Szolyd Development Pushes the Boundaries of Concrete Design

Embracing an ultra-modern and minimalist esthetic — and cutting-edge techniques — Szolyd Development is pushing the boundaries of concrete’s applications and design possibilities.

The Szolyd team fills the mold of a large planter for the atrium at Vancouver House. Photo by Belle White.

When it comes to new technologies, Nolan Mayrhofer is a self-described “early adopter.” The founder and creative director of Szolyd Development (pronounced “solid”) first heard about Ductal — an ultra-high performance concrete — 12 years ago from his mentor Mike Bell.

“He knew I was interested in unique concrete-mix designs and pushing the envelope of what’s possible,” Mayrhofer says. “[Ductal] is the strongest concrete. The numbers they were touting were way beyond anything conventional concrete could come close to. Now, high performance concrete has gotten closer, but 12 years ago nothing was in the realm [of Ductal].”

After doing his research and realizing that “this stuff is legit,” Mayrhofer paid $10,000 to Lafarge, the manufacturer, and became the first person in B.C. to get this new product.

“As a young entrepreneur, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he says. “Basically, I had some concepts for cantilevered tables and different things and started dreaming about what the possibilities were.”

Exploring the Possibilities

There was a lot of research and development in the early days, which Mayrhofer says, “almost broke” him.

“All concrete can be fickle, and all concrete can be challenging,” he says. “With this material, one of the challenges — particularly because it’s so costly — is when you’re pouring your first mold, of the first prototype of a design, you have to make sure your mold is reinforced enough, because if it starts to bow or flex, or not adhere properly, you get a leak and all this stuff can just spill right out.”

These errors are uncommon now because Mayrhofer and his experienced team have put in years of practice and play.

“There are certainly challenges but they are a lot more predictable — and we can accurately estimate the probable outcome — like a 20 per cent chance of catastrophic failure and a five per cent chance that it’s going to come up absolutely flawless,” he says with a laugh. “We know more as to what the results are going to be —12 years ago it was just shooting from the hip.” 

Nolan Mayrhofer sands a Ductal table base at the company’s manufacturing facility in Saanich. Photo by Belle White.

Casting with Ductal has also changed his ideas of what is possible with concrete. Over the years, Szolyd has made a transition from residential to commercial projects — and is now transitioning from projects to products.

Concrete Future

“We love working with architects and engineers,” Mayrhofer says. “That’s where we do a lot of our work these days.”

Notable projects include the stoa column bases for the restoration at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon, and the angular reception desk at Crag X Climbing Centre. Along with curved benches and massive planters for Vancouver House in downtown Vancouver, the company is currently working on an art installation in Montreal.

“For this job, we’re gonna be spraying it — we’re gonna be the first company in western North America to spray Ductal. What that means is that rather than pouring precast style, you don’t have to have an inner and outer mold component. It opens up very complex geometry and reduces labor and cost.” 

Szolyd’s team has had many ideas for applications over the years, with some getting discarded and others moving down the development pipeline. One new possibility is doing floors with Ductal to reinforce wood-frame construction, which increases seismic standards, sound dampening and fire suppression.

“Another thing we’re working on is a siding product that we’ve done prior testing on,” Mayrhofer says. “This will be a modular plank, ultra-high performance cladding. We’re going to be mass manufacturing and ideally set up a separate factory floor. The dream is to have a technology that we can then license to other Ductal sublicensees.”

This article is from the August/September 2019 issue of Douglas.