Facades: Beauty Starts Skin Deep

The first chance a building has to make a statement is with its exterior. What that statement is partially depends on the materials and systems used, and how they’re incorporated into the designer’s vision.
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Sponsored by CL-TALON®, Construction Specialties, Guardian Glass, and New Millennium Building Systems
By Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Learning Objectives:

  1. Identify and recognize the range of performance requirements of a facade as part of the overall exterior design and building enclosure.
  2. Assess the design and performance aspects of building facades, particularly related to structure, support, glazing, and specialty integration.
  3. Explain the integration of facade materials and systems as they relate to energy-efficient and high-performance building design.
  4. Determine ways to incorporate the principles discussed as related to the design and performance of buildings as shown in case studies.


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NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.
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The facade of a building plays a key role in the overall design perception of a building as well as its ability to perform favorably. As the visible public “face” of a building, it provides a means for design expression that can range from traditional to innovative, planar or three dimensional, static or dynamic, colorful or not. Architectural critics in multiple media platforms expound on the relative merits and deficiencies of particular building facade designs while the general public reacts with vernacular zeal for what it likes or doesn’t like. From a performance standpoint, facades often provide the largest surface area of the building enclosure, thus having a very direct impact on the long-term durability and energy performance of the building. Of course, the particulars of the facade need to be based on the local conditions to respond not only to design preferences but to performance issues as well. The Architecture 2030 organization defines this point by saying, “A climate-based building facade is a filter between exterior and interior that creates comfortable internal living conditions.”1 As such, a facade design determines what filters in (e.g., sunlight, fresh air, etc.) and what is filtered out (e.g., excess heat, noise, etc.) all in the context of good design principles.

Photo courtesy of Construction Specialties

Building facades are key elements in both the design and performance of a building with many choices available in products, materials, systems, and solutions.

In the quest for a high-performing, well-designed building facade, architects need to rely on their understanding of the plethora of available materials, products, systems, and solutions on the market. In this course, we will look at some of those commonly available choices with an eye toward achieving innovation and high performance in building designs.

Integrating Structure and Facade

In a three-dimensional building exterior, sometimes it is the design intention to connect the inside with the outside, blur the visual sense of the enclosure, and provide daylight and views while still providing shade. By expanding the definition of a facade to encompass the entire outward expression of a building, its exterior form, its extended parts, and overhangs, the aesthetic and architectural value can be enhanced. Interconnected three-dimensional exteriors can provide opportunities for light sources to play with interior spaces, create an artistic continuation of themes from the outside to the inside, and generate overall impressions that delight the users and visitors to a building. Achieving these design results does not need to be elaborate or complicated. In fact, some of the best solutions often rely on simple, elegant design approaches and common building materials. One example that we will explore here is the use of structural steel decking systems to create innovative and high-performing facades.

Horizontal Projections

Steel decking has been used successfully to extend out horizontally past the exterior wall system to create an overhang or other design feature. A range of steel decking systems are available to address both structural and aesthetic objectives. Among these are deep ribbed or “dovetail” shaped steel deck profiles that offer enhanced structural strength plus an attractive pattern on the underside of the deck. When left exposed, this deck becomes integral to the overall aesthetic, whether serving as uniquely designed roof extensions or as integrated screens and canopies. They can also provide acoustical control when used for ceiling applications. Further, they can be longer in their span than standard steel deck, up to 35 feet in many cases. For simplified construction, lighting, electrical, plumbing, and fire suppression can all be readily integrated in the system. Of course, proper detailing is needed to assure thermal bridging is avoided, but that can be very straightforward to achieve.


In addition to horizontal uses, vertical, angled, curved, or sloped steel facades can be created using steel roof deck profiles as a cladding material. One of the ways to do this is by using structural steel decking (i.e., found in specification Division 5) for facade cladding in lieu of the typically more expensive architectural metals (i.e., found in specification Division 7). The attachment and field installation processes are well known and can produce a consistent, controlled performance related to loading conditions. Further, the appearance can hold up well over time. It should not be a surprise, then, to realize that this steel decking is being used not only for the underside of horizontal canopies on building exteriors but also for vertical facades.

Such structural steel decking is engineered for strength and durability and comes in a variety of profile shapes and depths with a range of visual effects. These include dramatic deep flutes, ribbed patterns, a lineal plank appearance, or a clean, smooth look. When used as cladding, steel decking can uniquely address the facade objectives of function, form, and cost control. This comes about because these systems contribute both structurally as well as aesthetically to the building. They serve to transfer loads and forces into the main building structure to maintain the integrity of the building while helping to weatherproof the exterior—and they can provide the finished cladding surface all in one product.

Standard profile deck along with long-span deck can be readily installed vertically, minimizing joint lines and creating an attractive exterior cladding. The engineered corrugations in the decking can be sized to hold up against wind, weather, and usage as appropriate to the project location, making it suitable for a permanent or sacrificial skin or a rainscreen on a facade. It can also serve as a sun screen or solar shading device where appropriate.


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Originally published in Architectural Record


Facades: Beauty Starts Skin Deep
Buyer's Guide
CL-Talon – Sustainable, Energy-Efficient, Adjustable Cladding Support System Provides Labor Savings
Where other attachment systems rely on rails to be anchored through the substructure and insulation into the building frame, thus creating thermal bridges, CL-Talon minimizes thermal bridging. This provides optimal thermal performance through a combination of exterior insulation and thermal clips, which reduces thermal bridging and therefore additional thermal breaks.
RSH-5700 Storm Resistant Louver
The RSH-5700 Louver from Construction Specialties is AMCA certified, tested, and proven to provide reliable resistance in winds as high as 50 mph that drive 8 inches of water per hour. It is designed to span widths of up to 12 feet without interruption and integrates well with high-performance curtain wall and metal panel facades.
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Jumbo Glass with SunGuard® Advanced Architectural Coatings
Guardian Glass’ new jumbo coater is Guardian’s 12th and the first in North America. The use of Guardian SunGuard® coated glass in jumbo sizes—on lites up to 217 square feet—opens up possibilities to architects by delivering expansive views with high performance to their design repertoire.
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Turn Your Design Inside Out
Today’s wider range of architectural steel decking create indoor-outdoor spaces that are both structural and aesthetic. Options include decking that serves as the roof structure while providing an exposed acoustical underside to eliminate the cost of suspended drop ceilings.
New Millennium Building Systems