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
This test is no longer available for credit

Photo courtesy of New Millennium Building Systems

While the facade of this education facility is a window wall, the windows, ceilings, and roof extensions become the “face” of building. The deep ribbed, non-acoustical roof deck seamlessly flows to the interior, where it is factory installed with acoustical mitigation. Both are surface finished at the factory.

Finished Appearance

One of the aspects of using steel decking either for roof/ceiling designs or cladding is the ability to conceal the fasteners. This helps with the overall appearance of the system but also helps assure greater weathertightness. With an uninterrupted surface to work with, the exposed surface of the deck system can be coated or textured to suit a variety of design needs. Steel deck is typically galvanized, but there are also options for variations like using stainless steel. Coatings can also be introduced to contribute to the durability of the material and longevity of the facade. Such coatings can be used to provide statements of color and texture that give a building its visual personality.

Recognizing the suitability of steel deck in exposed exterior locations, manufacturers offer a range of prefinished options using a variety of coatings. If primer and paint are factory applied on galvanized steel, it can provide years of protection that outlasts other options to keep the material looking good longer. This can be true even in aggressive environments, like swimming pools with corrosive chlorine, saline climates, or areas of high humidity. They are also effective at handling extreme environments such as marine locations and full ultraviolet exposures. Even in these situations, the prefinished coating systems can carry warranties and withstand chalking and fading over the years.

These prefinished products also give architects a broader design palette, allowing color, pattern, and texture to be selected to suit particular aesthetics. Regardless of the final look, these new prefinished deck options eliminate on-site painting or finishing, thus saving time during the construction process. The prefinishing also helps to assure a consistent and uniform appearance.

Building Applications

Steel decking systems used in facades are often considerably less costly when properly evaluated from the standpoint of total cost to a project. This makes them attractive not only for their design and performance characteristics but also for their ability to address project budgets. As such, architectural steel decking is increasingly being used as ceiling and cladding solutions for such applications as stadium exteriors and roofs, natatorium ceilings, open-air walkways, screens, and canopies. They are also being used in higher education and other commercial and institutional buildings in a variety of locations around the country.

High-Performing Facade Support Systems

Many commercial building facades are constructed by using a panelized cladding made from an appropriate material that is held in place by a frame or substructure. The significance of that substructure cannot be overlooked since the visible facade will be only as precise in its alignment and location as the substructure is. Therefore attention needs to be given during the early design and construction documents phase of a project focused on the cladding support systems and their specifications, which need to be defined in detail. Without enough clarity or detail, the contractors/installers are left to interpret the project requirements on their own, which often results in the most economic option for them, but not necessarily the best option for the building.

Beyond the fundamental purpose of supporting cladding, facade substructure systems can play an important role in the energy performance of the building. Increasingly, continuous insulation is called for between the exterior sheathing and the cladding in a wall assembly. Most substructures use aluminum as their primary material for their characteristics of being lightweight, non-ferrous, and strong. When these aluminum members interrupt the continuous insulation, however, they can create thermal bridges that compromise the effectiveness of the insulation and reduce the energy performance of the building. Therefore, an effective means to thermally isolate the members on either side of the insulation is called for. In order to better understand the issues, let’s compare conventional cladding support systems to high-performance ones.

Images courtesy of CL-TALON®

Integrated cladding support systems provide a complete, adjustable, and easy-to-install means to allow for continuous insulation and fully tested cladding support.

Conventional Facade Support Systems

A number of problems have been experienced related to the installation of conventional subframing and cladding materials. First are alignment issues between and across substructure members that can result in potential structural deficiencies of the system. Second is the labor-intensive process of creating a level, plumb, and true cladding support surface across the entire facade. Third are installation errors that can occur when the installers deviate from the intended design or when field conditions are different than expected during design. Finally, any of the above conditions can require additional adjustments to fix or properly realign the subframing, which is often not realized until the installation of the cladding has already begun. In that case, any installed cladding needs to be removed or the design needs to be changed to remedy the flaws.

Any of these issues can translate into additional construction costs associated with conventional subframing. As such, conventional systems have been found to cost more than newer, integrated cladding support systems both in terms of product cost and additional labor costs. Conventional systems are also prone to need additional material to fabricate custom parts, which causes the potential for waste that is built into the fabrication cost. Over the life of the building, the reduced thermal efficiency of conventional subframing reduces the energy performance and return on investment (ROI) while increasing building operating costs.


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Originally published in Architectural Record


Facades: Beauty Starts Skin Deep
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