Terra Cotta Skins

An Expression of Climate Change



Photo of Laura B. Garofalo

Laura B. Garofalo

Assistant Professor

University at Buffalo (SUNY)




This paper will address the potential of ornamental architectural terracotta surfaces to mitigate the effects of climate fluctuations that will create unprecedented energy usage in the near future. Climate events are projected to demand excessive energy use as they challenge the ability to maintain thermal comfort. Improvements in high tech boundaries and HVAC systems propose a means to meet these challenges. However, the highly engineered approach they propose can be costly while it only adds a performative, rather than architectural, dimension to a building. A more layered, no less engineered, but more attainable and culturally performative approach could be the addition of a thermally active carapace to conventional construction.

The two experimental projects presented in this paper are predicated on research that demonstrates that such a carapace, in the form of a terracotta rainscreen, can work toward carbon neutrality by reducing the cooling load from outside-in. These ornamental terracotta skins aim to deliver both thermal and visual delight. They address variation and repetition, borrow self-shading strategies from hot climates while maintaining the potential for thermal heat gain and diurnal heat redistribution.

The three-dimensionality inherent in ceramic form making provides the potential to seek the performative functions of both a rainscreen and a shading device. This articulation and depth of surface is propelled by the ornamental exuberance facilitated by digital design and fabrication techniques. The challenge is in developing such articulation wile relying on repetitive components and efficient manufacturing. With their ornamental nature, such architectural terracotta facades not only move us towards a more sustainable future, but also express our milieu: we created problematic climate futures but we also have the potential to steward a more responsible and responsive relationship to our environment.


Ornamental architectural terracotta surfaces have the potential to mitigate the effects of climate fluctuations that will create unprecedented summer energy usage in the near future through passive means. Strategically articulated

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Keeping It Cool

Climate change is projected to bring heat waves to temperate and cool regions. Construction and mechanical systems that favor heating (not cooling) are unprepared for the projected heat waves coming

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It Gets Hot: What is Making Terra Cotta Desirable

Architectural terracotta has been used as a building skin for centuries. Its resilient decorative color and patterns can still be seen in ancient buildings. These skins have both a performative

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Ripples Over Flows

Presented here are a shingle system developed with Boston Valley, Slide Shingle, and a unitizable block system, Strata Block, developed independently. These ornamental terracotta skins address variation and repetition, and

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Slide Shingle

Ornamental Qualities

Terracotta has historically been used to enliven otherwise undifferentiated surfaces with play of both color and shadows. This is often achieved by using a unit with a changing color

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Strata Shade Block

The strata block is a self-shading system that creates subtle flows on a surface due to variations in the tonality of the unit, and the play of light and shadow

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Future Work

It is still necessary to evaluate the yearly performance of the specific geometries for the predicted climate conditions as well. Nevertheless, the both systems show alternatives to rainscreen assemblies that

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Self-shading rainscreen systems and alternative aggregations can further reduce the increased cooling loads that will be brought on by our changing climate. This can help reduce the projected spikes in

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This research was conducted with Assistant Professor Omar Khan at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, with the support of Boston Valley Terracotta and the UB SMART Factory, and ACAW (Advanced Ceramic Assemblies Workshop) and at Sundaymorning@ekwc (Europen Ceramics Work Center), in Holland.

All images by the author.

Rights and Permissions

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