ABOUT THE ARCHITECT:
David E. Gross, AIA is the Co-Founder and Executive Partner of GF55 Architects, a national firm with offices in New York City and Miami. GF55 has a specific expertise in Multi Family, Retail, Educational, Hospitality, and Industrial Architecture. Since 1984, GF55 has designed and built over 12 million square feet of housing nationally. David’s projects have received two Urban Land Institute Models of Excellence Awards and was the recipient of the Andrew J. Thomas “Pioneer in Housing” Award in 2010 from the NYC AIA Chapter. David received an AIA Award of Merit for the renovation and addition of a historic and significant Mid Century Modern house in Rye NY. His work has also been featured in Architectural Digest and The New York Times. David has established the David E. Gross Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design for the study of Housing.
David is a board member at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design advisory board to the School of Architecture, the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH); Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) as well as the NY Housing Conference. He has been a visiting design juror at Yale College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Pratt Institute. From 2004 to 2016 he taught an annual session on the relationship of the Architect to the Development Process at the NYU Graduate School of Real Estate MBA Program. The continued progress and intelligent development of Architecture through future generations was fundamental to David’s decision in establishing this fellowship. David graduated Cum Laude with Distinction from the University of Pennsylvania. He also earned his Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania where he was a Thesis Prize Finalist and a Stewardson Memorial Competition Representative.
ABOUT THE PROJECT:
Park and Elton, a development with 38 residential units consisting of two 5-story buildings, correspond to the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan providing a range of affordable housing choices to support diversity. The sister buildings exemplify the goal of New York City’s affordable housing mission; providing quality housing through high design input and cost effective measures. The use of simple materials in a creative way resulted in these modest buildings. The subtle volume and height of Park and Elton maintain the human-scale of the public realm. The simple modern cornice and the differentiation of the window header detail with the application of the soldier brick pattern references the historical brick clad buildings found throughout the district.
Construction of the buildings included sustainable design elements and incorporated NYC Green Building Standards. Features include Energy Star appliances and lighting, high efficiency plumbing fixtures and high‐quality durable concrete plank and masonry bearing wall construction. Park and Elton are considered equivalent to LEED certified buildings.
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Doug Patt (DP)
Let's go inside the vault. The design vault.
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David Gross (DG)
Most of our buildings are taller and bigger. And this was a little bit of a throwback. A five-story building, not too many square feet, but it was a challenge for us and an opportunity to look at our housing work on a smaller scale and very proud of it.
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This is my guest, David Gross. I'll share more about him shortly. In this episode from the Design Vault, we’ll highlight David's project Park and Elton.
Park and Elton is a development with 38 residential units in the Bronx, consisting of two distinct five story buildings. These buildings correspond to the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan. The plan provides a range of affordable housing choices for the Bronx.
The use of simple building materials, including brick in various patterns, colors and facade wall depths, makes these modest buildings appear quite unique. The simple modern masonry cornice and the differentiation of the window header detail with soldier course patterns reference the historical brick clad buildings found throughout the district. The subtle volume and height of Park and Elton also maintain a satisfying human scale.
Construction of the buildings included sustainable design elements and incorporated New York City Green building standards. Park and Elton are considered equivalent to LEED certified buildings.
Hi, I'm Doug Pat and this is Design Vault. Today we're talking to David E. Gross, AIA. David earned his Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and graduated cum laude with distinction.
David is the co-founder and executive partner of GF55 Architects, a national firm with offices in New York City and Miami. GF55, has expertise in multifamily, retail, educational, hospitality and industrial architecture. Since 1984, GF55 has designed and built over 12 million square feet of housing nationally. David's projects have received two Urban Land Institute Models of Excellence awards and was the recipient of the Andrew J. Thomas Pioneer and Housing Award in 2010 from the New York City AIA chapter.
David received an award of merit for the renovation and addition of a historic and significant mid-century modern house in Rye, New York. His work has also been featured in Architectural Digest and The New York Times. Today, we're going to talk to David about GF55’s Park and Elton Project.
Welcome, David. So, before we get started, tell us a little bit about GF55 Architects. I understand your firm is in both New York City and Miami. What's the size of the firm and do the offices take the same kind of work?
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We're very much a New York firm with a satellite office in Miami and the Miami offices in support of the New York workload. The needs of staffing vary, and sometimes we have the ability to staff the projects through the Miami workforce as opposed to the New York workforce.
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So, tell us a little bit about GF55 architects, who you're the co-founding partner. How did you guys get your start?
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My partner, Len, he's the “F” and I - Len Fusca - we met in grad school, and we were partners right away in both architectural terms and friendship terms. Down the road, 15 years later, we met Shy, also, who's our third partner and the three of us are close professionally and friendship wise. We're all friends. We have about 50 people right now and we have a varied practice. But really a specialty in housing.
