Today’s building façades have a lot resting on their shoulders. As well as defining a building’s aesthetic and introducing the interior experience, the façade interprets and expresses key themes, embodies social values and communicates aspirations. It takes design ingenuity to achieve all this while harnessing and taming one of the most powerful elements in architecture—sunlight.
Dynamic façades that respond to environmental conditions are playing an increasing role in solving the delicate balance of maximising natural sunlight, protecting occupants from solar radiation and controlling energy performance—while maintaining the integrity of the architectural vision. Tim Phillips, Managing Director of Tilt Industrial Design, explains why architects are forming trusted collaborations with industrial designers to de-risk their creativity and bring their dynamic façades to life.
In your opinion, what frustrations are architects experiencing when it comes to façade design innovation?
The energy efficiency provisions for commercial buildings, such as Section J of the National Construction Code and related residential schemes such as BASIX, are seen as necessary but burdensome constraints for architects seeking to innovate. The general tendency within the industry is to specify glass façades due to their aesthetic appeal, durability, ultra-desirable provision of views and the ability to provide natural light for occupants. However, the thermal inefficiency of glass is presenting compliance challenges for architects as buildings become increasingly inefficient and expensive to cool.
How do architects currently ensure glass façade buildings meet energy efficiency provisions?
I see many different strategies. Each relies on a complex matrix of architectural performance, compliance and cost pressures, resulting in a range of choices. However, it’s important to note that no single solution will meet the requirements for all projects because each site is unique.
Before the widespread application of double-glazing in façades, the industry trend was to use single-skin glazing and perforated screen treatments over sun-facing façades. These solutions attempted to control glazing costs, deliver thermal efficiency and provide privacy and a unique aesthetic. However, while finishes such as these perform well under high natural sunlight, they can significantly compromise the occupants’ experiences in low light. In addition, due to their fixed level of porosity, these solutions cannot respond to the environment’s wide-ranging conditions.
In recent years, architects of large commercial towers have evolved their innovations to offer high-performance closed-cavity façade systems and integrated sun-shading systems that achieve thermal performance compliance. However, when you consider the combined cost of glazing and sun-shading, these systems have a relatively high per-square-metre rate for a façade. Furthermore, contained sun-shading systems can present high lifecycle costs due to maintaining the dry air environment within a closed cavity with moving parts. fjmt’s 200 George Street building in Sydney is a beautiful example of this technology in application.
Systems such as these are inherently responsive and can offer efficiencies above their predecessors — the static façade screens and double-glazed systems with internal blinds. However, they restrict the opportunity for architectural expression with the façade aesthetic developing a commonality over time to other buildings. The uniformity phenomenon is evolving further as dark tint becomes the industry norm in response to increasing thermal performance requirements.
The concept was required to mitigate sun strike to UTS’ central Reading Room, providing greater comfort for staff and students. Richard Crookes Construction commissioned Tilt as the head contractor to design, manufacture and install the dynamic sun shading system.
Responsive sun-shading systems are an evolving technology. What are the benefits of these systems, and how did Tilt help fjmt achieve its vision for UTS Central’s intricate sun-shading system?
In general, responsive sun-shading systems and kinetic elements in architecture are conceived to provide the ultimate opportunity for optimisation and efficiency in environmental control. A sun shading system that can adjust according to the amount of natural sunlight available offers an optimised internal environment. It also maximises natural sunlight and visibility when desired or provides optimal sun shading to protect those inside and improve cooling.
As part of its overall vision for UTS Central, fjmt designed a dynamic façade that added value to the building on multiple levels. By implementing the sun-shading system within a larger than normal cavity between two glazed layers, fjmt achieved a high level of sun-shading performance relative to a traditional double-glazed system with internal roller blinds. Conceptually, this approach would enable the use of low specification glass on the external façade and permit the redirection of the investment in the façade system to bespoke louvres. It was an exciting initiative that pursued high-level transparency in the façade and high-performance sun shading while preserving the opportunity to create a unique aesthetic and control the overall investment in the façade system.
What process does Tilt employ to successfully deliver a complex and dynamic façade concept such as this?
We recognise that architects face many challenges when trying to pursue creative architectural outcomes. As well as having to comply with many building codes, they face a range of obstacles when trying to persuade clients and builders to pursue a unique design feature. Real or perceived, any risks can be identified in design, manufacturing or installation.
