The Building Envelope: More Than the Sum of its Parts

Article | January 8, 2018
Designing Integrated Building Enclosure

Designing integrated building enclosure

Architects think about buildings as one, holistic, beautiful structure. More than the sum of its aesthetic parts, the building has a distinctive design with integrity and longevity.

Why not, then, bring the same holistic thinking to the walls that enclose that building?

Architects certainly understand the importance of building reliable walls, but they can lose sight of how central they are to the efficiency of buildings and their ability to work in tandem with other parts of the design.

The idea of efficient walls largely sprouted from a mandate in 2006 when energy codes for commercial construction started to define the need for continuous insulation. Until then, commonly using batt between studs, architects scrambled to look for a new insulation solution.

As building science research developed, it became more common for additional layers to be added to the wall with the intention of increased long-term durability and protection against air and moisture. But more layers doesn’t always mean better when they work independently of one another. Solutions developed over the past decade offer architects the ability to construct more efficiently resulting in more efficient designs, more efficient construction, and more efficient buildings. Solutions developed include an integrated approach for walls – meaning combining the function of independent layers in a conventional wall into a simplified system – that combines functionality and avoids duplicating materials that have the same purpose. A wall system, which is an organized approach to achieving efficiency at every level of the wall, helps avoid those redundancies and can help ensure walls are streamlined but also still able to manage air and moisture appropriately to avoid mold and rot. The integrated approach not only gets the job done, but ensures the architect uses the latest in building materials innovation with efficient design methods to maximize performance.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption was consumed by the residential and commercial sectors. With new solutions to build efficient wall designs, architects are empowered to create designs that use less natural resources for powering buildings. Not only will efficient enclosure design help reduce the amount of energy used in a building, they actually reduce heating and cooling demands sometimes even reducing the size of equipment needed to maintain optimal temperature.

When architects don’t think about the building as an entire system and the impact of product selections such as walls in the overall lifecycle assessment of an entire building, they are missing an opportunity to create more efficient, longer lasting buildings. Architects tend to look primarily at the output of individual products and materials when the building is actually more than the sum of its parts. Given architects tend to take great care when focusing on the aesthetics of their project, it would benefit them to do the same when it comes to the wall systems they use. When architects design their walls for efficiency, they should aim to look beyond one element of their project and consider how those systems fit with the rest of their plan.

Factoring in walls as an important element of an overall efficient design for a building can give architects a leg up in creating a successful project that meets their goals. When building more efficient buildings including well-designed walls, there are a lot of intangibles; companies will get more out of their workers, employees are happier at work and the building runs better and is easier to maintain. All thanks to the architect.