Easing Minds and Boosting Facade Performance

Envelope design strategies use natural look to promote health and enhance sustainability
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Sponsored by Longboard – A division of Mayne Coatings Corp.
C.C. Sullivan

Learning Objectives:

  1. Describe how the incorporation of natural-looking wood elements in the built environment can have a positive impact on occupant productivity and overall well-being.
  2. Identify key variables contributing to the significance of facade cladding systems in design, durability, and sustainability.
  3. Explain how a building can positively affect workplace performance, and how natural-looking metal cladding systems can make anxiety-producing public spaces more comfortable and inviting.
  4. Evaluate the cost-benefit impacts of using low-maintenance metal cladding systems with a woodgrain finish in terms of first costs, long-term maintenance, and payback on human factors.


This test is no longer available for credit

The debate continues: Hard modern versus soft modern. Humanizing architecture or a futuristic vision. Increasingly, architects are opting for building designs that heal, addressing today’s predominant social issues. Many see a chance to help people feel better about themselves and their places, to encourage a greater sense of community, and even to enhance psychological well-being. Behind the movement are recently established but confirmed areas of study, such as evidence-based design (EBD) to improve health outcomes, applications of biophilia to exploit human predilections for nature, and daylight as a therapeutic design element.

One outgrowth of this trend has been the conclusion among many architects that people respond positively to the look and feel of natural materials, such as wood finishes, patinated metals, and the patterns in cut stone, among others. As this course demonstrates, new data and support for this tendency can justify the application of natural-looking, wood-finish elements in the built environment that positively impact the overall well-being of the end-user population—and, in some cases, even boost productivity and enjoyment. In particular, new aluminum facade cladding systems can improve such outcomes, while also boosting durability and sustainability. They also can have an ameliorative effect in settings that tend to produce anxiety in many people.

Is anxiety really an issue that architects should consider in their work? Certainly some architectural settings cause unease or nervousness: hospitals, police stations, and airports, for example, as well as immigration centers, high schools, office settings, and even facilities for vehicle emissions testing. Some segment of the population experiences angst merely by walking into a shopping center. As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said: “There is a feeling of exposure and, at the same time, depersonalization.”

 Woodgrain aluminum soffit and siding in a walnut finish add warmth and echo the patterns of nature, creating a positive environment for occupants.

Photo courtesy of Longboard – A division of Mayne Coatings Corp./Dale Klippenstein

Woodgrain aluminum soffit and siding in a walnut finish add warmth and echo the patterns of nature, creating a positive environment for occupants.

Clinical findings support designers’ hunches about end-user emotions. Anecdotal evidence and some studies point to general stressors in U.S. society, and clinically diagnosed anxiety is surprisingly prevalent. According to the expert Jonathan Berent, LCSW, ACSW, “It is estimated that one in eight people suffer from social anxiety,” which he calls “a universal problem that affects people of all ages, genders, cultures, religions, and socioeconomic strata.” Berent, who consults on stress management to groups like NBC, Bloomingdales, and the United Federation of Teachers, notes that behind depression and substance abuse, social anxiety is the third most common disorder affecting Western cultures.1

In addition to social phobia, the National Institute of Mental Health lists two other broad categories of anxiety: Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which affects about 7 million Americans, and panic disorder, a condition affecting about 6 million American adults that is twice as common in women as men. Berent calls social anxiety “a disease of resistance” related to our “increasingly competitive and technological society.”

Architecture has responded in astounding ways to “how phobias and anxiety came to be seen as the mental condition of modern life,” wrote Anthony Vidler, the architecture dean at the Cooper Union in New York City, about 15 years ago in the book Warped Space. Today’s neuroses are rooted in the late 19th century emergence of agoraphobia, for example, and later following World War I with such conditions as shell shock, related to today’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In his book—with the subtitle “Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture”—Vidler explained how these mental conditions led to forms of “spatial warping” as seen in the architecture of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Coop Himmelblau, and Morphosis.2


The warping of the deconstructivist architects expressed the upending of society, but it has done little to calm our jangled nerves. More recently, the overwhelming reaction to anxiety has been not to express it, but rather to attempt to gently push against it, and to use materials, forms, and colors that mollify and subdue enduring mental stressors as they calm and nurture occupants. As EBD interiors expert Roslyn Cama said in a Herman Miller study, “In my world of health-care design, the goal first and foremost is to reduce stress.” Applied to a design task, she asks clients to imagine places where their anxiety is reduced, and “the elements of that environment, the features that contribute to their calm, their sense of well-being.”

In about 95 percent of the cases, says Cama, people visualize an outdoor space.3

This raises one reason that, even in our millennial era of industrialized and synthetic materials, architects tend toward using wood materials and imagery. The natural color, graining, and associations with the outdoors contribute to powerful psychological drivers. “Architects are looking for ways to apply the profession’s longstanding appreciation for natural-looking and wood-patterned materials to positively affect, for example, workplace performance,” says Christi Dunkley, an executive with manufacturer Longboard who has conducted market studies related to anxiety and building-product choice. “We’re seeing more interest in how natural-looking metal cladding systems can make high-anxiety public spaces more comfortable and inviting.”

Could the use of wood finish and other sensory attributes actually affect individual comfort and organizational output? Yes, says a lifetime of work by experts, such as noted health-care architect D. Kirk Hamilton, FAIA, FACHA, founding principal of WHR Architects and a professor at Texas A&M University. Citing Hamilton’s work, the landscape architect Jerry Smith, ASLA, LEED AP, wrote in a position paper for the EBD leadership group The Center for Health Design, “If implemented accordingly, these projects should result in demonstrated improvements in the organization’s clinical outcomes, economic performance, productivity, customer satisfaction, and cultural measures.”


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