Fired clay brick preserves historic character and integrity of downtown Cullman.
After an EF4 tornado devastated historic downtown Cullman, AL, in April 2011, rebuilding the St. John & Associates Inc. office building was an integral part of the community’s reconstruction efforts.
Birmingham, AL, architect Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds (CCR Architects) designed the civil-engineering firm’s new 4,000-sq.-ft. building, winning a gold award in the Brick Industry Association’s (BIA, Reston, VA) 2014 Brick in Architecture Awards (commercial category, less than $10 million.)
“This has been one of the most rewarding projects in my career, being a part of such an event that is so important to the owner and the city’s recovery,” said CCR’s Richard Carnaggio, AIA, LEED AP. “The owner has become quite a brick aficionado who now photographs interesting brickwork and has even given a presentation on masonry coursing in relation to his building and the historic buildings from the city’s past,” he said.
CCR Architects worked with the city council president to review and comment on new Downtown Cullman Design Guidelines. Developed and implemented in three months, the guidelines aim to preserve and ensure that new construction is compatible with the existing historic characteristics of downtown Cullman, including the rich and diverse historic brick buildings. The design guidelines for commercial and mixed-use buildings state that permitted materials for exterior detailing include wood, brick, stone, cast stone, metal, and materials identical in appearance such as decorative molded urethane millwork. Prohibited materials include concrete (when not imitating permitted materials), metal used incompatibly, vinyl, EIFS (exterior insulation and finish systems), and other materials deemed inappropriate by the design-review committee.
Building owner Bill St. John spearheaded the guidelines with his firm’s new building in the same Cullman location at 508 First Ave., S.E., featuring many historic and industrial details combined with green building elements. His support expanded the project’s development, integrating salvaged materials from other devastated structures, environmentally sensitive materials, and building systems, including key building elements supporting local artists and craftsmen.
The new building’s structure is shaped from insulated concrete forms (ICF), which provide excellent thermal characteristics along with the permanence and strength of reinforced concrete. This substantial frame provided a stable and authentic mass for the solid masonry veneer that allowed offsets, corbeling, and detailing that is difficult in common hollow-core units.
To preserve the historic characteristics of downtown Cullman and help battle severe weather, distributor Acme Brick Co., Ft. Worth, TX, provided Cherokee Brick & Tile Co.’s, Macon, GA, Andersonville brick in modular size—solid brick with no core holes—selected for its used-brick appearance while maintaining the full strength of a modern fired clay brick. The brick is accented with Alabama limestone, also provided by Cherokee. The design of the replacement building called for a high level of detail work, a spokesperson for Acme Brick said.
According to Cherokee Brick & Tile, Andersonville brick is from its Antebellum series, and is primarily red with some charcoal and white accents. The Antebellum product line was created to produce a very rustic old-world brick. This brick also works well when trying to match historic buildings, such as the St. John project. The Andersonville brick was able to uphold the architectural integrity set forth years prior in the downtown area.
“We salute St. John and Associates for its leadership in bringing Cullman back from a direct hit by an EF4 tornado, and we are proud to have provided materials for this landmark project,” said Dennis Knautz, president and CEO, Acme Brick.
“One hundred years ago, our company suffered a similar calamity when a brand-new brick plant burned to the ground,” continued Knautz. “Our president’s response was as firm as his resolve: ‘Kelly,’ he told the plant superintendent, ‘we will build her bigger and better than ever.’ And that’s exactly what Bill St. John and his firm have done in Cullman, with a new building that marries old-world character with 21st-century efficiency,” he said.
Cornerstones and tributes
Hand-carved Alabama marble cornerstones and tribute stones are set within the masonry that adorns the building’s entrance. They contrast with the articulated masonry skin and pay homage to the building’s completion and its owner and serve as a tribute to the memory of his daughter. As a nod to St. John, a former American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) racer, a vintage Ducati single-cylinder motorcycle is suspended over the stairway.
“Our company thrives on the challenge of meeting job-specific needs such as this one,” said Cherokee Brick & Tile president Mike Peavy. “There’s nothing more rewarding than being able to produce something that can meet the specific needs of your customer. We’re glad to be just a small part of the rebuilding process in Cullman after such a devastating event,” he said.
Using brick masonry with a reinforced concrete core created a building designed to withstand future tornadoes. According to BIA tests, fired clay brick exceeds the 34-mph impact-resistance requirement for high-velocity hurricane zones in the Florida building code. Brick offers tested moisture resistance and can meet a one-hr. minimum fire resistance rating by itself. In 2009, a brick seismic study funded by the National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA, showed that buildings built with clay brick veneer can resist earthquakes above the Maximum Considered Earthquake for Seismic Design Category D without collapse.
“Combined with a proper design, installation, and maintenance, brick is an essential element of strong, safe buildings,” said BIA president and CEO Ray Leonhard. “As a sustainable building product made from natural abundant resources, fired clay brick exteriors can reduce property damage and increase survival odds.”
CCR’s Carnaggio said the masons were especially empowered by this project, offering a showcase for their abilities as well as encouraging options other than a running bond. He said the replacement building testifies to the significance of brick, and provides meaning through attention to texture and quality.