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Terra cotta architectural design. Photo: Ashley Hitzel/WBFO
Terra cotta architectural design. Photo: Ashley Hitzel/WBFO

Tech gives terra cotta facades a facelift

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Upstate New York is loaded with beautiful architectural treasures, most of them from the 19th and 20th century. And many of them need a facelift. A long-running western New York business is creating terra-cotta architectural features with the help of the latest technology. The Innovation Trail's Ashley Hirtzel reports from Buffalo.

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Ashley Hirtzel
Reporter, The Innovation Trail

Bill Pottle is showing me around Boston Valley Terra Cotta’s facility south of Buffalo.

The work done here dates back to the late 1800’s. Their gargoyles, statues and feature tiles can be seen on buildings like Grand Central Station, the Philadelphia Public Library, and the Poptahof building in the Netherlands.

Today, Pottle says the company is utilizing a new generation of tools to create the features while staying true to the traditions of terra cotta. “With that technology were able to create a product on the restoration side that’s even far better that then product that was made 100 plus years ago,” Pottle says.

Those tools include a precision laser cutter, updated computer software and 5-axis router. The router is able to read a 3-dimensional computer image and carve a plaster prototype that will eventually be used as a mold for the final ceramic product.

“It allows us to cut the vast majority of the mold out on the machine at a fairly high rate," says Pottle, "and what that allows us to do then is to move the mold from the 5-axis machine onto the table where the sculptor will actually do the hand finished work. So, it does the majority of what we call around here the grunt work.”

The University at Buffalo introduced the new technologies to the company, making it easier for sculptors to customize designs for their clients. UB Professor Omar Kahn says the technology also makes it possible to carve foam prototypes so customers can see their design before the permanent version is manufactured. The company also creates a range of products for modern buildings as well. “So, on the one hand we are talking about efficiencies that the computer does allow for," says Khan, "and that’s very important, because we are able to make certain parts of the project move much faster, but that gives us a lot more time to work on what I think is the most precious part of the project, that the hand is the most necessary part of this process.”

The introduction of the new technology initially raised fears about job security, but Bill Pottle says the new technology has actually enabled the architectural company to hire a new set of skilled employees.

“It’s been really interesting to see our employees really grasp this technology," says Pottle, "instead of viewing it as a threat to their job, most employees have really taken it as an enhancement to their job. In some cases some of our true master sculptors have taken to the technology itself and have become true master sculptors in a digital format instead of a clay format and that’s just exciting to see on all levels.”

The partnership between UB and Boston Valley Terra Cotta also sees student interns training employees on the new equipment, and keeping UB’s academics up to date with changes in the industry, enabling them to better prepare their students for the workplace.

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