With construction costs for San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center climbing, including a near doubling of the estimated $144 million cost for the centers steel superstructure to $259 million alone, the architects are now proposing a perforated aluminum skin for the transit center versus glass as originally designed.

Transbay Transit Center Skin

Cloaking the Center in aluminum versus glass would trim $17 million from the estimated $1.59 billion budget for the Center’s first phase which is scheduled to open in 2017.

In the words of John King, “the unanswered question is what other design changes might lay ahead” as the architects aim to trim costs for the project which was budgeted to cost closer to $1.2 billion back in 2007.

72 thoughts on “Rising Construction Costs Getting Under the Transbay Center’s Skin”
  1. Hooray… another architectural bait and switch that we see so much of these days!!!
    This thing is going to look so cheap by the time it actually gets built. Could you imagine what Grand Central Station would have looked like if it had been “value engineered?” C’mon, this is going to be here for generations, and it is going to be the first impression that people have when arriving in the City. Make it count and do it right.

  2. I think the aluminum is a great solution, and still allows light to filter thru to the inside of the terminal.
    And it’s not really correct to call it an “architectural bait and switch”.
    The contractors are really responsible for pricing materials and assemblies. And this pricing is a natural part of the process for most projects of this complexity. The more detail that is developed, the more accurate the pricing can be.
    This can be applied to the simplest residential project to the most complex building such as this one.

  3. Has this material ever been used before? Would be interesting to see some pictures of what it will look like, especially as it ages.

  4. For an example of how an aluminum skin design looks like in real life, just look at the nearby SF Federal Building.

  5. I attended a presentation on the terminal where the architects discussed the engineering involved in designing the glass enclosure and how it was integral to the cooling of the building and of course one of the most visible architectural elements in the project. Switching to perforated aluminum will change that cooling system, restrict light and views, and will stand out far less from its neighbors, especially once the aluminum develops tarnish and collects grime. I agree that the emphasis on cost-saving is misplaced here.

  6. Is there glass or some other non-porous layer behind the skin (like the Federal Building) or does this mean that it gets wet on those levels when it rains?

  7. I guess its fine depending on how it looks from a distance. It doesn’t look as nice up close to me, but Im ok with it if it doesn’t look like solid metal to me from a distance. Not that my opinion matters, or should matter, to the builder.

  8. This whole project has been one giant bait and switch from the beginning. First the amount they were actually going to pay for the tower was slashed (my single biggest gripe since money was the only reason they went with the vastly inferior Pelli design to begin with), then the tower was redesigned and stunted, now the terminal itself is getting re-skinned. This entire project has been one disappointment after another, and I’m sure there is plenty more to come. I’ll never be able to look upon it without thinking of the missed opportunity.

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this shaping up to be the world’s most expensive bus terminal? No imminent plans for hookups with BART, Caltrain or Muni Metro, much less with high speed rail. How much is this a leap of faith?

  10. I think the fractured reflections would’ve been one of the more interesting visual features of the old design.

  11. Good point BobN. If the developer is serious about going with a screen then they should erect a prototype panel ASAP to see how it works in the fog.
    I once camped under a giant sequoia on a dry but partially foggy night. Bad idea because once the fog started rolling in it condensed on the sequoia needles and dripped down to the ground like a light rain. It was no fun moving a soggy tent in the middle of the night. It was bizarre to see it “raining” under the trees but dry everywhere else.

  12. I prefer the aluminum too — so bored with all glass all the time in new construction. But that’s a brilliant observation about fog — also, what about rain? It will produce quite a lovely waterfall.

  13. If the aluminum skin is like the federal building at 90 7th Street on the corner of Mission it will be dirty and unappealing from the street view within short order. Not visually appealing as it ages. Containing cost is good,..but not by making a show piece look drab and grimy.

  14. Glass will be warmer and cause less condensation. A perforated screen also has twice as many sides exposed to the fog.
    Then there are the perforations themselves which has a lot more downward facing surfaces that allow drips to form.
    At least with glass you have a chance of channeling condensation into gutters.
    I think a glass amorphous blob will look more attractive than one made of metal screen. Glass also seems easier to get squeaky clean with a squeegee. If dark mold (or just plain dust and grunge) starts to form inside those perforations it might be hard to scrub out.
    I’ll bet if this project goes for the metal screen solution that the building ultimately gets painted dark gray as a further cost saving measure. But that won’t happen until twenty years later when people start complaining that it looks worse than the old transbay.

