20 September 2010

The facades of the future

This is a post under construction. In fact, it may be under construction for years, since its theme will always remain open. What are the key indicators of the facades of the future? What will matter - and what won't - in relation to how we design building envelopes today?

The following is a list (yes, I love lists) of the issues that will define facades design in the near and longer future. Let's put a time lag to this: by 2020? That's rather soon. 2030 is better: twenty years from now.

1. Image:
a) Media facades - they tell us a changing message. See below and here for a video of Ned Kahn's facade moved by the wind:
        Ned Kahn, Technorama facade - Swiss Science Centre, Winthertur

        N Building, Tokyo. Terada Design and Qosmo - The facade is covered in QR codes. Clic a pic of this building and you will get info of all its inhabitants in your mobile.

        b) Interactive facades - we can ask them for something, and they will answer. See above and here for more information.

        c) Dynamic facades - they will move, in order to perform better, but also in a way we will consider aesthetically pleasant - as it should be: utilitas & venustas. See below and here for the video.
        Kiefer Technic Showroom, Giselbrecht + Partners - The louvers move constanty depending on the day and light conditions, and on the inner use of the rooms.
        2. Performance:
        Future facades will be extremely performant. We have almost reached the limit of tectonics nowadays (what can be done to make any element structurally resistant and stable) but we have just started to grasp the surface of the non-tectonic issues (what can be done to improve the capacity of building elements to reduce thermal transmission, reduce emissivity, limit noise transmission, avoid air and water penetrations, maximize visible light transmittance whilst blocking UV and infrared rays, etc etc).

        We are so behind in non-techtonic related issues that there isn't even a name for those (let me suggest one: herkonics, from 'herkos', building fence and interface in Greek)

        3. Sustainability:
        If a building envelope performs well in terms of energy, it should already be sustainable, right? Well, in the future that won't be enough. As long as we will achieve zero-energy buildings (by both passive and active means) other issues will become more important than what they are now. That's the case with materials carbon footprint, re-usability of elements as per the cradle to cradle mantra, water retaining and reusing, etc.

        4. Buildability:
        Facades will always have to be fabricated, transported and installed on site. That must be made in a more efficent way - to reduce their carbon footprint, to reduce time, to reduce costs, to reduce uncertainty and risk of malfunction. This is really difficult and will consume the 20 years period I have given for this list to become reality. Can you imagine a robotic factory? You surely can. Now try to imagine a complete robotic jobsite!

        Joints and interfaces between facade elements will become even more critical in the future. Again , this is science fiction, regardless the fact that we have been dicussing it since the 50's.

        5. Post-occupancy:
        This involves first of all facades design that allows user comfort, adaptability and dynamic response to different needs.

        Second, it means that our envelopes should be easy to maintain, but really so; reducing the costs, the effort and the spill of water and consumables we need now. And easy to replace: when something breaks or underperforms, the system detects it and the substitution is done together with the cleaning... Sounds futuristic, doesn't it?

        And, last but not least, durable facades. This is the Holy Grial of the whole story. Sustainable in Darwinian terms means lasting. Our facades today are creationists, not evolucionists. We act like gods, but gods without the power - and our 'creatures' disappear swallowed by the harshness of the real world. Some day our building envelopes will again, as in the past, be durable. It will definitely take time: I don't care if it's more than 20 years, as long as the trend goes in that direction.

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