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How long have you had the Miami location then?
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I would say since 2012.
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Has that been helpful?
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Do you have people that you work with locally and then you also work with them in Miami?
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Yes. The Miami office specializes in retail. We do a large amount of retail buildout work across the country, but our main office, I would say, is New York. In New York, we do a lot of projects that are versions of Park and Elton, but much larger. We also do charter schools and medical facilities, and we're working on a large storage facility near the JFK Airport, which came to us right before COVID and then the entire process of COVID with Amazon, it was all of a sudden that's a building type that was very much in demand.
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Ironically, it's a good segue way to what is your role in the office. Right. Everybody's doing something different. What are you doing now?
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I like being an architect. You know, sometimes I find that I maybe I'm focusing on the buildings too much. I would say that my role is focusing on the long-term growth of the company and the direction of the company.
We have an outside consultant on how to manage the office because at 50 people, all of a sudden, it's way too big for any of the three partners to direct themselves. And we value the expertise that we give, and we are mature enough now to value the expertise that outside consultants give us. So, we try to run the office very professionally. And I would say that a lot of our energy about running the office is motivating the workforce and we motivate the workforce through a carrot rather than a stick.
It's not the old school where you better be here or else. We have to market – intra-office marketing is almost as important as outside marketing. We have to make sure that everyone's gratified and satisfied because anybody under 40 demands that of us. It's challenging and it's interesting and it's – I like it. It's heartwarming.
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It's a neat paradigm, though. I mean, thinking deeply about your employees and their well-being and wanting to keep them, I think that's wonderful.
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We should sign you up for the volleyball team.
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I need about another foot!
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It's not just volleyball. It's après-volleyball that they like. You know, like apres-ski.
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That's great. All right, so let's dig in here and talk about Park and Elton. So, Park is at 3120 Park Avenue in the Bronx. Elton is East 159th Street in the Bronx, correct?
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So, you're a board member of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, as well as the New York Housing Conference, correct?
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You're intimately familiar with affordable housing. This project, did you know it was coming up? What was the process by which you interviewed or took the job or how did that work out for you?
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It was actually part two of a project. That part one was maybe ten years before that. And unfortunately, the original developer passed away. One of his employees took over the job and it's a unique project for us because most of our buildings are taller and bigger. And this was a little bit of a throwback, a five-story building, not too many square feet, but it was a challenge for us and an opportunity to look at our housing work on a smaller scale and very proud of it.
As you mentioned, I'm a member of housing organizations. I grew up, my father and grandfather were builder developers and while their work wasn't affordable with a capital A, it was affordable with a small A because they built stuff that was a modest price points. And I really have a lot of familiarity with that building type.
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Well, it sounds like something that can be pretty gratifying.
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Yeah, I would say that's my main professional focus. And Parker and Elton were challenging because even though they're small in scale, they're important. One of them is on the corner and it forms a strong impact on that street. And it's a part of the South Bronx, that is, the buildings are modest. These buildings are very much a breath of fresh air to the neighborhoods. They're small, but they punch above their weight class visually.
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So, did the architecture in the neighborhood affect the architecture that you ultimately made?
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I would say the architecture in the neighborhood affected it in scale, but not in aesthetics. I think that our point was to be not oppositional, but in contrast to the older buildings and, you know, one of our mottos is creative responses with humble materials. If you look at the classic modern architects, the housing was really an issue in the 1920s and it was never about luxury materials. Despite the Barcelona Pavilion and all the history of obviously building these amazing villas in a modernist style for very wealthy people. But the focus, on paper at least, was housing for people.
And what's so great about Park and Elton is because they're a small size, we really had to focus on the details. I would say that I had a great team in the office to work with. The original designer, Dimitri Papageorgiou and I worked on the basic idea. We had a third person on the team, Emily Koustae, who was sort of sitting next to Dimitri offering her opinion, said it so smartly that we listened. And then the woman who ran the job during construction, Ingrid Aguilar, she was also very important because during the construction we started to see some opportunities with the way the brick was laid that we tested it, she looked at it, she photographed it, she brought it back to the office, we changed it. There is a detail of white brick that goes up the building as if it's like bubbles floating into the air. They become fewer as they go vertical.
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It's denser below.
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Yeah, and that was all done during the construction.
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So, let's start with the client's programmatic requirements. What did they want?
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HPD is the housing preservation development arm of the New York City government. And they have strict guidelines about what size units and what mix you can build. And they have different programs that the developer wants to qualify for to get tax credits.
So, we had to satisfy the specific program for affordability that the city and the developer had worked out. So, we satisfy that the one bedrooms are 650 square feet, studios are 475, etc., etc. There's a million requirements on how big the windows can be and what kind of air conditioning and what the energy rating is. Even though they're affordable, they're built in a very, very quality manner.