  15. Yes, they will employ hundreds and hundreds of people with squeegees to clean the glass on a daily basis.

  16. I too am over glass designs.
    The light patterns will be really cool inside the terminal from the perforations.

  17. To get a preview, take a look at the Federal Building. It’s dark
    during the day. So, it’s going to look like a heavy grey blob.
    Let’s call it the TransBlob.

  18. Cool.
    So the “winning” “bidder” of the “architectural” “competition” lied about the “architecture” as well as the “finances”. What a huge surprise! I’m shocked. Shocked!
    About what you’d expect, given that this worthless piece of shit can’t possibly work either as a “bus station” (all the buses going in or out will have to come to a stop at a stop light!) or as a “train station” (it will make NY Penn Station look Grant in comparison.)
    You’d say this was “unbelievably incompetent”, and “inconceivably corrupt” and wonder “why isn’t everybody connected serving prison sentences?” if you lived in any first world country.

  19. To those referring to the Fed Bldg: that is stainless steel, not aluminum, and is not painted white as this perforated aluminum appears to be in these new Transbay renderings – so actually, Transbay will likely not look similar to the Fed Bldg at all (especially with this curvy form)…
    I do agree the SOM design was better than this though.

  20. It isn’t just how it looks from outside in, which is bad enough, but also from inside out, which he aluminum basically prevents you from doing. It will be much darker and less inviting inside without glass. And it will be a hulking presence in downtown.

  21. If they really have to go this route, it’d be nice if there was greenery coming down the sides from the park to soften the building a bit.

  22. If this was not such a poor design to begin with they would not have to hide it with a metal screen. Note that this could have been left more open if it was more carefully thought through. The structure of the S.O.M. design was it’s beauty as well, and did not need to be hidden.
    An awful gimmick for what has become an overpriced bus station, and what could possibly turn into a complete design failure.
    A true major transit terminus is usually an architectural highlight of a city.

  23. I guess the aluminum will look appropriate – the federal building already looks like a bus station. Likewise, the “skin” will make the building notable for future generations for its hideous look. I lived in other cities where things like this were built in the 70s, and, guess what, they looked awful 20 years later. In addition, the aluminum will change the lighting and be covered in pigeon poop. A disaster waiting to happen

  24. I think the shape is silly and ugly. The skin would look great on a better shape.
    The SOM design was truly world class. And Rockfeller offered the same amount as Hines currently is. SF pols don’t know how to make deals. They’re homeless advocates, not businessmen. And it shows in our skyline and (dis)function. Hate to say it, but glad I moved away.

  25. futurist – A glass curtain wall doesn’t require hundreds and hundreds of people to clean every day. Most such buildings are cleaned once or twice a year by a crew of two people.
    A metal screen on the other hand could require a lot more effort to keep clean. Or it might not even be practical to clean at all.
    If this building does go for a screen skin then I hope that everyone has a good understanding of what it will look like in 10-20 years. I don’t think anyone knows for sure. But we do know what glass curtain walls look like as they age.

  26. It looks like a bidet. Seriously.
    You just know people are going to mistake it for bidet police headquarters…

  27. I agree with others that prefer the SOM design….too bad Hines misrepresented their proposal and offered much more money to the committee choosing the final development team. The SOM design with it’s great hall and heraldic tower would be much better now and in the future than the boring tower and silly bulbous building with a park on top that is now planned. There should be a movement and call to action to stop this crappy proposal before they start to build it.

  28. Looks cheap and tacky. Goodbye “world class” San Francisco, hello Reno by the Bay.
    Fitting for a transit project for “Transit First” SF: incompetent, bait and switch, massive dump in the middle of SOMA.
    This will be a bigger joke than the squatty mid rise “towers” built around it over the last ten years. Only way we can top this is to electrify the Caltrain yards rather than moving them somewhere that land is worth a lot less.

