Innovative Façades for a Sustainable Architecture

Best Practices Projects and Research Work



Facades play a relevant role in the search for a more sustainable approach to modern architecture. The amount of embodied and operational energy can be optimized substantially if certain measures are adopted and the potential of digital tools is fully exploited. Six case studies have been selected to show the different design strategies that can be pursued. The Al Wasl Tower in Dubai is one of them: It was designed to showcase a new sustainable way for buildings in the Middle East. Here simulation tools and a parametrically based sun-shading strategy were used to calibrate the amount of solar gain in the façade. As an alternative approach, green facade solutions have been adopted in Germany to improve urban air quality: they allow for natural shading, increase water retention and address the urban heat island problem. A contribution to the reduction of embodied carbon can be otherwise achieved by retrofitting existing buildings. This way the demolition of the existing structures is avoided, without compromising on the facade performance targets. This approach has for instance been used for “Our New House”, an office building in Vienna: a new double skin façade combines a strict energetic standard with a minimalistic design.

Despite all these successful cases, more innovation in the building sector is needed in the future, to allow for significant reductions in the consumption of resources and in the generation of emissions and waste. One way is the improvement of the whole chain from design to manufacturing, up to recycling with the support of digital and parametric tools. Another focus lies on adaptive facades, which are able to react to changing environmental conditions and user requirements. Several systems have been recently designed and developed at the University of Stuttgart in collaboration with industrial partners. They are going to be installed in D1244, the first worldwide adaptive high-rise. This building has been recently erected within an interdisciplinary research program, to test and validate innovative solutions in the field of adaptive facades and structures.


Photo of Lucio Blandini

Lucio Blandini


ILEK, University of Stuttgart


1 Introduction

It is essential for the fields of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) to shift to a more sustainable approach: the building sector stands for more than the half of natural resource consumption, the emission of more than one third of man-made greenhouse gases (GHG) [1], and the production of more than half of the world-wide waste is the result of design and construction processes, which in the past have not taken into proper account the environmental costs of certain choices. A change of direction will have a big impact in our attempt to achieve the targets set by the Paris Climate Conference. These can be more easily reached if all the stake-holders involved collaborate and search for alternative solutions employing creativity and the will to innovate. Creativity is needed, since there is not just one predefined way to reduce the ecological footprint of the building sector: depending on regional constraints, the availability of materials, cultural traditions and the performance requirements, different solutions have to be developed on a case by case basis. The will to innovate is crucial, since new paths have to be explored, also engaging the newest available technologies, in order to tackle such ambitious targets.

Facades play a relevant role in this attempt, since they affect energetic and material consumption and they are one of the building sectors which is more open to the use of advanced technologies. In the following a selection of case studies shows which solutions were recently adopted in different regions of the world to achieve performing and yet sustainable facades. Three different strategical directions can be identified: retrofitting, green facades, and parametric design. Retrofitting is crucial since it helps avoiding the generation of waste and reduces the consumption of natural resources. The main gain is based on the chance for relevant parts of the building (structure, masonry walls, etc.) to be used longer, while other fields are modernized or exchanged (i.e. facades, MEP, interiors, etc.). Vegetated facades offer an innovative way to introduce green plants also in the vertical dimension, thus compensating for the difficulties of increasing green areas in the city centers: they improve the ecological footprint of architecture by absorbing C02 emissions, retaining rain water, improving microclimate conditions and generating natural shading. Parametric design and in general the use of digital tools and methods as BIM improve the coordination between all parties involved in the AEC field, allow for higher precision in defining the behavior of complex systems and open the way to architectural solutions which address to a certain extent the different situations a façade has to deal with (i.e. solar radiation, varying performance requirements, etc.). Six selected projects show in section 2 how these three strategical directions can be followed in different ways by engaging the specificity of the project, the wishes of the client, the regional conditions etc. It is not the intent of this paper to compare the shown approaches, since the solutions adopted address a wide range of regional conditions. The selection is rather intended to show on a qualitative basis how big the bundle of solution in the hand of a designer is. It has also to be noted that the selected strategies are not mutually exclusive but can be also combined.

