The Potential Future of Building Envelope Systems

While the construction industry tends be slow moving to change, demands for improvement in energy efficiency for our buildings continue to push the industry to develop and improve new materials and systems. The development and innovation of materials being utilized within building envelope systems is where this push is most evident. With increasingly savvy designers and building owners, and codes continuing to become more stringent from an energy standpoint, the future of the envelope industry is already starting to become a reality as shown in products that are coming to market across the world.

The future of building envelopes, at least in regard to materiality (and in the opinion of me, Robert Golda), is twofold. First, the use and development of highly insulating materials/systems and materials with lower thermal conductivity than standard products is key for the industry to stay in line with future code demands. Secondly, the use of materials and/or systems which are reactive to environmental or user demands inside of a building that improve energy performance and user comfort.

In looking first at thermal performance, great advances have been made in regard to thermal efficiency of both opaque and transparent envelope components; albeit, with varying levels of commercial success in some cases. In regards to the transparent materials being developed for fenestration systems, high performance low-e coatings and the use of multiple coatings within one insulated glass unit (IGU), this is an area where improvement continues to be developed. The use of higher efficiency gas fillings are starting to become more standard practice domestically and the availability and use of triple glazed units will continue to develop. However, the most advances seem possible in the use of active glazed façade systems, like Permasteelisa Group's mFree Closed Cavity Façade System. This system, as well as similar attempts by others, allows for taking advantage of the benefits of a fully glazed façade system, while maintaining highly efficient thermal performance, and active shading to react to the ever changing sky conditions and user requirements. Second, when looking at opaque materials, and the growing desire to make wall assemblies thinner and lighter, developments in highly insulating materials like Dow Corning’s Aerogel, continue to push the boundary in reducing thermal transfer through materials. Other areas of potential future development may be in the vacuum insulated panels to improve the thermal performance of a wall assembly.

Next, in looking at the desire for active materials, which are reactive not only to the environment but also to user demands, this is where there seems to be the most potential for future widespread use. While electrochromic glazing (glass which tints/adjusts its darkness based on the amount of direct solar gain) has been around for some time, the technology now seems to be at a point where it is both commercially viable and more visibly pleasing to designers. Commercially available products from companies like Sage Glass, View Glass and AGC all have their pluses and minuses, but each is viable and can be substituted for a typical IGU on most projects where it is financially viable. The ability to constantly adjust the performance of a glass unit provides user comfort, as well as maximizes building efficiency. Future product developments from companies like Merck and their liquid crystal technology also continue to push this boundary in terms of customizable and switchable glazing.

In conclusion, while we can never know what the future will bring, the need for greater thermal efficiency and on-demand performance in the envelope systems is a trend in the industry that is gaining momentum. The more designers and owners become familiar with these new technologies, the sooner these materials can become more commercially viable for the larger construction market and continue to push innovation.

Written by: Robert Golda, Building Enclosure Associate


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