Advanced Building Skins

Gordon Murray discusses his recent presentation at the Advanced Building Skins conference in Berne, Switzerland.

Six hundred people including architects, engineers, building physicists and computer scientists from across the globe gathered for the 11th international conference on Advanced Building Skins in architecture.  Topics spanned from smart materials for intelligent building skins to 3D printing and additive manufacturing of building envelopes – all up for equal discussion.  The Swiss government has licenced 600 wind turbines but no state or canton has yet given consent to any.  The big drive is photovoltaics and intelligent facades.

I was invited to present a paper on the Rationalisation of Construction and Assembly – perhaps at the more prosaic end of a spectrum of papers which included work on glazing systems in tall buildings, parametric curvature, fibre reinforcement, net structures, high performance facades, BIM in maintenance of solar glazing technologies and optimising performance of photovoltaics as cladding to skins of tall buildings.  At the other end of this spectrum was a Chinese architect who was developing indigenous basket weave skills in rattan screens and as a mean of shading, moisture and temperature control on facades.

This presentation was partly as a reaction to much of the banal technology on display as the aim of the conference is to contribute to a multidisciplinary, integrated planning approach across built environment professionals to reduce energy consumption of buildings.  By fostering a lively exchange between the delegates, the conference sheds light on the significance of the building skin, with a view to putting scientific know how into practice.

My paper centered on Ryder’s Scottish Crime Campus as an exemplar demonstrate our findings on design methods for sustainable, high performance building facades and how these can, more usefully or perhaps more meaningfully – be deep and heavy rather than simply thin and light.  Using thick facades to modulate temperature, shading and intrinsically suggesting a semiology for the building is an area of particular interest as the use of such systems is rare – constructional unitisation often results in flatness which in turn is predicated on lightness.  Manufacturing procedures combined with factory production techniques in controlled environments offer new possibilities for materials and structures, such that new concrete products now offer choices of surfaces which can replicate other materials in appearance, performance and light reflectance.

Advanced Building Skins
Advanced Building Skins

This unique project brings together, for the first time, five key law enforcement agencies to promote collaboration and innovation in solving incidents of serious crime.  It provides accommodation for over 12,000 staff together with forensic laboratories and extensive support facilities to promote cross agency working.  There is an emphasis on the building’s practicality, encouraging disparate groups to work together collaboratively and creatively.

Rootedness, security, stability, confidence and intelligence were all essential characteristics of the brief to be embodied in the design solution.  It was important that a strong design ethos was established for this building.

At the core of our approach is Alan Colquhoun’s defining statement on metaphorical and literal forms in architecture, “The science of building, the rationalisation of construction and assembly, however vital in themselves, remain in the world of literal action.  It is only when the architect seizing this world, organises it according to the logic of symbolic forms that architecture results”.

The principle of a concrete or steel frame sheathed in some form of curtain wall is often such a meagre translation of the ideals of the modern movement, as the application of an apparently logical and functional system, that the essential features of good architecture are being overlooked.  It is still possible to achieve the effect of mass, which is not a necessarily a product of programme and its structural interpretation.  “Massiveness” in such construction can be exaggerated to embody enclosure, protection and civic authority reminiscent of a walled town.  We have sought to exemplify this approach.

Colquhoun then poses a further problem, “If buildings are to retain their quality of uniqueness as symbols, how can they also be the end products of an industrial system whose purpose is to find general solutions.  We have a confusion between technology as a means to construction and technology as the content of the building form itself”.

He suggests the distinction is false, as it ignores the fact that architecture belongs to a world of symbolic forms in which every aspect of building is presented metaphorically not literally.  The research concept was to find an architectural form and pattern language which would provide semiology for the essence of the building’s operational techniques and also give outstanding environmental performance.

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