So that was the first requirement. Then there's a zoning requirement for a maximum building height and a maximum lot coverage. And there's a lot of metrics and matrices that you have to satisfy in order to finally get to the way it looks.
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So, there weren't any breaks given to the fact that this is affordable house.
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No, no special breaks. It's built into the code that you get a certain benefit from building affordable units.
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So, tell us about the two sites. How were they the same? How were they different?
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The Park is on the corner, and it has a corner window that wraps the facade, and you see it from a distance. And then Elton is an infill building on a street that is at a diagonal to the building itself. And we knew that in order to come out of this alive, both mentally and architecturally and constructability wise, we had to make the buildings the same.
So, we made them the same. The choice to use brick was an easy one because brick is so flexible, because brick is a unit that's made so that you can change it as you lay the brick which is laid by a person. So, there's a way to get richness and detail in the facade through the brick. It's super durable and the way we did it where we have the window panels are shiny black brick as opposed to the, I think, two color blend on the rest of the building gives it the texture as if it were a different material.
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When I was reading about the project, you said that the building plans are super simple and yet, you know, you stand back, and you look at these things and there's – you got something going on. So, tell us a little bit about the building plans. How did you make them a little less like a box?
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There's a little tower on the end, and on each end to give the building a little more shape, you know, lack of a better term. But that's a right out of the zoning code that allows you to do that. New York is actually very conservative because quality housing, which is the current zoning for housing encourage you to make boxes so that when you go down the street, whether it's Park Avenue or 135th Street in the Bronx, all the buildings are the same height. They're looking to create that urban scale that's consistent. And along the avenues, it's taller and along the side streets it's lower. But it's consistent. And you can see from these photographs that our building is within a few feet of the adjacent buildings. So that's how we ended up with the massing.
In terms of the windows, it's very budget constrained. So, it's not just simple materials and creative ways. The whole process, you have to find the design and there's a discipline to using the materials to change the scale. For example, if we had just drawn the elevation with the windows, it would seem like a barracks. It would just be a box and it would seem very closed. But by doing visual tricks, like adding the side panels and a different color that matches the window frame, it expands the visual impact of the window opening and it makes the scale of the implied grid larger. So, it seems airier, but in fact it's not airier. It’s a visual trick. Architects are doing that all over the world to try to bring their buildings into scale.
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And you change the direction of the brick, right? The way the brick is laid, and the facade undulates somewhat, right?
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I mean, if you zoom in on the photographs that we're looking at, the horizontal bands, they're vertical and they're a stack bond. They line up as a grid. And the regular brick in between the horizontal bands is a running bond that stagger each joint the half a dimension of the brick. So, you get a different way the sunlight hits the brick. It adds visual nuance and detail, which I think there's a criticism of buildings when they're too stark, unless they're completely stark. And then the starkness is a design feature.
But I think you need to find the details to make the building visually interesting. I think you owe that, as the architect, to the world. It’s beauty, commodity and delight since Vitruvius said it, and he probably wishes he had copyrighted that phrase because that would be a great brand in 1642. But commodity is the function, and the structure is firmness, and delight is it has to look good. I mean, that's fundamental to being an architect. It has to look good.
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What about the color? How did you guys choose the brown? The variations of brown.
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The brick has sort of a brown, gray feel, and we wanted it to seem contemporary and not traditional in any way. I think that that brick that we used, because it's such a small quantity and it's a small relatively a small building, it's a more expensive brick than the cheapest. The developer, the builder, is often looking for the least expensive.
But in this case, the difference in the cost between a better brick and a simple brick was minimal. So, we went with a more fashionable, more stylish brick that you see in other buildings around town on a taller and more higher end buildings. In fact, we use this brick in other buildings, we like this building. There's sort of a little laboratory for us to explore other ideas.
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How was it working with the mason in the field? Did you guys do mockups?
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We did mockups. I think that Ingrid, she got the guys to do what she wanted. You know, so much of the world is about how do you get the other person to hear you and how do you get the other person to do what you want? And certainly, the architect has no literal power. They have the power of persuasion. And I think we worked closely with the developer and the contractors to persuade them to help us achieve our visual goals.
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Yeah, clearly. We're talking a little bit about design challenges here and we're talking about how you manipulated the bricks in various ways to create a facade that looks more appealing. Did brick solve any design challenges for you guys?
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I mean, brick has been a success since, you know, the Egyptians. Brick has been a success since the Neanderthals almost. But brick gives you a tremendously good thermal rating in New York. Any building that is built with public money or public support has to achieve a very high green rating. It's basically a LEED rating. 20 years ago, 15 years ago, everything was LEED. It had to be rated.
