“Why do we build? Depending on who you ask in the building industry, the answer to this question is certain to vary. Architects, engineers, and designers may be passionate about shaping structures that leave a physical imprint on the natural world. Builders and entrepreneurs could be attracted by the power to construct and assemble disparate parts into a whole. For developers, the drive might be the thrill of finding and closing gaps in the market, or indeed, the urban fabric itself. Across these and many more sub-sectors, we are united by a motivation to build – to add pieces to the puzzle that becomes ‘the built environment’.” 
In 2015, the United Nations released the 17 Sustainable Development Goals which as a call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that people enjoy peace and prosperity highlights to the multidisciplinary nature of our challenge.
As multi-sensory environmental filters, facades are probably one of the most multidisciplinary elements of the built environment that have to respond to ever-changing user requirements in ever more demanding locations. Not only do they create an imprint of the building on the world outside it, but are critical for the occupant’s wellbeing, the efficiency of building operation and form the protection of the pedestrians outside.
It can feel like there are too many demands on the façade, which is perhaps one of the barriers to challenging the established norms in the built environment. An architect once said to me ‘I would never specify external shutters in the UK, they’d never get built’. Why not, when they are successful in most other European countries with similar climate to us and are a great answer to overheating…?
Provocatively, we might argue that many façade designs follow a prescribed fashion of the time, or an expectation of what will be accepted through planning, However, as an industry, our challenge as designers is to encourage deeper thinking about user experience utilising a more collaborative approach that defines better, perhaps unexpected, outcomes. It is all too easy to leave design decisions unchallenged given the complexities associated with façade design. So when we shape the physical world, we are also shaping our social landscape; we are impacting on the ability of individuals and communities to live healthy and happy lives.
With their large impact on people both inside, facades are driven by social and environmental drivers . For example, consider how facades conduct daylight. The colour and intensity of facades influence how our bodies produce hormones like melatonin and serotonin – these in turn affect our sense of wakefulness and quality of mood. And views (especially of vegetation or sky) are also psychologically important – improving both our concentration, creativity and productivity.
Big cities that are centres of human innovation and collaboration can also be seen as sterile wastelands of concrete and steel where animals disappear or adapt as there are not habitats left for them. From an environmental point of view the envelope of a building is a fantastic place to integrate wildlife pockets and reconnect humans with our innate affinity with nature including living things and organisms . As David Attenborough famously said: “My home, too, is here – in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world.”
Views are essential to human happiness and health. Having a window looking out to nature has shown to help speed up the healing process of patients in hospitals. Similarly, having plants in the same room as patients in hospitals also speeds up their healing process. Why do we just apply these principles in healing environments when it is equally applicable to where we live or work? I think we all know what we would prefer, a view of nature versus a brick wall.
Noise is also a contributing factor affecting our ability to concentrate, relax and sleep. Noise can cause increased levels of stress hormones, health. So improved design of facades must respond to environmental noise and sound transmission considerations in order to function effectively.
Control is important too. Something as simple as the ability to open windows for example, has a positive impact on our stress levels – actually making us better able to cope with discomfort. Despair owing to things outside our control is a common human response.
Privacy is another key consideration. The challenge to convince architects that full height windows in bedrooms are a bad idea continues, and while we can report success on a number of our projects, a lack of post-occupancy evaluation remains the problem.
These are just a few of the demands placed on the façade for user experience however we could have mentioned ….. overheating, access and maintenance embodied energy, materiality, fire performance, security or impact on furniture layout.
At Arup, we are playing our part in challenging design principals. The façade at White Collar Factory in Old Street, London, was driven through a sustainable and human-centred approach.
This high-performance façade was achieved by optimising the ratio between vision and opaque areas to control solar gains. But the provision of control through operable windows and a natural ventilation strategy had a daily impact on its users with a traffic light system to optimise usage. Each façade was designed differently depending on its orientation. Acoustic intervention meant natural ventilation was able to take place whilst protecting human comfort even though the project is located on one of the noisiest roundabouts in London.
Gathering and utilising data to inform better decision making is also crucial. Our Facades team in London has been working with the Glass and Façade Technology Research Group at the University of Cambridge and façade contractor Permasteelisa to look at important aspects of the workplace environment that has the biggest impact on our satisfaction.
A year-long monitoring experiment is focused on understanding the impact of transient environmental conditions including CO2, solar radiation, temperature, pressure, humidity and noise on human comfort. Data collected by a specially-made toolkit – which includes a feedback unit for volunteers to register their feelings of comfort (and discomfort) – will be used to develop strategies for more efficient, human-centric façades.
As we start to develop on more constrained and complex sites we will increasingly need to embrace the challenge and the complexity as a set of opportunities for collaboration. This will enable us to maximise socially useful outcomes and deliver what people really need, rather than what we think they need. This will require our responsibility to go well beyond practical completion in order to get the necessary feedback to ensure buildings improve over time.
To do this we have to unite all the drivers at the façade as part of the holistic building design, earlier than we might normally work, and most probably leave our egos at the door. The façade which has been for a long period for others should place the users at its heart through multidisciplinary design.
Fundamentally, through successful façade design, we are shaping the future history of our cities.
1. Camilla Andersen, Arup, Social Value article 2019;
2. The Biophilia Hypothesis” Edward O. Wilson.1995;
3. Park, SH; Mattson, RH (2009). “Ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms enhanced health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery”.
4. Deborah Franklin (2012): “How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nature-thatnurtures
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Autumn 2019 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Becci is a building services engineer, building physicist and design integrator. She is an expert in strategic, environmental and sustainable design across arts, culture and residential sectors.
Becci is a passionate advocate and communicator for integrated design that focuses on people and performance. She teams of multidisciplinary engineers, driving collaboration to realise fantastic buildings that also reduce resource use. Her creativity and technical understanding have influenced development strategies, masterplans and building designs across the world. Becci has the most impact when engaged early enough to shape the constraints of schemes into opportunities.