Environmental Facade Perspective

Designing a Sustainable Rainscreen Wall Assembly: Aspiration vs. Actualization



Designing a sustainable rainscreen wall assembly has become an essential part of most new construction projects. Industry principles and energy codes are continually advocating for improved energy efficiency goals. Programs are being developed which incentivize building owners to invest in better thermal performing building envelopes. Professionals across the world are criticizing previously accepted limitations and are aspiring toward zero carbon targets. In response to these efforts, the design approach taken for such a common façade element as a rainscreen wall assembly is being transformed.

Nonetheless, the building envelope profession at large continually comments on the flaws which exist within implementation methods of green façades. The increasing complexity of rainscreen wall assemblies; lack of effective communication; resistance to share knowledge within the industry; and the increased tactic of shifting liability onto others has produced copious obstacles in executing a sustainable rainscreen assembly.

Research and anecdotes compiled from leading professionals within different sectors of the façade industry have underlined many of the common deficiencies associated with the design and execution process. However, that same research and those same anecdotes underline an almost universal desire to improve collaboration within the façade industry. The sustainability of rainscreen wall assemblies is improving, but not all parties are always included in the conversation. The investigation conducted provides insight to the areas of the sustainable rainscreen wall assembly design process which are overlooked or lacking ownership and consideration for the parties and approaches being developed to provide valuable solutions.


Photo of Patricia Shaw, M Arch., MSc Facade Engineering

Patricia Shaw, M Arch., MSc Facade Engineering

Facade Specialist

Morrison Hershfield now Stantec



Chapter 1 - Introduction

The demands of construction are changing as the world makes technological advancements and the global conscience surges. Buildings are no longer seen as just the background for society to unfold but now are significant tools which sculpt cultural development and define the global climate crisis. In response, building designs are becoming more elaborate and more environmental, satisfying expectations much higher than in the past.

Building facades are the aesthetic expression of a building’s purpose, however, the envelope also “provides regulatory functions such as thermal control against the environmental impacts on the building system, thereby protecting the indoor environment of buildings” (Iwaro & Mwasha, 2013). “Unfortunately, design and detailing of facades have received much less attention than the building structure itself” (Miraz and Moghtadernejad, 2014). The methods and principles of façade construction are not evolving well enough to balance the elevated environmental expectations. Consequently, façade assemblies, such as rainscreen opaque wall assemblies, continue to suffer repetitive failures which the construction industry should presently be capable of avoiding.

Environmental loads on building envelope diagram.
Figure 1. Environmental loads on the building envelope (Iwaro & Mwasha, 2013).

“Institutionally, some of the lessons learned from major failures and collapses have been incorporated into our codes and standards over the years but even then, the origin of the lesson and context of the problems are often lost making it difficult to apply the lesson to future situations” (Parfitt, 2012). This is due to the fact that the construction industry tends to decline any opportunity for making public knowledge of facade failures. Although understandable in the current protectionist culture, this approach to façade failures is nurturing an industry which does not learn from mistakes. Nevertheless, with proper guidance and progressive construction principles, the construction industry is still capable of making progress toward the reduction of façade failures.

“In 2010, the world’s buildings accounted for 32% of global final energy use and 19% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under business-as-usual projections, use of energy in buildings globally could double or even triple by 2050” (European Climate Foundation, 2013). The silver lining to such global climate change impact is the possibility of forced transformation within the building envelope industry. As the construction industry evaluates the methods used for building, common practices which lend to façade failures may be enhanced, amended, or removed from the current processes all together.

Sustainable construction principles are leading design teams and building component manufacturers to evaluate the implementation methods utilized within the industry with a critical eye. Already improvements can be seen in construction quality all around the world due to the more vigorous steps required to meet various sustainable certification programs. This research will explore the disconnect between aspirational sustainable design and construction principles and the implementation measures of constructing rainscreen facades.

1.1 Aims and Objectives

Previous research has been completed considering the shortcomings of the building design and construction process, however, minimal research has addressed the impact sustainable principles are having on the process. This research aims to highlight the areas of rainscreen façade implementation which are being enhanced due to the move toward sustainable buildings as well as draw attention to areas of the rainscreen façade industry which are not being fully impacted.

