Face the future22 January 2020
On 3 October, leading architects, engineers and consultants gathered for a dinner date at the Stafford London hotel. Hosted by LEAF Review in partnership with Elval Colour, on the menu was a wide-ranging conversation focused on the latest advancements in facade technology and the extent to which they are driving debate around building for a sustainable future.
From toasters to phones to cities, ‘smart’ has become a ubiquitous prefix with almost as many interpretations as applications. It is a small word that prompts big ideas, feeding into debates surrounding personal data, public privacy, community integration, free will and sustainability.
These were also just a few of the subjects touched upon at a roundtable discussion held at the Stafford London hotel back in October. Hosted by LEAF Review in partnership with Elval Colour, it brought together over 20 architects, engineers and consultants for a conversation around smart facades.
However, as the discussion evolved and the wine flowed, it soon moved on to address fundamental questions of urbanism, the climate crisis, building typology, materiality, and the role the built environment plays in dictating how people lead and manage their lives.
From the off, the very concept of ‘smart’ facades was challenged. “I think when you hear that word, people are often talking about something that is dynamic, that moves,” responded Natassa Lianou of LC Architects, when the table was challenged to define the term. “But I don’t think that is really what makes something smart. Smart is where you have multiple functions and combine a lot of parameters.”
These qualities had been on show throughout a presentation from Lianou and her studio co-founder Ermis Chalvatzis, which had preceded the roundtable discussion. The former Zaha Hadid associates talked their audience through a selection of projects demonstrating a signature style they call “smart design elegance”, stressing connectivity, dialogue and flow. In the eyes of many around the table, clients – all too often driven by current trends and short-term thinking – weren’t always looking for something so nuanced.
“Whenever we are doing residential buildings, the first thing clients want is lots of glass,” said Alan Crawford, founder of Crawford Partnership. “They want the views, but what about the heat gain? In that context the ‘smart’ answer might be facades that respond to climatic and external conditions. Then again, in New York architects seem to now be veering away from high-rise glass facades, to more solid, neoclassical styles.”
Materiality often follows the signature style of the architect as well as the demands of the client. “We have not done many glass boxes,” acknowledged Subharthi Guha, lead designer at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). “Look at the Rogers building, right in front of the Tate Modern extension, where you can overlook into people’s apartments; the proximity of buildings is getting closer and the views shorter. Perhaps we should be talking about interiorising views, being able to escape within the building, and how smarter facades can help us achieve that.”
“Before we come to smart facades, it is about smart design,” agreed Ingo Braun, design director at NBBJ Design. “All the discussion is too often about compressing everything into a single layer, but we also have traditional, sensible building techniques that can help address a lot of these challenges. You can then deploy technology to help enhance those decisions, not just create boxes that are dependent upon them.”
Open to innovation
Conversation turned to smart facade systems that interacted with external conditions, with several attendees having spent time at the White Collar Factory in east London, a building with a three-element curtain walling.
“You have an app that tells you when external conditions are appropriate for the opening of windows – pollution levels are low and so on,” explained Russell Cole, Arup’s leader of facade engineering.
“I was there the other day and the green light was given. People seemed quite surprised. I think it is still pretty rare,” Julia Erdem, an associate at BDP, told the table, to much amusement.
“Also, people are not opening windows,” said Stephen Tanno, a director at Schueco International, correcting his peer to more laughter. “They are opening ‘internal ventilation flaps’. What we are using and how we use it is changing. People are having to adapt.”
That begged the question of what role people actually had to play in all this. “A building is only as smart as its inhabitants” is a well-worn mantra, but, with facades now dictating behaviour, to what extent might the human element be removed entirely?
“I would say that is true of a close cavity facade (CCF),” Cole acknowledged. “You will be standing in your bedroom and suddenly the blinds go down. That can lead to a sense of disenfranchisement; I like to be in control of the space I inhabit.”