  29. @ MOD: I was being playfully sarcastic at your squeegee comment.
    @ Richard: Hard to tell if you are being sarcastic, or seriously angry for some reason. Your crude language does nothing to further the conversation.
    But no, no one “lied” during the competition brief. The process of any architectural design competition involves broad ideas, conceptual images and “proposed” materials. Nothing is final. It’s an evolving process, subject to all kinds of requirements, including COST.
    Understanding the design process would allow everyone to see that this change in materials and even forms is a normal part of the process for a complex project like this one.

  30. Wow. This has now completely made the transformation from exciting and compelling to I-don’t-care-if-it-ever-gets-built. At this point, I’d be much happier if they’d kill this iteration of the project entirely and start the whole process over (tower and terminal). Just keep the temporary terminal until you can do it right.
    This 1% cost savings will be more than made up for in future maintenance costs to clean all that tiny, hard-to-reach mesh. Unless they neglect it altogether, in which case it will look like crap in a few short years. Utterly shameful.

  31. Thankfully, this project is going ahead and WILL be built; despite many of the negative and uninformed comments.
    Amazing to me how much of the “sky is falling” attitude is really attributed to those who cannot deal with “change” and revisions, and adjustments.
    No one here knows that future maintenance costs will be more OR less than glass. There scores of major buildings around the world that use an aluminum/metal mesh skin for cladding; and they all perform perfectly. The De Young museum utilizes a copper mesh cladding system and it is incredibly handsome and getting more so over time.
    Everybody, just sit back, relax and watch the evolution and construction of this great addition to our downtown.

  32. Give me a break @futurist. This is a major change to what was at the beginning a rather interesting design. When things like Transbay turn this bad, one should be able to step back for a second look.
    No HSR, No BART, Caltrain still in question, a complete change to the aesthetic character of the design (including the tower height and design), can you tell me, why are we building this?

  33. Seriously? a major change? hardly. Maybe you need to bone up on your architectural knowledge.
    Your complaints about no HSR, no BART and questions of Caltrain perhaps are valid, but have ZERO to do with design criticism.
    Separate the issues and go from there.

  34. “No one here knows that future maintenance costs will be more OR less than glass.”
    True. That’s why I suggested that this ought to be prototyped and tested before committing to it big-time.
    “The De Young museum utilizes a copper mesh cladding system…”
    Also true. But a dark copper mesh left to age naturally is a lot different from an aluminum screen that is is expected to remain white. That isn’t a valid comparison.
    If anyone knows of a white mesh that’s been installed in SF long enough to show its age, that could help us understand what this proposal will look like in the future. Without this information there’s a big risk that this could turn out bad.
    Glass on the other hand is well understood.

  35. It’s funny how the assumption of many posters is that the same forces and factors that have:
    – caused the terminal design to evolve (rising costs, as well as federal reviewers “‘getting more specific with regards to risk-vulnerability requirements’ for what the federal government defines to be ‘buildings of significance.'” [quoted from SFGate article]),
    – caused the tower to shrink by 11% to just under 1100 ft. (shadow analysis . . . and for the record, I’m not saying I agree with the shadow fears, but they are what they are, in this town ;-), and
    – caused the amount paid by the tower developer to the TJPA to shrink (general economic factors, as well reductions in the final tower height [see point #2], on which the initial bid was partly predicated)
    …would never have happened “if only they had gone with the SOM design.” (Oh to have a dollar for every time I’ve read someone whine, “if only they had gone with the SOM design.” And for the record, I liked the SOM design too!)
    I rather suspect that, after shadow analysis, etc., the SOM tower would also have also been scaled to under 1100 ft (representing a whopping 20% reduction from its proposed 1375-ft. height, vs. the 11% reduction for the Hines/PCP tower).
    And while the huge, barrel-vaulted, glass galleria of the SOM terminal was certainly (as proposed) breathtaking(!), with all that glass it’s hard to imagine that that wouldn’t be an equally concerning risk vis-a-vis federal safety guidelines, prompting significant changes in design.
    Of course, we’ll never know for sure. The beautiful SOM designs will forever be frozen in the form of their original proposal, unadulterated by the real-world forces that shape real-world projects, thus making ongoing comparisons with the current (and still evolving!) designs of the PCP tower and terminal a very “apples to oranges” endeavor.

