These days the world is experiencing one of the largest healthcare crisis of the last decade. People have been asked by governments and health organizations to stay at home as much as possible to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus. Lifestyle as we know, during quarantine, is being redefined and our daily habits challenged. Living, working and playing now happens in a single building; there is minimal commuting, minimal social interaction and minimal outdoor activities.
Some people have larger homes, with gardens, patios and outdoor spaces where they can spend their quarantine and still go out and breathe some fresh air. However, this is not always the case in big agglomerations and dense metropolises where apartments are smaller and a larger number of people live per building with only windows to connect to the outside world. In some cases, the windows do not even open…
For individuals living in apartments during quarantine, their only physical and visual connection (not virtual) with the outside world; life, sunlight, fresh air and nature, takes place through windows, balconies and terraces. All social interactions between people occur in these “intermediate spaces” that connect the interior of the home with the external world; we know this intermediate space as the Envelope of the building, THE FAÇADE.
Professionals from all disciplines are questioning ways to help improve health and wellness measures in the current crisis. Architects and designers are examining the role design can play now and in the near future. The same questions have become prevalent in architectural and façade discourse… Will this pandemic change the way architects design their buildings? And, what characteristics should façades have in order to promote wellness in times of quarantine?
How can façade design improve the wellbeing of the building occupants?
Below we will describe several design approaches that can help promote wellness for occupants through optimal façade performance and energy efficiency, as well as environmentally responsive design. The use of sustainable strategies, including solar passive systems and diversity of schemes adaptable to change are proposed as key elements to the “new” future of façade design.
1. Recesses and projections; Importance of Outdoor spaces
Many people that live in metropolitan areas do not have access to a garden or outdoor space. Especially during quarantine, being indoors and confined to four walls for the majority of the day can be monotonous and exhausting. When designing façades for residential buildings, living outdoor spaces can be a welcome reprieve from this monotony and are essential elements to introduce into the design.
Benefits of integrating adaptable outdoor spaces in façades:
• Provide flexibility for the occupant, and extra space to use for different functions.
• Provide a source of fresh air and natural sunlight to be exposed too.
• Provide physical connectivity with the nearby community and social activities occurring outside.
• Introduce vegetation
At the same time, this outdoor space should be adaptable in terms of usability, allowing the occupant to maximize the use of the area and its function. In some cases, the dweller may want to have full or partial enclosure (physical or visual) of the “external zone” to have privacy. In other cases, the individual might want openness and exposure in order to interact with the neighbors or surrounding social activities (within the immediate environment). The façade design should therefore provide enough area and flexibility to accommodate the outdoor activities as per the user’s evolving needs.
Outdoor areas can also function as an alternative space to work from home. The performance of the individual can be improved due to the change in visuals, fresh air, sun exposure, outdoor environment and connection to the community.
2. Spatial layering and dynamism; Importance of Resilience in façades
Whether outdoor spaces are created from recesses and projections generated from a building´s massing, originate from the voids in the use of shading devices that protrude from a façade or have appeared within a double skin façade that surrounds a structure, by responding to energy efficiency requirements they will directly affect the comfort of the residents.
The experiences of the resident in this “intermediate zone” can always be enhanced by the combination of one or more of the design strategies mentioned above.
For instance, the combination of exterior solar control elements (such as overhangs, fins, exterior skins, louvers, blinds or full window-screen geometries of various materials) can provide a response to climatic factors (reducing solar heat gain and glare), as well as being a solution to privacy requirements. Furthermore, dynamic systems will be more resilient in order to comply with variable resident’s needs. For example, collapsible perforated metal panels can work as a shading device and also function as a privacy division for a balcony. The idea is to provide as much flexibility as possible, so the same system should provide a full open balcony, partial closure or full closure. With a wide range of technology available in the façade systems market, an ever-expanding availability of different materials and unparalleled design innovation, there is a vast world of possibilities to create different design approaches for adaptable façades.
“The architect designed façade elements that can be easily moved around to convert internal space into external space, and vice versa. Individual residents decide whether and where they need terraces and annexes, using the external space for these purposes. This creates exciting spatial perspectives; more excitingly, the ultimate form of the dwelling is truly the brainchild of the resident. In addition, the permanent decorative elements allow the façade to radiate unity despite its variety.”
Birgit Jurgenhake from Delft University of Technology has a very appealing way of describing how people experience façades and like to interact with them, suggesting a sense of ownership. In her paper “Connecting Inside and Outside in Time-Based Dwelling”, she states that people live both with and in façades. She explains “spatial layering in a façade creates sequences, which offer residents many options for using an enclosure. The layers offer a transition between inside and outside, between the public and private spaces (…) They (dwellers) wish to exercise control over this transition and their contact with the environment just as much as they wish to control the light, air, temperature in their homes.”