More specifically, the main objectives of this research are to,

  1. Evaluate the relevant building and energy code requirements of facades in relation to sustainable design and construction principles.
  2. Establish the current sustainable construction principles which relate to façade design and implementation.
  3. Evaluate the ways in which sustainable construction principles impact the design of facades.
  4. Evaluate the ways in which sustainable construction principles impact the implementation and installation of facades.
  5. Establish the main methods in which facades fail due to design.
  6. Establish the main methods in which facades fail due to implementation.
  7. Analyze the impact of sustainable construction principles on the installation of façade systems.
  8. Extrapolate improvements which could be made to sustainable design and construction principles to better the actualization of sustainable rainscreen facades.

1.2 Research Methodology

Per the objectives established, the research methodology will consist of both a literature review and qualitative data collection through a photographic analysis. These methods provide a base knowledge of the subject matter informed by historical research and established conclusions of said research; as well as provide primary data research which can be compounded together to determine supported conclusions.

1.2.1 Literature Review

The literature review will primarily define the assumptions used to meet the initial six objectives of this research. Evaluating the relevant building and energy code requirements are included within the literature review as these codes are the industry standards developed to design and construct facades, sustainable or not. For the purposes of this research, the International Building Code (IBC), International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), American Society of heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineer (ASHRAE) Standard 90.1 and International Green Construction Code (IgCC) will be the key codes referenced as they are the most widely used.

Assessing the established guidelines within the green building rating and assessment programs such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), along with studying sustainable principles created by experts within the field of green building can define the relevant sustainable principles applicable to the design and construction of facades.

There are numerous known modes of failure for facades as ‘failure’ can be a subjective term to many within the construction industry. Accordingly, a crucial function of the literature review is to define the modes of façade failures most relevant to the aim of this research and those truly valuable to the visual analysis qualitative study.

1.2.2 Photographic Analysis

The primary research method employed for this research is a photographic analysis. Curating photos of façade installations on sustainable construction sites is a very valuable tool for many reasons. Hartel and Thomson (2011) summarized Weber’s (2008) ten reasons why images may prove valuable in research:

  1. Images can be used to capture the ineffable, the hard-to-put-into-words.
  2. Images can make us pay attention to things in a new way.
  3. Images are likely to be memorable.
  4. Images can be used to communicate more holistically, incorporating multiple layers, and evoking stories or questions.
  5. Images can enhance empathetic understanding and generalizability.
  6. Through metaphor and symbol, artistic images can carry theory elegantly and eloquently.
  7. Images encourage embodied knowledge.
  8. Images can be more accessible than most forms of academic discourse.
  9. Images can facilitate reflexivity in research design.
  10. Images provoke action for social justice.

When viewed through the lens of the guidelines and definitions set forth within the literature review, this photographic research method allows for an objective evaluation of façade deficiencies observed on sustainable building construction sites.

Chapter 2 – Sustainable Design and Construction Principles

2.1 Building and Energy Codes

Building and energy codes provide the minimum performance requirements for constructing new buildings and renovating or restoring existing buildings. Per the Environmental and Energy Study

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.

Chapter 3 – Façade Implementation

3.1 Building and Energy Codes

3.1.1 International Building Code

In Chapter 2 the IBC was briefly discussed for the requirements to provide a weather protective façade. The IBC will now

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.

Chapter 4 – Photographic Analysis

4.1 Aim of the Investigation

As the primary methods of façade failures have been identified and the sustainable design and construction principles have been established, the next phase in the

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.

Chapter 5 – Conclusion

The overall aim for this research was to analyze the implementation of sustainable rainscreen façade assemblies in comparison to the aspirational design based on sustainable design and construction principles. As

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.

Rights and Permissions

Aksamija, A., (2015). High-Performance Building Envelopes: Design Methods For Energy Efficient Facades. In BEST 4. Kansas City, MO, April 13-15, 2015. https://www.brikbase.org/sites/default/files/BEST4_4.2%20Aksamija.paper_.pdf: BRIK. 1-15.

ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard 20.1-2019. Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings (I-P Edition). (2019). Atlanta, Georgia: ASHRAE.

‌ASHRAE. (n.d.). About ASHRAE. [online] Available at: https://www.ashrae.org/about [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021].

Ashrae.org. (2019). Standard 90.1. [online] Available at: https://www.ashrae.org/technical-resources/bookstore/standard-90-1.

‌‌Bauer, M., Mosle, P. and Schwarz, M., 2010. Green Building - Guidebook for Sustainable Architecture. 1st ed. Stuttgart, Germany: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, p.78-90.

Beasley, Kimball J. (2014) ‘Predicting façade failures’, The Construction Specifier, Horizons (January 2), Available at: https://www.constructionspecif... [Accessed: 28 August 2021].

Cohan, D. (2016). Energy Codes 101: What Are They and What is DOE’s Role? [online] Energy.gov. Available at: https://www.energy.gov/eere/bu... [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021].

Douglas, J. and Ransom, B. (2007). Understanding Building Failures. Third Edition ed. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, pp.112, 267–300.

‌‌European Climate Foundation. 2013. Climate Change: Implications for Buildings. [ONLINE] Available at: https://europeanclimate.org/climate-change-implications-for-buildings/. [Accessed 26 May 2019].

Hartel, Jenna & Thomson, Leslie. (2011). Visual Approaches and Photography for the Study of Immediate Information Space. JASIST. 62. 2214-2224. 10.1002/asi.21618.

International Code Council. (2021). The International Building Code. [online] Available at: https://www.iccsafe.org/produc... [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021]

International Code Council. (2021). Who We Are. [online] Available at: https://www.iccsafe.org/about/... [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021].

2018 International Green Construction Code (IGCC). (2018). [online] ICC. Available at: https://codes.iccsafe.org/cont... [Accessed 6 Sep. 2021].

‌‌‌Iwaro, J. and Mwasha, A. (2013). The impact of sustainable building envelope design on building sustainability using Integrated Performance Model. International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, 2(2), pp.153–171.

LEED v4.1 Building Design and Construction. Getting started guide for beta participants. (2020). U.S. Green Building Council.

‌Mirza, S., Moghtadernejad, S., (2014). Service Life Safety and Reliability of Building Facades. In Second International Conference on Vulnerability and Risk Analysis and Management (ICVRAM) and the Sixth International Symposium on Uncertainty, Modeling, and Analysis (ISUMA). University of Liverpool, UK, June 2014. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269191267_Service_Life_Safety_and_Reliability_of_Building_Facades: ResearchGate. 116-124.

Nelson, M. (2017). The Benefits of Building Envelope Commissioning. [online] Wood Harbinger. Available at: https://www.woodharbinger.com/... [Accessed 7 Sep. 2021].

‌Parfitt, K., 2012. Why Buildings Fail: Are We Learning From Our Mistakes?. Buildings, 2075- 5309, 326-331.

Price, J.H. and Murnan (2004). Research Limitations and the Necessity of Reporting Them. American Journal of Health Education, [online] 35(2), pp.66–67. Available at: https://www.proquest.com/openv... [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021].

Sassi, P. (2006). Strategies for Sustainable Architecture. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, p.205-206.

‌Snyder, H. (2019). Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines. Journal of Business Research, [online] 104, pp.333–339. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0148296319304564. [Accessed: 09 September 2021].

US Green Building Council. (2019). Green building leadership is LEED. [ONLINE] Available at: https://new.usgbc.org/leed. [Accessed 27 May 2019].

US Green Building Council. (2021). Why LEED certification | U.S. Green Building Council. [online] Available at: https://www.usgbc.org/leed/why-leed. [Accessed 7 September 2021].

Vaughan, E. and Turner, J. (2013). The Value and impact of Building Codes. In: [online] International Code Council Annual Conference. Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Available at: https://www.eesi.org/papers/vi... [Accessed 28 Aug. 2021].‌

Washington State Energy Code - Commercial. (2020). Washington, USA: Washington State Building Code Council.