The now, new, and next of façade design

It’s helpful to consider the evolution of design in cyclical terms; tracing patterns of ideas and actions through time can provide valuable insight into our current methods and materials. By looking back over the decades at the history of architecture and engineering, we can slingshot our way forward to make better decisions about the future.

Since the completion of the BIQ house in Hamburg, which features the world’s first bio-reactive façade (that I’m aware of), I’ve found myself reflecting on how building envelope design in particular has evolved over the past 50 years.

BIQ House

Façades play a critical role in both the aesthetics and functionality of a building. They are not just representational, but also, crucially, prevent unwanted flows of energy between interior and exterior. Poorly designed or maintained building skins have serious implications for both occupant comfort and environmental performance.

Cold War innovations

The 1960s and ’70s were a particularly interesting time for façade design. The space race sped up the pace of material and manufacturing innovations. It was also a time of aesthetic exploration. Designers of building skins meandered down paths that seemed to have no boundaries. Anything and everything seemed possible and, perhaps more importantly, seemed to be tried out. It was a period of challenging time-tested traditions, not only in architecture, but in society as a whole.

One particularly important influence on Cold War-era façade design was shipbuilding. The crucial role of ships in World War II gave them something of a war hero status; they were objects of intense attention and innovation for decades after. Incorporating elements of their design into façades became de rigueur. Designers such as Piano and Prouvé began to adopt traditional maritime techniques, including prefabrication, modularization, and the use of insulation sandwiched between thin pieces of metal.

Jean Prouvé’s prefabricated 1949 Maison Tropicale

The ’70s fascination with all things intergalactic pushed the ship metaphor even further, inspiring futuristic forms like Ant Farm’s 1972 House of the Century and space-age surfaces replete with portal windows, as beautifully executed in Tokyo’s Capsule Tower.

Capsule Tower, Tokyo

The long-term impact of such stylistic fixation is debatable. However, it is clear that these explorations contributed significantly to our ever-increasing formal and functional design vocabulary for the façade.

Contemporary reinvigorations

We’re witnessing a similar flourishing of innovation and interdisciplinary cross-pollination in façade design again today. Thanks to dramatic advances in engineering and material science over the past decade, we’re able to create building envelopes that would have seemed like science fiction fantasies in the not-too-distant past.

As was the case during the ’60s and ’70s, the most interesting new developments are the result of collaborations with experts from other fields. Instead of shipbuilding, however, designers are drawing inspiration from a wide variety of sources: physicists and materials scientists, musicians and visual artists, biologists and botanists.

Dynamic glass, which can transform from tinted to transparent in a matter of seconds, is one example of a product that has come about as a result of decades of work on the part of scientists, fabricators, and others. Although it has been on the market in some form for over 30 years, it has historically been too expensive to use at the building scale; its most common application has been eyeglasses. Recent advances, however, have brought down costs to the point that architectural applications are becoming more common, offering substantial benefits in terms both sustainability and occupant comfort.

Panel from BIQ house facade

Bioreactor façades represent another huge step forward. The convergence of biology control systems and building engineering has enabled the creation of living façades. The BIQ house, which was the fruit of a collaboration between biotech company SSC, sustainable product manufacturer Colt International, and Arup, sandwiches high-grade algae between layers of glass.

BIQ house facade sketch

The algae generates biomass and heat, creating a renewable energy supply while providing dynamic shading, thermal insulation, and noise reduction — all at a very reasonable return on investment.

Another contemporary success story, the active façade of the Al Bahar headquarters complex for the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, was inspired by plants’ ability to broaden and constrict depending on the sun’s intensity and position.

Al Bahar Towers

A stunning adaptation of a trend that began 30 years ago with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the dynamic skin reduces the building’s heating load by more than 20%.

Detail of Institut du Monde Arabe facade

Looking ahead

Our challenge for the future is to find new ways to improve existing façades, many of which are terribly inefficient, as well as to optimize new ones.

In the coming decades, building envelopes will be asked to do far more than simply play a static representational role. They may screen for unwanted microwaves and unusual weather patterns or generate energy. They might be semi-permeable acoustic membranes, allowing the pleasant sounds of nature in and keeping the noxious cacophony of traffic out. They may be bioluminescent or scrub the surroundings of the pollutants swirling in the air around them.

We have only just begun to imagine what a façade could be and do. Emerging technologies will inspire us to invent new possibilities and combinations. Our imagined constraints are evaporating; we are entering an era of unknown possibilities that future generations just might look back on one day as the golden age of façade design.

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