By applying Industrial Design techniques and a ‘Design and Construct’ approach to project delivery, Tilt allows architects to pursue their concepts with a new confidence level. Our process essentially de-risks the project from idea conception to completion.
With regards to managing complexity, we aim to identify existing technologies from other industries that can be applied to the architectural or urban context instead of inventing a solution. This approach offers our clients a higher level of confidence in the outcome while managing costs and performance risks.
For UTS Central, we adapted existing sun shading technologies and integrated a unique cladding solution to ensure the system’s operation was predictable and reliable. Although the design development process to achieve the geometric form was quite technical, the technology integration was relatively straightforward. The outcome is a hybrid sun shading system that uses proven technology and provides a unique aesthetic.
Our initial engagement was to undertake a feasibility study to investigate the project’s critical design criteria and how it could be best delivered.
This study aimed to explore whether we could protect fjmt’s aesthetic pursuit and guarantee functionality. We explored a range of design criteria, specifically reviewing mechanical and structural engineering, electrical integration, material selection, aesthetic and functional objectives. We also reviewed budgetary expectations to confirm that the balance of the project vision was achievable.
How do architects assess the return-on-investment proposition for a dynamic façade?
Architects often perceive dynamic façades as prohibitively expensive. However, a range of creative and logical commercial models exist to achieve an exceptional design outcome.
- Re-purposing existing technologies: The innovative application of existing technologies is often the key. For example, it’s possible to deliver exciting results with already available industrial automation systems for mechanisation combined with already available control systems and software solutions.
- Non-traditional construction materials: Using these materials and mass production manufacturing processes can achieve appropriately durable and cost effective façade installation at scale.
- Combined purpose and budgets: By looking at a project holistically, you can cleverly allocate traditionally independent investments in public art, sun shading and façade glazing that collectively provide better architectural outcomes.
The sun-shading installation at UTS Central and the Heliostat system seen at Sydney’s One Central Park are excellent examples of combined purposes. At One Central Park, the developers used the project’s public art contribution to achieve a combined artistic and functional architectural feature. Jean Nouvel’s reflectors’ system provides the environmental benefit of offsetting over-shadowing and supplementing solar access during the day combined with Yann Kersale’s Sea Mirror public art installation at night. This type of progressive thinking presents architectural and building performance opportunities that would otherwise be unachievable with traditional architectural and development methodologies.
How do modern computer modelling technologies support the development of dynamic façades?
The emergence of parametric modelling and algorithmic design tools such as the plug-in Grasshopper for Rhinoceros 3D facilitates the exploration of traditionally complex façade designs. Today, we can now define a set of constraints within the façade geometry to ensure performance. We can also rapidly explore a range of potential geometric outcomes. These tools are facilitating the pursuit of complex geometries such as those seen in the UTS Central façade.
Using parametric modelling for the UTS Central façade enabled us to explore the complex faceted design and compliance with thermal performance goals. It also permitted the rapid and largely automated development of shop drawings, which was a critical factor in the project’s success. Another relatively new concept in architecture is digital fabrication, whereby the original design files act as the documentation, and 2D drawings support the 3D file in manufacturing directly from the original file.
Digital fabrication is starting to be adopted when the design allows for modern manufacturing techniques, and the production benefits from efficiencies gained from this process. Fabricators no longer need to interpret the architectural drawings, enabling the manufacturing of building products with exacting tolerances direct from the architectural model.
The architectural industry’s pursuit of compliant, high-performance buildings with a unique aesthetic lends itself perfectly to using these new types of technologies. When considered at the early design stage, a great opportunity presents itself for the architect to distinguish their design while mitigating the risks associated with performance in dynamic and static façade design.
What advice can you give architects who are considering incorporating a dynamic façade into their designs?
From compliance and cost to manufacturability or procurement risk — architects recognise the barriers to pursuing complex designs. I always encourage architects to conceptualise a solution to their problem and then talk to us about the concept at that initial moment of creativity. We love it when we get a call that begins with, “I’ve got this idea…”
That’s the right time to talk to us about how Tilt can support them with the delivery of a unique design concept, whether it’s static or dynamic. If they start pushing down the line without help, they may go the wrong direction, which exposes them to more risk. We stand behind them to solve the complexity, realise the design and give them creative freedom.