and environmental planning, and newly established programs in urban design, historic preservation, and real estate and design.


Mohamed Ismail is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia of Architecture.  Ismail received a Ph.D. in Building Technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he studied the application of structural and material optimization in the alleviation of housing insecurity in the Global South. He holds an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from Duke University, a Master of Architecture degree from the UVA School of Architecture, and a Master of Science in Architecture Studies in Building Technology from MIT. 


Want to learn more about guest lectures, plant tours, and other educational materials from PCI Mid-Atlantic? Reach out! 

© 2023 Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute Mid-Atlantic Chapter



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