Furthermore, there are innovative options for upgrading façades to offer an alternative outdoor space where there isn’t already one existing. An example of this is Bloomframe, a state-of-the-art folding balcony designed by Hofman Dujardin Architects. The system allows the occupant to “open” a window and turn it into an outdoor balcony space. This cutting-edge design solution could potentially increase the wellbeing of people who currently do not benefit from an outdoor space in dense metropolitan areas.
3. Green façades; Connection to the natural environment
In the last decades, architects and engineers have studied, tested and proposed various solutions to integrate vegetation into façades. The reasons behind incorporating vegetation are not only aesthetic, but in most cases, have been advocated to solve other aspects of design and energy efficiency. All these aspects are directly related to benefiting the wellbeing of the occupant, either directly interfering with their dwelling, visually, or to support an alternative need such as food provision.
• Aesthetics and views. Façades that incorporate plants as part of their design enrich the aesthetics of the building, contribute to enhanced street visuals and improve the occupant’s view. The sense of looking outside the window and seeing greenery can enhance the wellness of the dwellers. Moreover, having the alternative of going into an open space (even in a skyscraper) and seeing a significant amount of vegetation at a close distance can improve mood and decrease stress levels.
In addition, this design solution provides an active and mutable appearance; since vegetation is an organic component and varies throughout seasons, the façade will constantly change throughout the year and never look the same. Potentially, a green façade can also create a habitat for wildlife, even in an urban area.
• Solar shading devices. The integration of vegetation in façades has also been used as part of Solar passive design; this solution has been utilized in a wide variety of projects in order to provide shading to the interior of buildings. In addition, this organic shading system alleviates and reduces unwanted heat gain during the day.
• Thermal Insulation. Drawing parallels with green roofs that provide insulation for buildings, vegetation integrated into façades has the capability to partially block sun rays, reducing heat absorption on the surface behind them. This may result in reducing cooling energy cost for the tenant.
“Green building envelopes can help to reduce the urban up-heating (heat island effects), filter fine dust on the streets and reduce noise levels. (…) Where ‘green’ spaces can make cities more attractive and resilient, as vegetation filters fine particles from the air. The effective introduction of green building envelopes can result in local reduction in pollution of around 10-20%. Harnessing urban agriculture initiatives like vertical farming, beehives and wildlife corridors, can deliver better air quality.”
• Cleaner air. According to Marc Ottelé from Delft University of Technology, green walls can reduce the number of air pollutants such as fine dust and carbon dioxide; “Smaller dust particles are often inhaled deep into the respiratory tract causing health problems. Ottelé believes that this accumulation of fine dust particles on the leaf surfaces has the ability to improve public health by keeping dust out of the air.”
• Vertical farms with Hydroponics. Due to the increase of people living in metropolitan areas and the lack of suitable land to raise crops and fulfill the populations required food production, vertical farming has cemented itself as an important focus of the architectural and city planning agenda. Solutions to our modern-day food shortages have been pioneered by various architects across the globe.
An example of this is a Vertically Integrated Greenhouse system into the façade by Kiss+Cathcart Architects and Arup. Their concept integrates food production into buildings, specifically growing hydroponic crops in building envelopes, façades and roofs. They propose a “lightweight, modular, climatically responsive vegetable culture system designed to be installed in the curtain wall of a high-rise building.” The designers describe the benefits of food production which make use of direct exposure to solar energy, as well as the benefits to the building occupants with regard to their connection to nature and access to healthier vegetables and fruits. While there have been numerous studies focused on developing these ideas further, there is still some apprehension as to how vertical farming could be integrated with façades efficiently as there are still some limitations with this technology.
4. Natural ventilation; Importance of Indoor Air Quality
Being able to provide natural ventilation through façades will improve the experience of the person living in the space in different ways:
• By designing naturally ventilated façades the occupant will have the option to ensure sufficient air exchange as needed. In times of pandemic this air exchange is advantageous when cleaning and disinfecting rooms, in favor of reducing the spread of illnesses inside the building. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that, the lack of sufficient mechanical ventilation to ensure adequate air exchange in energy-efficient buildings may result in the increase of indoor concentrations of some pollutants that have negative impacts on people’s health.
• Natural ventilation schemes can improve air quality and reduce cooling loads, employing the façade as an active air control element. In addition, this may result in reducing operating energy cost for the occupant (minimizing cooling and heating).
• Crossed ventilation is often taken for granted. However, this passive strategy helps improve the circulation of fresh air in a room without recurring to mechanical means, as an alternative sustainable source of air exchange within a space.
• Different wellness organizations recommend performing outdoor activities in order to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Since going outdoors might not be an option during this crisis, being able to open a window and allow fresh air into the home may provide the only means to refreshment and improved wellbeing for the people indoors, as well as enhancing the experience of connection to the exterior world and immediate outdoor surroundings.