  36. The aluminum looks terrible. Just terrible. They’re spending over a billion dollars on the entire project and decide to get cheap about $17 for perhaps the most visible up-close aspect of the project? Pathetic. Just pathetic.
    Yet another reason that modern architects and builders should be utterly ashamed of themselves… all they seem to want to do is claim they’ll build something symbolic, then turn it into a big pile of poo by cutting corners.
    For the record, the new Federal Building looks like crap. An ugly Concrete Battleship.

  37. So, Gregg: tell us what you really think.
    I guess we just have to accept that some people in SF will not like the current solution, never have and never will. But that’s ok. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
    Oh, the horrors of cost analysis and alternate solutions. How dare those modern architects and builders do such a thing. Terribly shameful. They should be banned from the planet.
    As for the Federal Building designed by Morphosis, yes it is one of the more “controversial” buildings in SF and thankfully, one of the more interesting. Take time to really look at it and understand the thinking and ideas behind the design.
    You might be pleasantly surprised.

  38. While tentatively optimistic, I’m withholding final judgement for now. Of course, we’ve all read the part where Fred Clarke of PCP pointed out that the pattern and, in particular, the actual ratio of metal to openings, is far from determined yet, and that various designs will be tested on site with a goal to achieving a level of transparency similar to the originally proposed glass. That being the case, the renderings are clearly just rough concepts at this point. I think if they get it right, it could look quite striking.

  39. Yes, this federal building is absolutely ugly. I am just waiting for our resident architect to come up with reasons why we do not like it (us mere masses being ignorant and tasteless being at the top of the list I am sure).
    Perforated metal doesn’t age well, even painted, except when it’s by design. Obviously someone told them “look at the fugly cl@sterfrack fed building” and they probably replied “we’ll paint it white”.
    Rain and pollution always comes in the way of theory. Plus there are trees up there, which means leaves will get stuck and add to the dirt. I expect a variation of grays streaks with spots of green mildew and even a few weeds after a few years. Then in less than 10 years it will be black and they’ll have to powerwash or even repaint it.

  40. This entire discussion really has a lot to do with 2 simple components:
    1. Clearly understanding the complex but defined design and construction process.
    2. Respecting and trusting the architects selected for this project.
    It does nothing to continually whine and complain about not having the SOM version built. Guess what? They were not selected!
    It would help to take time to look back at the portfolio and history of Pelli Clark Pelli: one of the most respected and highly regarded firms in the country, if not on the planet. They know what they are doing. And, btw, they WERE the selected firm.
    Those who repeatedly harp and complain about dust, dirt, pollution, leaves, streaks, leaks, etc, etc, will simply ONLY see the project as a failure forever.
    Fear-mongering without knowledge serves no one.

  41. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, including me. I like the federal building and think it’s a good addition to the sky line. So there.

  42. I would call PCP (Pelli Clarke Pelli) “respected” because of their size, but certainly not because of forward design vocabulary. I still regret what they did to London in the late 80s-90s, with results that ended up giving Prince Charle’s architectural opinions more credit than he deserved. I will always think this was a silly, mediocre design that will not age well and will not become the icon the city deserved. There is nothing wrong with expecting more including a tower that is not a repeat design from two cities previous projects. It is perfectly acceptable to complain when a massive project like Transbay becomes so misguided. Do we have to post our AIA so that our opinion now counts?

  43. Dear “AnotherArch”:
    Let’s not forget that AIA (the American Institute of Architects) is a VOLUNTARY organization and is NOT required membership to be an architect, or legally call oneself an architect. The AIA, while offering good info to the consumer is largely a social organization and a lobbyist. Nothing wrong with that,but please don’t mislead our viewers.
    The only credentials that really matter is being licensed by the state (s) in which one practices.
    And yes, all opinions matter here; even the person on the street.

  44. futurist – moving forward with a dubious and untried design change might be way to waste a lot of money to create a dingy looking building.
    When planning a large expensive project whether it be sending a man to the moon or constructing a large building, it is prudent to keep risks under control. Trying something new is riskier than using a proven technique.
    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t experiment with new things. We should experiment but do it on a small scale. All of the technologies that went into the Apollo program were tested, retested, and tried on real-life but smaller missions. We didn’t just fast forward to Apollo 11 and shoot for the moon on the first mission.
    We shouldn’t jump for a last minute design change without being sure that it is going to work out. If you take pride in SF then you’d want to make sure that this doesn’t end up being an expensive eyesore. After all the difference in cost is minor in the context of the whole project. It is worth the extra expense to eliminate a risk.
    anon at March 19, 2013 1:52 PM : thanks for bringing an important perspective on the “could have been” proposals. Those who die young always leave a pretty picture in memories.