Well, the New York City green enterprise standards are fundamentally a LEED goal. So, we had to achieve that. We have to do an energy certification at the end and brick is just a tremendously flexible material for that. If you use a metal panel, which is much more expensive or a terracotta panel, it isn't necessarily any more energy efficient than brick.
So, brick helps with that because it's a small unit, it's flexible. So, if you run into a funky dimension in the space between your building and the property line in the adjacent building, it's easy to manipulate. And you can work with it on the site and the guy who's laying it can work with it for you.
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I don't know a whole lot about building in New York City. Talk a little bit about how long was the planning process for the building. How long did the review, the City Review take? How long was the design process? Construction process start to finish?
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That's a good question. It takes about 9 to 10 months to design a building from start to finish. In the middle of that process, you file the drawings about five months in with the city of New York. It takes four months plus to get the drawings approved. As they are reviewing the plans and asking for more information, you're working on the plans and filling in the information. So, the filing process and the production process, the design process are running in tandem. They're running concurrently.
Then there's another 2 to 3 months for the project to have the site prepared, demolition to take place, SOE which is a Support of Excavation process, you have to support the site as it's being excavated. And then I would say a building like this takes about 18 months to build.
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Park or Elton?
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They were both built simultaneously. They weren't built one and then the other built at the same time. So, when they did the foundation on one, they were doing the foundation on the other. The concrete sub was at both sides at the same time. The brick was done at the same time. These are simple load bearing buildings where it's a block backup to a brick facade and concrete floors and load bearing concrete walls.
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A miscellaneous steel over the windows. Miscellaneous steel at the corners.
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Just steel lintels and-
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Yeah, not too much steel. The spans are that long. And if you look at the building without the details, the masonry is about 35% of the width of the windows. So that's a very short span.
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What about ARB?
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There is no ARB in New York City. You can build a 100-storey building and – city planning, if you need any kind of variance, or you have a zoning issue, city planning acts as the architectural arbiter of the project. But if it's a simple project like this, an as-of-right project, you would be smart to show it to a community board because the community boards, you know, that's the smallest governmental association in the city and it's really the local people who are on a community board. Obviously, it's the people that really care. And you want the community board to be a part of your process. So, the developer will meet with the community board quietly, keep it friendly. And a project like this, I don't think there was any opposition whatsoever.
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And you do that - you wrap up schematic design, then you meet with people that are local.
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Exactly. To gain support because the last thing you want is opposition. I've worked in other cities and the great thing about New York is there are hurdles in front of you, many hurdles, but they're above ground. It's not like a game, you know, a video game where the hurdles come at you as you're running. You see them in front of you. The rules are transparent, and you can work the system.
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And when you guys present, do you present three dimensional images that you put together, Revit or-
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Revit. We do all of our work on three-dimensional building information modeling. Now, we don't use any CAD. Our staff is really talented and expert at BIM, and that means that when they're drawing, the very first line is a wall, not a line. And this three dimensionals are right there. And we have some very talented renderers.
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I’m sure. So, did you guys learn anything through the process of designing and getting these buildings built?
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The architecture is a very slow-paced world. If there's a crisis, you're not doing it right. There really shouldn't be any crises. Maybe when you're young and you forgot the most fundamental thing, there’s a crisis. But at this point, I would say that these buildings were inspirational for me because the four of us, the team, we were engaged all the way through, and we kept looking at it. It was a small project, and it was exciting in that way.
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I'll wrap it up with an easier question – maybe a harder question.
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Throw them at me. Come on.
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You clearly have a lot of experience being an architect-
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I didn't start out with gray hair. I've earned-
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I had hair.
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Exactly. Sure, you have hair.
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So, if you had to look back and give your younger self advice that you didn't know back then. What would it be, about being an architect.
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That's a great question. It reminds me of something I was thinking about on the way over here in preparation for today's chat. I think in any profession - medical, legal - your user group, your client is turned off to jargon. You can't speak with technical terms or only terms that another architect would recognize. So, I try very hard to be plainspoken and put things in terms of the benefit of the client and I think that that is something that I'm good at and people respond to that because the goal is to have a dialog with your client. And I think that's the best way.
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You know, interestingly, growing up, you must have seen how important that was with your father and his business. Having a good relationship, being a good communicator, being positive, never telling somebody no. Yeah, we can look at that. Let's give it a shot. So, it would seem to me that you learned an awful lot from your folks.
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Well, David, it's been great to have you here. Thank you very much for your time. Where can people go to learn more about GF55?
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www.gf55.com or check out our Instagram page or our Twitter feed for all the stuff about us.
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All right, pretty straightforward. Well, thank you very much for your time. It's great to meet you.
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You too. I'm sure I'll see you soon.
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