• Designing naturally ventilated façades may enhance the occupant’s performance and improve mental health and functions for everyday activities as well as increasing work productivity from home.
5. Transparency; Importance of Sunlight
The size of the windows is a key element to ensure enough sunlight reaches the interior of apartments throughout the day. In addition, allowing natural light to illuminate the rooms can significantly reduce the cost of artificial lighting for the occupant.
The size of the windows will also be a significant factor in improving the view that occupant have of their surroundings. This might not be an issue in a low-density district but may become increasingly important in dense urban environments. The size of the window will allow a visual connection between the dweller and the sky, the street, the nearby buildings, the outdoor vegetation, the neighbors, etc. Especially in times of quarantine, where people are isolated, façade design can promote this important connection between the inhabitants and their neighborhood, improving visual connectivity and sense of being part of the community.
Allowing natural sunlight to enter the rooms may also boost energy levels and productivity performance of people working from home. Health organizations state the benefits of moderate sun exposure; from promoting bone health and regulating vital calcium levels, throughout a number of benefits in functions in the body, including the functioning of the brain.
As important as it is to allow direct and indirect sunlight to maintain physical and mental health in the workspace (now the house), it is equally important to propose solar control devices as part of the façade design.
• By increasing the energy efficiency of the facades, by basic principles such as allowing the flow of natural ventilation, crossed ventilation and controlled daylight access. It can result in improving the indoor air quality ensuring a much healthier environment due to sufficient air exchange, reducing the risk of infections and improving the health of the building occupants, as well as reducing the operational cost for cooling and heating. Fresh air and natural sunlight in the dwellings can boost the energy levels and productivity performance of people living and working from home, directly improving their wellbeing.
• By creating spatial layering in the facades, a sequence of zoning can be created in order to generate dynamic spaces that can transition from indoor to outdoor and from private to public, responding to the occupant’s daily habits, routines and needs. Through designing adaptable façade systems to meet the occupant’s variable usages, architects can contribute to improve their comfort at their place of residence.
• By integrating vegetation into the facades, the mood of the occupants can be enhanced by improving the visuals and the connection to nature. In addition, integrated vegetation can provide solar shading and better thermal insulation resulting in possible decrease of operational costs. Furthermore, vertical farming with hydroponic systems integrated in facades could potentially be the future trend in order to grow healthier food for the buildings occupants, improving their wellbeing. However, there are pros and cons to vertical farming on how this could be integrated with the facades.
The overall wellness result of the design strategies described above relies on the resilience of the façade and the flexibility to adapt to the occupants evolving needs in times of pandemic and in the near future.
In her Study; Adaptable facade systems for balcony enclosure, Architect Belén Nemi proposes a series of dynamic panel systems to comply with variable resident’s needs.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Summer 2020 USA Special Edition: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Belén Nemi, Architect, Intl. Assoc. AIA / CPAU member
As an Architect currently based in Dubai, with over 13 years of design and technical experience, including facade design and detailing, Belén has successfully worked on several largescale high-profile projects in South America, Europe and the Middle East.Since moving to the UAE, Belén worked in the international design firm Gensler in the Abu Dhabi office for over 6 years. On her first years she was promoted to Associate and has worked on a variety of projects from corporate HQ office buildings, and mixed-use projects through to hospitality and retail centres, including Vida Hotel & Apartments in Bahrain, National Bank of Abu Dhabi HQ and the award-winning retail centre The Avenues Bahrain.
While facing clients and leading projects, her focus has been to provide design and technical solutions to comply with all stakeholder´s interests, collaborating with multidisciplinary teams all over the world.
For the last couple of years, her efforts have been in hospitality projects. In her early stages, Belén worked in a Facade Consultancy practice in Argentina with award-winning architects in projects such as; Carrasco´s International Airport in Uruguay (Rafael Vinoly Architects), Campus Repsol HQ in Madrid (Rafael de La-Hoz) and BBVA HQ in Madrid (Herzog & the Meuron), amongst others.
In Dubai, Belén was a panelist in ZAK World of Facades Summit 2017 and Façade Design & Engineering Middle East Forum & Awards. In Argentina, she was a speaker in Batimat Expovivienda – Aluvi 2013, the largest construction exhibition in the region. In addition, while she worked in BestChem firm, she gave over a dozen lectures on weatherproofing and structural sealants and their application on glass facades.
Since 2009, Belén holds an Architecture´s degree (M.Arch equiv.) from the University of Buenos Aires (FADU) in Argentina. She is an AIA International Associate since March 2016 and a chartered licensed member from the Architects and Urbanist Professional Council (CPAU) from Buenos Aires.