Catalytic Conversion

The Technical as Stimulant for Innovative Façade Development



Nowadays, the power of images is seductive. Bold and complex facades often have an innovative appearance but superficial tectonic depth; experientially disappointing when made real. Integrated-design education is therefore fundamental to the long-term success of innovative architecture. Yet in many curricula, it is marginalized as an impediment to design exploration; relegated to mundane programs that shift students’ focus onto straightforward application of technical knowledge. This does little to advance design as a knowledgeable process of experimentation with structure, assemblies, and systems.

This paper explains an alternative approach, where development of technical knowledge orders the design process. NAAB integrated-design and technical requirements are applied to a year-long project, conceived both as visionary and as a vehicle for the development and application of technical knowledge. From inception, students articulate personal design statements which establish attitudes towards form, envelope, and materiality. All aspects of the design process are tested against stated standards, investing each student with design authority. They conduct dissective analyses of innovative precedents, replete with formal, structural, and tectonic complexity, to establish a database of stimulative knowledge. They approach design with the foreknowledge that their designs must be developed in rigorous tectonic detail.

Throughout design, resolution of the tectonic aspects happens concurrently with complex design investigation. Facade assemblies are thus catalysts for design exploration, and their feedback prevents designs from developing into mere superficially expressive images. Architectural knowledge is implemented through experimental iterations. Development progressively increases in scope and detail, with technical examinations always paired with experiential criteria, providing touchstones for the evolving design’s development. Final documentation includes a series of large-scale sections through the building envelope, paired with expansively rendered visions of their design ideas. The building is understood as a multi-polar event, fully realized as complex yet integrated forms and spaces.

By establishing a pedagogy where beauty is holistic instead of skin-deep, understanding the reality of building technology becomes a virtuous tool expanding architectural innovation. This allows the time needed for students to achieve the technical knowledge embedded in their formal aspirations. As a result, technical knowledge regains its importance to the process, allowing the conceptual to be made real.


Photo of Damon Caldwell

Damon Caldwell

Associate Professor, Graduate Coordinator



“We require from buildings as from people two kinds of goodness: first, that they do their practical duty well; and second, that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.” John Ruskin1

In 2020, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) revised its Conditions for Accreditation, revising student criteria (SCs) into a tighter set that places greater emphasis on Design Synthesis and Building Integration. NAAB now will evaluate not various fragments of education, but will look at students’ total scope across all classes that work towards fulfilling integrated design understanding and ability. Integration of building envelope and assemblies is stated as a primary aspect of this ability. This must be viewed as a bold pedagogical statement from the various academic and professional stakeholders; that building envelope design is fundamental to the future of the profession, and therefore must be fundamental to the education of tomorrow’s architects.

Yet integrated design is also a “controversial aspect of the architectural curriculum,” wherein some programs and faculty “see it as inordinately broad and too narrowly evaluated by accreditation teams.” 2Thus integrated design is still marginalized within many architectural curricula, treated as mere technical coursework. As a perceived impediment to design exploration, it is shunted onto mundane projects with normative facades, expressly shifting students’ focus away from design innovation and on to simple and straightforward application of standard technical knowledge. The resulting designs are obedient to the rules, but do little to advance design as a broader process of experimentation with envelopes, assemblies, and systems. This unfortunately creates a feedback loop which reinforces integrated design as a too-soon introduction of complicated, yet uninteresting, systems and rules that stunt the development of more poetic notions of space, light, form, and texture. If approached this way, systems and technical requirements understandably become framed as burdens to be mitigated, instead of opportunities to be explored. This paper investigates an alternative approach, where design integration and envelope development are embraced as the guiding framework of a robust studio sequence specifically bent towards design innovation.

Successfully design integration requires knowing and embracing the guiding spirit of the design while applying knowledge derived from research. Given the diversification of consultants, the expansion of technology, the growth of building regulations, and the impact of climate on envelope performance; the architect as focal point, integrating all aspects into a maintained vision, is more critical than ever. Instead of fighting technical knowledge, or learning it begrudgingly, the overall pedagogy of the degree highlights the integration criteria, implement them as much as — instead of as little as — possible. Within our 4+1 degree system, many aspects of integrated design are repeated throughout the undergraduate, pre-professional sequence; smaller preparatory projects for the official evidence studios in the professional Master’s degree. NAAB integrated design and systems requirements are then used to structure a year-long Master’s project, wherein varied aspects, from inception to detailed technical documentation, are developed and integrated into students’ individual projects. This approach allows the time needed for students to investigate and achieve the technical knowledge embedded in their formal and spatial aspirations. The multiplicity of integrated design concerns is celebrated as developmental tools in the design process. Development of tectonic aspects happens concurrently with complex design investigation; each used as lens to critique the other. Systems and envelope assemblies are thus platforms for design exploration, feedback loops which intertwine innovation and technical knowledge.

The Personal as Catalyst

“Innovation comes out of great human ingenuity and very personal passions.” Megan Smith *3

Critical to achieving innovation is for each student to establish a personal attitude towards architecture

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Phase 1: Pre-Design and Schematic Design

As with any design project, one must begin at the beginning. A general typology initiates the project, establishing development of program development and site analysis. The project is generally medium-scale

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Phase 2: Developmental Investigations

Once a general scheme of sufficient conceptual and systemic depth has been established, design development begins. The challenge for each student is to fully comprehend, expand, refine, and articulate their

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Phase 3: Details and Final Design

In the final phase, students dig deeper into technical systems and their implications, as well as consolidate their work of the year into a comprehensive exhibition of the project in

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“A great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasured.” – Louis Kahn

In the

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  1. Ruskin, John as quoted in Bowden, Paul. Telling It Like It Is. 2011, p. 486.

  2. ACSA, Webinar 2: Integrated Design in the Curriculum