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Multifunctional, Adaptable Facades

Bridget Ogwezi1*, Dr Richard Bonser1, Dr Geoff Cook1, Jonathan Sakula2


School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading

Buro Happold, London, UK
*Corresponding author:

The current state of the planet, in terms of energy use and climate change means that by
all means possible, we must move to a more sustainable way of living. Buildings account
up to 40% of energy consumed, hence there must be a determined effort to reduce their
energy consumption in maintaining a suitable internal environment. The building faade
acts as the medium through which the internal environment can be controlled through
interaction with the external environment.
The building faade can define the internal living space by controlling the flow of energy
through it. In order to reduce the energy used in achieving design criteria in terms of
lighting, thermal properties, acoustics, air quality and security, the faade needs to be able
adapt to the changing external environment and the complex internal needs of the users.
This study details the need for multifunctional, adaptable facades and what they achieve.
Finally, the paper discusses the possibility of multifunctional, adaptable skins being
developed in the light of current research.

Keywords: Environmental control, adaptable facades, artificial neural networks, building

skin, computer controlled facades


In the simplest form, by building walls that sit on a foundation and are topped by a roof,
another environment is carved out from the existing open and unregulated one. The
elements of the external environment can be moderated by this outer layer, the faade of
the structure. Rain does not penetrate into the inner area unless there is an opening, the
same applies to wind and sunlight penetration is limited to transparent parts or openings
in the faade. This principle of a faade applies if you are erecting a tent or building a

In any building, the faade should not be regarded as just an outer face or a means of
delineating an area; it is in fact in a key component to the design functionality of the
structure. Even though facades, in several cases, do not bear structural loads from the rest

of the building, precise design of every facet of it is crucial to the successful use and
lifespan of the entire structure.

Defining the internal environment to detailed specification, however, requires a measure

of complexity of design and construction. Careful consideration must be given to

What will the building be used for? Is there a possibility this can change?
Where is it located in relation to climate and the existing micro-climate?
Who are the intended users of this building?
How are the faade elements and design requirements to be combined

In the book, Intelligent Skins, the author states that The faade is the single greatest
potential controller of its (the buildings) internal environment. (Wiggington and Harris,

For several years in building construction history, due to the extensive use of mechanical
ventilation systems, there was little the need to design building faades that would have
such impact. In terms of internal environmental control, making the faade air tight would
have been a high priority, and whatever the external conditions, by using HVAC systems
and artificial lighting, the interior was made comfortable. (Barkhume, 2007)

Even before the issue of climate change and global warming became a major driver in the
move to reduce energy use in buildings, engineers were looking for ways to make
buildings more efficient and more cost effective in the long run, and move towards
facades that respond to their environment and the users to produce a structure that is
sustainable for its entire duration.

Global warming is widely believed to be due to anthropogenic causes: the burning of

fossil fuels as an energy source and other industrial processes which release CO 2 and
other green house gases into the atmosphere.
Buildings are responsible for up to 40% of all energy consumed worldwide (WBCSD,
2008), and legislation is now in place to ensure that figure is reduced. It is with the faade
that a new artificial environment is created and provides a controlled link between the
interior and exterior environments.
With sophisticated design, the faade can specifically define that environment according
to user specifications.

Expected performance criteria for a faade can be broadly split: (Skelly 2000)

Prevent condensation and mould growth

Maintain a good appearance

Control humidity

Communicate status

Keep out wind

Communication information

Keep out rain and snow

Allow views

Keep out insects, vermin

Control solar radiation

(2)Structure/ structural integrity

Be a self supporting and stable
Transfer loads
Prevent biological damage from plants
Be durable
Control sound emission
Control vibrations

Utilisation and control of daylight

Keep out unwanted sound
Control glare
Keep out unwanted odours and
Provide visual privacy
Provide facility to blackout windows
Allow controlled natural ventilation

(3)Access, maintenance and buildability

Support maintenance and repair

Limit infiltration
Prevent uncontrolled fabric heat loss or

Address buildability issues, handling,

storage, etc
Integrate with other building systems
Provide safe operable openings
Address manufacturing issues

(5)Security and safety

Keep out intruders
Provide fire resistance
Provide security in extreme events:
seismic and blast loads

(4)Control and protect the internal


Abstracts of Conference Papers: TSBE EngD Conference, TSBE Centre, University of Reading, Whiteknights,
RG6 6AF, 5th July 2011.

A faade that can successfully carry out several of these functions can be described as

As mentioned, the faade, more than any other component of the building, can determine the
amount of energy required to run it. Thus the inclusion of micro power generation in the form
of photovoltaic panels in facades adds another category to faade functionalities; that of
energy harvesting, as a means of reducing the carbon footprint and imported energy for
running the building.


An adaptable faade is one that responds statically or dynamically to differing conditions.

The conditions might be changes in weather during the year, air quality in the building, the
position of the sun, use of internal space etc. Under each set of conditions, the faade or
elements of the faade changes and therefore changes what it delivers to the building users.