“We have done a few CCFs and have been asked for override buttons,” said Camille Destres, a senior engineer at Meinhardt Façade Technology. “The challenge is how do you judge CCF performance. Often, you end up adding set points for specific conditions, but that is not necessarily representative of how good a system could be if you let it behave entirely based upon the environment in real time. You end up dumbing it down.”
However, with technology advancing at unprecedented speed, and facades dictating so many more elements of performance, how long should we be designing our buildings to last?
“If it is suitable for location, there is still no reason not to design for 100 years or more,” Tanno responded. “I was lucky to work on the Tate Modern extension – that has a design life of 150 years.”
“We do seem to be moving more towards disposable architecture though,” countered Valerie Evans, a director at Atkins. “If people are only designing buildings to last for 40 or 50 years, that prompts all sorts of questions about dismantling and repurposing. It can’t all go to landfill.”
“And it is not even 40 years in many cases,” Tanno added. “Look at Broadgate – you are talking 20, 25 years. It is now being demolished, not remodelled.”
“A 30-year lifespan is becoming the norm,” agreed Stephen Wilson, a divisional director at Stride Treglown Architecture. “That means a big part of smart design has to concern how we reuse and repurpose. “It is interesting seeing new off-site solutions being developed, things that break down into component parts.”
“A lot of people around the table are lamenting what I call ‘Primark urbanism’,” Guha said to weary chuckles of acknowledgment. “The use-and-dispose city. The answer lies in the power of imagination. We need to think of new answers and that will help drive better solutions. It gets everybody thinking more creatively.”
“You are absolutely right,” Evans agreed. “As creative people we are driven by the possibilities of new ideas – but clients also want something that is new, shiny and different to what the person up the street already has. They won’t readily accept a DFMA kit of parts that is tried, tested, meets all legislation and is ready to roll out.”
One attendee, speaking off the record, was unimpressed by the tone that conversation too often took. “The whole fashion discussion is so frustrating,” he lamented. “It is a sign of how little expertise there is in the design industry. Suddenly in New York they are all saying ‘no more glass; we want solid buildings’. It shouldn’t be what is hot right now; that limits us. Find the right material for the right project.”
Back to nature
This prompted Efthimios Zizos, projects manager at Elval Colour, to muse whether we might see a return to more natural materials, and what that might mean within the context of smart facades and buildings.
“We see brick making a comeback,” Tanno offered.
“You mean bricks made out of GRC,” Guha corrected his dining companion.
“They are a lightweight form of brick facade yes, but they are going up on 50-storey buildings,” Tanno responded.
The ZHA designer was not convinced. “GRC is such a flexible material you can shape it any way you like,” Guha said. “I don’t fully understand why one chooses brick; you are going back to baroque or rococo.”
Another natural material up for discussion was vegetation, which in turn led to a wider conversation about the potential for building facades to harvest as well as manage energy consumption.
“I do worry about the microclimatic of having clusters of tall buildings,” Crawford began. “The heat gain they emit has to be concerning.”
“Arup has done some research into urban greenery and found the importance of having greenery up to the second floor, as that is the streetscape,” Cole responded. “If you can introduce that greenery into the facade, create a green tunnel, it does impact conditions at street level.”
“We are also rejecting so much solar energy that can be captured,” Destres added. “It is hard to understand why.”
“The price of photovoltaics and technology advancements will make us think more about harvesting energy through solid facades,” Cole replied. “It is coming.”
However, amid advancements in construction capability, shifting legislation, growing public accountability and an ongoing climate crisis, how fundamental a rethink of approach is required from the design and construction industry when it comes to how we design our cities on a macro level?
“The parameters by which we design will be changing,” Cole replied. “I look at the UN Sustainability Development Guidelines, which are being adopted by an increasing number of clients, as well as practitioners and institutions.
"The climate emergency has finally caught the imagination and the response has to be finding a building approach that aspires to a higher set of values.
“But I don’t believe that means homogeneity. We all respond to the building and the site. Our processes are going to be more complex because we will be accounting for so many more things and the information at our disposal will be so much deeper – but that should also mean better, more intelligent architecture.”