Not all architecture is created equal. That’s a basic truth. Not all materials are treated in the same way when it comes to designing great buildings; some architecture more successfully communicates the strength of a material than other structures.
LEVENBETTS, a small studio based in Chelsea, has extensive experience working with fiber cement on their many projects in the city and around the world, unveiling the innumerable ways the versatile material can be expressed on a building. In fact, some of their New York State–centric projects include stunning uses of fiber cement cladding showcasing their love for manipulating the raw material into minimalist geometric forms with crisp and clean lines.
“In general, we like anything cementitious, so we love cement board,” said Stella Betts, one half of the LEVENBETTS duo. “We’ve worked with many cement products and methods from cast-in-place board-formed to glass-fiber-reinforced concrete and Ultra High-Performance Concrete (UHPC) panels.”
At the moment, Betts and her partner, David Leven, are studying the benefits of cladding with concrete blocks — inarguably a more arduous and less forgiving material to control. But when it comes to fiber cement, they find it stable and simple to detail. The tricky part, according to Betts, is making sure the contractor can cut to the shapes of their panels and seamlessly attach them to the architecture.
To do this, LEVENBETTS works with a handful of companies who specialize in paneling, such as Louisville, Kentucky–based Cement Board Fabricators, Eco-Cem from Miami and Eternit in Switzerland. The architects collaborate with the manufacturers to develop the right depth of product that will fit their particular designs. As for the way the panels are fixed to the architecture, it’s less about aesthetics than it is stability for LEVENBETTS. But that doesn’t mean they don’t dream up creative solutions for the façade.
“We often do exposed fasteners because we don’t mind the look, but we also have done concealed attachments,” said Betts. “The limitations or constraints are that you have to be willing to have the joints, so you have to design to the sizes of the panels and the pattern that they make. But we see this as an opportunity to create patterns on the façade.”
LEVENBETTS have envisioned some extremely unique exterior envelope patterns using fiber cement. For instance, their big and boxy 36SML Beach House on Long Island makes use of two kinds of concrete panel systems: GFRC custom formed slabs on the lower level and smooth cement board on the upper levels, which cantilevers over the bottom floor at the edges of the design. The panels are accented with different heights and tones, bringing an unexpected texture to the exterior look of the project. Large window cutouts are also exaggerated along the façade, further dissecting the patterns of height from panel to panel.
SQUARE House, a perfect, 43-by-43-foot square building, serves as a detached guesthouse for a Catskills residence. It features cement in a more rough and rugged context. Designed on the site of one of LEVENBETTS’ older residential projects, the 1,850-square-foot structure is stripped in thin protruding rows of concrete. The main house on-site, CAT01 House, also includes large cement board panels as part of the building’s square foundation.
For such symmetrical shapes like these, it’s important to the architects that the building maintains an effortless wraparound façade. In other words, the corners need to lap. Miter joints, in these cases, aren’t good enough.
“The material is too thin and difficult to consider a miter joint,” said Betts. “So we try to achieve very tight joints so the end result is much more even and not tiled.”
Many of LEVENBETTS’ residential projects have very solid exterior envelopes that show the strength of such cement cladding. From beach houses to farmhouses and homes set in the woods, each individual piece of architecture possesses a distinctive look that comes with the material’s adaptable composition. For LEVENBETTS, it’s its long-lasting and edgy quality that makes cement stand out as a top material in their collection of cladding products.