To reach prescribed levels of efficiency and functionality and deliver suitable internal
conditions, the faade needs to respond to the changes in demand placed on it from both
internal and external factors.
In order to continually deliver an acceptable internal environment, the faade must be able to
change in some way, in response to certain stimuli.
Successfully controlling the internal environment by interacting with the external
environment brings about the greatest need for an adaptable faade.

The primary function of a building is to create an environment conducive for the users to
carry out intended activities within. The conduciveness, in terms of human comfort, can be
described in the following categories:
1. Visual comfort: good views, sufficient lighting
2. Thermal comfort: temperature, internal air movement at acceptable levels
3. Sound regulation: loud, distracting sounds from neighbours, traffic reduced to
4. Good air quality: low levels of air toxicity (Skelly 2000)
5. Securitas: is the building safe in the event of a bomb blast or earthquake?

Abstracts of Conference Papers: TSBE EngD Conference, TSBE Centre, University of Reading, Whiteknights,
RG6 6AF, 5th July 2011.

Building users want to feel the same temperature, not be affected by glare or loud noises
during all periods of occupation but the external environment that produces these loads is
highly variable, it changes over minutes, hours, weeks, months, and years and may further be
complicated by global warming.
Internally, the environment is made variable by the increasing sophistication of building
design and contents. These contents introduce further heating loads which can be controlled
by the environmental systems incorporated into the building. The energy required to keep the
building within suitable comfort levels can be greatly reduced if the faade can damp the
effects of the external climate loads.
A major challenge in designing an interior environment to suit the users is the users
themselves. User perception of comfort is highly variable and it is not possible to create a
space in which all the people would be completely satisfied with the ambient thermal
conditions. Differences in age, background, clothing and gender produce differences in what
an individual terms as comfortable. Studies show that the lack of control over their personal
environment can lead to dissatisfaction within the building, no matter how advanced the
building management system is.
Studies also suggest that in office buildings, natural or mixed mode ventilation would be
preferred by users over air conditioning](Arens 2007), however, by opening a window, heat
can be lost making it an uncomfortable temperature for another building user.

Problems also arise in technological development when designers work without adequately
factoring in the users and their response to the technology. As with any change presented to
individuals, if the terms of the change are not acceptable then it is very likely to be criticised
and dismissed. This is the socio-technical dilemma; where building users find work-arounds
to avoid being constrained by new systems introduced.

Another dimension in ensuring faade performance, adaptability and user comfort are the
conflicts that arise within faade design; satisfying one area of demand leads to a
compromise in another. For instance: how do you ensure daylighting is maximised while
controlling solar glare or solar again? Fresh air needs to be circulated with minimal input
from the HVAC system; how do you allow for this natural ventilation and also control the
amount of noise that gets in? Well designed faade systems and materials make it possible for
these conflicts to be addressed, and adaptable systems provide these solutions with added
efficiency while attempting to reduce energy use and develop a more sustainable building

3.1 Traditional Faade design


Abstracts of Conference Papers: TSBE EngD Conference, TSBE Centre, University of Reading, Whiteknights,
RG6 6AF, 5th July 2011.

Traditionally, in desiring to control the interior environment, facades have been designed
under the concept of passive architecture, where the building structure itself copes with
internal and external variabilities. For example, in building design, buildings that are open
plan with large spaces and a relatively small number of columns can easily be adapted to
change of use, by adding internal partitions.

Each faade of a building experiences differences in their exposure to natural elements; the
facades face different directions, and thus experience different environmental conditions.
Wind can drive rain in very particular directions, and the faade that is downwind will
receive less rain and wind at that particular than the faade facing the rain. By recognising the
difference in what each faade faces, in terms of climate and microclimate, then by adjusting
factors such as the glazing ratio, using reflective glass or adjusting the air tightness, the
faade as a acts a controlled moderator of the exterior variabilities.

An example of traditional design is the South American mud masonry house: Mud, or adobe,
is used in hot climates as a temperature moderator. The principles of thermal mass apply
here, where the adobe absorbs heat during the hot daytime, preventing the interior from
becoming as hot as the exterior. As the temperature cools down in the evening the bricks
contract and give off this heat, some of it is released into the dwelling, keeping it warm at
night and the rest of it is discharged to the atmosphere. This effect can be felt by standing
close to a concrete or stone or masonry building in the evening after a hot day; the facade is
quite warm even though the external temperature is relatively low.

3.2 Adaptable Facades

Adaptable facades are able to respond to changes in internal and external demands in both
static and dynamic ways.

3.2.1 Static adaptable facades

By realising the potential of materials and smart materials, a faade can change its physical
properties and react in a predetermined way to internal and external conditions. A very old
example is the Inuit igloo. The dwelling, made of snow and ice, uses the fact that snow is an
excellent insulator to keep the interior of the dwelling at up to a temperature of 16C from
body heat only. (Holihan et al 2003) This faade keeps the amount of external energy needed
to ensure human comfort to an absolute minimum. The faade readily adapts itself to the
higher internal temperature: when the ice on the inside melts, it runs and fills the cracks and

Abstracts of Conference Papers: TSBE EngD Conference, TSBE Centre, University of Reading, Whiteknights,
RG6 6AF, 5th July 2011.

crevices that may have occurred during construction. The melted ice solidifies and makes the
faade air tight.