Moreover, the selected case studies provide a background of the experiences gained by the author in the praxis, in order to better understand the strategic set-up of research work which he is has been pursuing over the past few years. One of the chosen research fields is the improvement of digital tools in the design, construction, and recycling of building skins. In the project DigitalTWIN digital based methods such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) are used to support an integral and holistic approach to design and to improve the whole chain including fabrication, monitoring and recycling: the improvement of the interfaces between design and manufacturing and the integration of life-cycle analysis and design-for-disassembly methods allow for an effective use of natural resources and for an increase in the use of recycled materials (urban mining) [2]. As a second main research field, adaptive facades are investigated at the Institute of Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design (ILEK) of the University of Stuttgart. In the author’s opinion, they are one of the most promising answers to varying environmental conditions and user needs, as well as to the need for more resilience in architecture. A façade whose properties remain almost unchanged - no matter which is the inside or outside temperature, the level of sun radiation or the user requirements to be dealt with – cannot match the claim for more resource efficiency. Moreover, it is questionable if a more or less “static” architecture is the correct expression of a society which is increasingly dynamic and interactive. An outlook on these research themes in section 3 gives a hint about how facades may develop in the coming decades on the way to a more sustainable future. Since the research in the two fields is currently running, this can be considered as a first overview; future papers will provide more extensive information on these two promising fields.

2 Case Studies

2.1 Retrofitting Facades

Façade retrofitting is a valid option in the search for reducing resource consumption, since it allows for a building to be used for a longer time, with

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3 Research Work

3.1 DigitalTWIN

Following to the experiences gained in the praxis, the integration of digital tools in the design, construction and recycling of building skins is one of the focus of

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4 Conclusions and Outlook

The selected projects show how many different paths can be taken in the search for a more sustainable approach in the fields of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC). It is

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5 Funding

The research project DigitalTWIN (see chapter 3.1) was funded within the scope of the “Smart Services World II” programme of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs & Energy. The research work on adaptivity (see chapter 3.2) is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – Project-ID 279064222 – SFB 1244. The author is grateful for the generous support. The author thanks also Florian Starz (Werner Sobek AG) for his support on the text regarding the vegetated facades.

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6 References

[1] UNEP (2020) 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction: Towards a zero-emissions, efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector. UNEP, Nairobi.

[2] Nakamura, T.; Halada, K.: Urban Mining Systems, Springer, 2015, doi: 10.1007/978-4-431-55075-4

[3] Blandini, L.; Grasmug, W.: The search for dematerialized building envelopes – the role of glass and steel. Steel Construction 11/2018, Ernst & Sohn, Berlin, 2018, pp. 140–145.

[4] Blandini, L.: Glass facades: present and future challenges. In: Engineered Transparency 2021, Editors: B. Weller, H. Schneider, C. Louter and S. Tasche. Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 2021, pp. 1–12.

[5] Blandini, L.; Nieri, G.: Kuwait International Airport Terminal 2: engineering and fabrication of a complex parametric megastructure. In: Fabricate 2020, London, postponed, pp. 84–91.

[6] Sobek, W.(2016) Ultraleichtbau / Ultra-Lightweight Construction. In: GAM.12 Architecture Magazine. Basel: Birkhäuser, S. 156 – 167.

[7] Weidner, S. et al.: The implementation of adaptive elements into an experimental high-rise building. Steel Construction 11/2018, Ernst & Sohn, Berlin, 2018, pp. 140–117

[8] Leistner, S., Honold, C., Maierhofer, M., Haase, W., L. Blandini et al.: Research on integral design and planning processes for adaptive buildings, Architectural Engineering and Design Management, vol. 16, article 1856031, 2020, doi: 10.1080/17452007.2020.1856031.

[9] Schlegl, F. et al.: Integration of LCA in the Planning Phases of Adaptive Buildings. In: Sustainability 11(16), 4299, 2019

[10] Eisenbarth, C., Haase, W. Klett, Y., Blandini, L. and Sobek, W. (2021) PAOSS - Pneumatically Actuated Origami Sun Shading, Journal of Facade Design and Engineering, vol. 9, no. 1, 147–162, 2021, doi: 10.7480/jfde. 2021.1.5535.

[11] Sigel, D., Trease, B. P., Thomson, M. W., Webb, D. R., Willis, P., & Lisman, P. D. (2014) Application of Origami in Starshade Spacecraft Blanket Design. ASME 2014 Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference (DETC).

[12] Eisenbarth, C., Haase, W., Blandini, L. and Sobek, W. (2022) Hydroskin: Lightweight Façade Element for urban Precipitation Retention and Evaporative Cooling, Façade Tectonics 2022.