The Changing Face of Facades

Just over two years ago many of us watched in horror as an inferno in a council tower block developed on other side of the world, setting in motion a huge overhaul of the Australian property and construction industry regulations around wall cladding systems and non-combustibility. While many existing properties are still grappling with the ramifications of their façade specifications, ask any Architect today about a new façade design and they will be able to discuss this topic in great detail.

This is disruption. What existed right in front of us, or was simmering just below the surface, has suddenly exploded onto the scene, changing how we think, feel and design.

Facades are quietly undergoing a revolution of sorts. It may not be immediately apparent but when we collectively review the smaller changes occurring in the industry, they are beginning to add up to a greater sum of the parts.

With the release of the National Construction Code’s Section J 2019 update in May, we may be forgiven for thinking that this will greatly increase the sustainable outcomes of future buildings. However, by all reports, it seems Section J is, in general, catching up with best practice design, in all areas except one. Section J 2019 introduces more stringent requirements for façade performance for both wall and glazing components. In a nut shell, this will most likely produce more ‘vanilla’ Deemed to Satisfy solutions with less glazing, or more expensive JV3 performance façade systems. Unless you are an actuary that has cracked the DTS formulas, no one really knows how this will play out until we can test façade designs and building form with the new Section J integrated wall and glazing calculators.

Collectively, PDT have attended a multitude of CPD sessions on the above topics, including a very interesting talk by Arup’s Dr Anne Kovachevich on the Future of Facades. Kovachevich notes that the construction industry has mostly remained unchanged for the last 60 years in façade design and construction techniques, but that current disruptions are rapidly changing this, including technology, legislative changes and people’s expectations around sustainability, resilience and climate change.

The use of artificial intelligence, such as robotic swarms programmed to sun shade a building, may sound a little far-fetched, but surprisingly, this technology is in its infancy as a viable solution. Other disruptive technologies are already here and being readily adopted.

Dynamic responsive facades that change with outside environmental influence have been taking baby steps for some time now with mixed mode ventilation and building management systems. These digital sensor systems operate façade elements such as louvres in response to heat, light and glare. Similarly, kinetic facades, a sub group of dynamic responsive facades, have become increasingly popular. An example of this are the small ‘scale like’ metal tiles individually connected together to produce a collective fabric screen that allows active movement. This flutter effect is typically generated by wind, and when used to envelope buildings, creates an interesting ‘live’ feature. Equally important is the purpose the screen serves, protecting the occupants behind it, or even generating energy through movement. As the need for building resilience grows, in response to more volatile weather patterns, dynamic responsive facades will become increasingly embedded in the early design process.

Biophillic designs mimic solutions to glare and shade in nature. The inclusion of ‘green walls’, hanging gardens and urban farms in commercial buildings has become more prevalent in the last decade, transforming the typical glass and steel office tower as designers realise the many benefits not only to building occupiers’ wellbeing, but also the surrounding environment in mitigating problems like the heat island effect.

For over 5 years, early adopters in Germany have been trialling bio-adaptive facades that incorporate micro-algae into glass façade panels. These bio reactors respond to changing light and sound parameters by sequestering the sun’s radiant heat and growing via photosynthesis, thereby becoming increasingly dense and producing ‘shade’ and ‘coolth’.  In addition, this bio-mass eco-system can be harvested to generate power as well as used to convert CO2 to oxygen.*1

Technological advances are constantly refining materials. Photovoltaic (PV) integrated façade materials now come in thin laminating sheet forms and translucent glass formats which can seamlessly cover a building. Phase change materials (PCMs) integrated into the building envelope are capable of maintaining near constant temperatures by storing and releasing heat as an alternative to traditional HVAC and insulation solutions.

The amount of raw resource we are processing into construction material isn’t slowing. In Australia alone, over 50% of buildings that will exist in 2050 are yet to be built.*2  Designers are carrying more responsibility for what they are specifying at the birth of a building. Will this responsibility continue to increase and incorporate how those initial choices affect a building’s disassembly or reincarnation, and the associated resource recovery rates? Equally concerning for designers is what happens to end-of-life façade material that cannot be reused or recycled? Most laminated and composite materials fall into this category. Technology is only just catching up with safe and efficient methods to recycle laminated glass.

On the periphery of this is the social sustainability of façade materiality – concerns regarding chain of custody from raw resource to final product installation, and modern-day slavery. Look out for more product disclosure statement (PDS) requests from clients. The construction methodologies used are changing too with more prefabrication and modularisation plus different technologies used to produce and install, such as 3d printing, augmented reality, drones and robotics.

Facades and the architectural landscape in general are more subtly affected by people’s changing habits: the retail and transport sectors are both set to radically change our streetscapes and the building forms within them. In retail, the increase in online trading and convenience purchases has led to the onset of the dark production and distribution centres for supermarkets and restaurant delivery services. The disbursement of these facilities across sub-urbia will increase the need for the considered treatment of inactive facades. Counter acting this is the increasing desire for ‘Placemaking’ and ‘Experience’ within local communities that will drive focus and activity at designated hubs.

The transportation of people is at the cusp of an explosion in personal modality options including automated, self-drive and other alternate modality devices. Likewise, the transportation of goods is also undergoing a quiet revolution with smaller delivery vehicles, such as drones and trolley sized robots, being trialled in different overseas locations for dropping off our online orders. Will this trigger design changes in how we approach permeability and security in our facades? Will the division of our streets and pavements need to adjust, including the air rights above these spaces?

Designers and Façade Engineers are embarking on a new chapter, where aesthetic trends may need to make way for designs solutions that are more adaptive, resilient and sustainably responsible. Facades will be less static and more actively responsive to their surrounding environment and climate.

I may not live to see friendly robotic arrays programmed to engulf our glass towers at the height of summer, but I can image gazing out across the Brisbane river and beyond from my self-sufficient sky pad while waiting for an Uber Air.


For more on Robotic Swarm Construction read:

Dave Roos "10 Futuristic Construction Technologies" 30 May 2014. sourced: 24 June 2019


*1. Kurt Kohlstedt, “Algae-Fueled Building: World’s First Bio-Adaptive Façade” sourced: 25 June 2019

*2. Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) and Climate Works Australia, “Built to Perform – An Industry led pathway to a zero carbon ready building code”, Published July 2018.


Image sources

Robot Swarm starfish -, from article by Caroline Perry, “The 1000-robot swarm”, 14 August 2014, sourced: 25 June 2019

Flying Robot Tower -, from article by Mike Chino, “The World’s First Tower Built By Flying Robots Rises In France”, 01 March 2012, sourced: 25 June 2019

Natasha Prasek 27th Jun 2019


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