The trend towards highly glazed curtain wall systems in buildings has been a driver in the
development of certain materials very useful in climate control. Double glazing and double
skin facades, even with gas filled cavities would not adequately meet internal comfort
demands in terms of reducing glare and solar heat gains (IDCOP 2006).Switchable glazing
technology: electrochromic and photochromic glass: These glass nano-coatings change the
light transmittance in glass to moderate solar glare, solar gain and provide privacy in
response to an electric current and natural light respectively.
Even though these technologies are well established, they have their limitations.
Photochromic glass, for instance, is autonomous, but as it reacts to light and not heat, a
significant amount of heat through solar gain, would already be in the building before blocks
it out.

Suspended particle devices: particles are suspended in solution between the plates of glazing,
the particles are normally in random motion, colliding and thus reducing transparency, when
the energy is applied, these particles become aligned and the glass is transparent.
(DesignBuilder 2010)
In general, switchable glazing has not yet adequately controlled solar glare, because even
though they can reduce light transmission by up to 90%.(DesignBuilder 2010), solar glare is
up too 1000 times more bright than the light needed for reading.

Switchable Thermal Insulation is an adaptable system using the high thermal conductivity
properties of hydrogen. A steel panel, welded around an evacuated fibre board can have its
insulation properties range from 0.002w/m.k to 0.1w/m.k by releasing small amounts of
hydrogen when it is heated. Thus, the panel can switch between insulator in cloudy winter
days to retain heat and summer days to prevent the interior space getting too hot. In its
conductor state, it allows useful solar heat gains in winter sunshine. (IEA 2001)

3.2.2 Dynamic Facades

Dynamically adaptable facades are those with moveable parts. These parts that can be
controlled on different levels; as a whole building approach, with a centralised building

Abstracts of Conference Papers: TSBE EngD Conference, TSBE Centre, University of Reading, Whiteknights,
RG6 6AF, 5th July 2011.

management system, it could be controlled on a floor by floor level, or by actuators on

individual faade elements which may or may not allow user interference.

Computer controlled facades use Building Management Systems to control the interior
environment through the flow of information from sensors located in the building skin. These
sensors can detect light levels, heat levels, wind speeds, air quality, and through actuators that
are designed along with the faade elements, effect changes in the building skin. While some
say that smart materials will replace computer controlled faade systems, advances in smart
technology in the automotive industry, for instance, seem to suggest that there is still a lot
more room for advancement in computer controlled facades.

Shading devices can be linked to a central control system that tracks the path of the sun and
moves the shading elements to continually provide internal glare protection. Automated
louvres can respond to levels of daylight and the sun angle and the slats will be oriented
accordingly to reduce glare and still admit daylight. These systems are particularly useful
when considering that the sun angles differ, not just during a day, but in different seasons of
the year. Dynamic shading has been shown to reduce energy consumption of up to 30% in a
UAE office setting. (Hammad and Abu-Hijleh 2010)

Natural ventilation is also an aspect of dynamic faade control. Openings designed into the
faade can be opened or closed on response to a sensor that determines air quality within the
building, or heat readings.

The dynamic faade also extends to sophisticated energy harvesting in which solar collectors
on the faade track the path of the sun to optimise the radiation falling on it.

This is not to say that a dynamic faade must be controlled by a computer system; the socalled Swindow (IEA ECBCS 2009), a window that self adjusts its opening angle in
relation to pressure differences on its faces due to air movement.



Abstracts of Conference Papers: TSBE EngD Conference, TSBE Centre, University of Reading, Whiteknights,
RG6 6AF, 5th July 2011.

Research in biomimetics investigates how lessons can be learned from living organisms and
be adapted to solve man made issues. As suggested by Schittich (2003), by considering a
building faade as a skin that can respond as it would on a living organism, lessons can be
learned and systems developed to make a building faade multifunctional and adaptable that
uses minimal energy and is sustainable.

Wigginton and Harris(2002) suggest that that by developing the skin concept with Artificial
Neural Networks, important advances can be made in multifunctional, adaptable faade
development. Artificial neural networks are computational models that mimic the nervous
systems of animals (Gershenson). The nervous system is what links the skin to the brain, and
by this analogy, the building faade to the building management system. ANN has the ability
to learn adaptively; that is, perform operations based on training or experience. In its
program, The Human Body by the BBC (2011) it was shown that the human skin, the link
between the external physical environment and the internal one can adapt over time to
respond in ways that it would not normally respond. Though ANNs were first developed in
1943, they are only currently being funded for further research. ANNs have been used to
train an adaptive faade to provide optimum light transmittance into a building.(Skavara


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