  45. @ MOD: let’s just agree that, for the most part, you and I are ALWAYS far far apart in our belief systems and ways of seeing the world.
    I disagree with everything in this thread you are saying. There is nothing in life or architecture that is guaranteed to “work out without being sure”.
    Just say you don’t like the aluminum skin and be done with it. That makes more sense.

  46. @futurist, when it comes to large commercial construction, you need to try to be “sure” that things will “work out”. I just rejected a sample mock up of precast on one of my jobs that the contractor had changed the mix and method of production to reduce costs, BUT, the alterations are enough to cause me long term concern over the needed lifespan of the product. Now tests will need to be run to see if these precast panels can be applied to the building or should be destroyed.
    As a professional I cannot afford to risk not being “sure”.
    If Transbay were my project, I would be sending samples of the metal cladding to an engineering test company like AECOM or since Transbay is so large, I would demand an engineering firm like WJE create a thourough investigation before considering an alteration to this material.
    I am surprised PCP is not looking into some of the newer glass products shown to be safe during earthquakes or terrorism due to how they are supported. I recently was reading about their application for a similar curved glass skin structure which is the Bahai Temple in Santiago Chile.

  47. AnotherArch, do you know that PCP is not doing or has not done that due diligence? I would assume so unless I had good reason not to…

  48. I am SURE PCP will, but I would like to highlight one section to the article I posted….
    “In the last decade the topic “civil safety” became a key objective in our multicultural world. The protection of buildings and especially facades against bomb blast attacks became a more relevant topic in all design stages of potential targets itself and the surrounding buildings.”
    Section 2.2 highlights that there are many firms solving how to create curved glass exteriors that are safe from attacks and earthquakes. I give credit to Toronto based Hariri Pontarini Architects for not abandoning their original design and solving how to make it buildable and economical.

  49. I hope all the naysayers are wrong, but I still find myself joining their ranks on this one.
    Relative to the cladding, why is it an all or nothing proposition? Why not keep the voluptuous glass in the visible parts- where it crosses fremont & 1st streets, and at the east end- and use the aluminum where it’s tight with neighboring buildings, or simply not use it (there’s flat glass behind after all)?
    I know architects have a fetish about Long Buildings clad in One Material, but this risks becoming a giant Port Authority…

  50. Aluminum screens might be a great idea, but not above a pedestrian area in a climate that is sometimes foggy/drizzly.

  51. Regarding the renderings, there is NO way DKNY or Calvin Klein are going to locate retail stores at a bus terminal.
    And as for the metal screen, it would not be necessary if the building behind it was designed in a more thoughtful way that did not need to be disguised.

  52. futurist – I’m not sure where you arrived at that conclusion because the two choices discussed here differ in thermal mass, thermal conductivity, shape, surface texture, and porosity. All of these factors affect their tendency to condense water vapor and ability channel it into gutters.
    So, no, they do not drizzle the same way.
    Do you know of any place in the city with glass curtain walls that drizzles in the fog?

  53. Long time lurker, first time commenter.
    I can’t believe they’re actually going through with this p.o.s design. I feel like the TJPA is hell-bent on shoving this Deus Ex Phallica down our throats no matter how much push back they get.
    Remember how excited you felt after seeing the original proposal from SOM? Everyone was practically drooling over that tower. Although I was upset that Skidmore didn’t secure the development rights for the Transbay Tower, I like many here, eventually came around to accepting the new Pelli design because it was at least somewhat interesting at the ground level.
    But since then there have been so many tweaks, revisions, and “adjustments” that I now couldn’t care less as to whether this tower ever gets built.I just feel we were lied to! This project is nothing like the original design proposal and has only gotten progressively worse over the years.
    The TJPA should STOP everything they’re doing right now, take a step back, and go back to the drawing board. If they decide to ram this through as is it be the biggest fcuking travesty ever.

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