Thinking About Facades

A Theoretical Perspective for Useful Prototypes



Photo of Marc Schiler, FASES, LC

Marc Schiler, FASES, LC


University of Southern California



There have been three decades of liberating developments in the application of descriptive geometry and freeform design methods, as well as the ability to use tools such as Building Information Modeling to translate such designs into construction documents. This has resulted in a fracture in the very concept of what envelope and facade may describe or mean. Furthermore, high performance materials have created both opportunities and dangers in managing the impact of facades on the microclimate that surrounds buildings, as well as the space contained within. There is a need for ways to organize and think about the building skin that allow us to recognize patterns and implications and assist in making decisions that impact construction and building performance. This is the type of theory that architecture currently ignores in favor of more contextual or esoteric pursuits.

A new paradigm of facade tectonics is proposed, beginning with a taxonomy. What phyla and species do facades fall into? What are the common characteristics? How do those categories typically perform? What are the issues that need to be addressed at the earliest stages of design for each tectonic type? Characteristics of materiality, morphology, multiplicity of layers, intelligent and interactive processes, filtering, blocking, reflecting, structural and non-structural, double skins, open sky gardens and typical issues of scale are considered.

Examples and case studies of various types consider how those built projects explore those interactions and benefit or pay the price for the categories they typify. Phyla and species of facades are identified in an effort to guide the choice, the development and the construction of such groups, before construction and experience provide more costly lessons. Finally, it suggests a way to think about facade tectonics that is more than a catalog of parts, hastily assembled.


There have been developments in software which have revolutionized the design process. Computer Aided Design led to 3-dimensional design and rendering, which gave way to process defined form. Three dimensional

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Background (A Brief History)

Early software was a replacement for drafting. AutoCAD, VersaCAD, StarCAD, etc. generated floorplans, elevations, sections, details and was an assemblage of two dimensional “drawings.” There was soon the ability to

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In understanding large amounts of data, it is useful to look for patterns and groupings. Using an approach that has been successful in previous attempts is an excellent starting point

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Data (Testing)

How are these genera defined? What are their characteristics? How can those questions and the genera, as categories along with predictions, be tested?


Façades in the genus skin

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Explanation / Behavioral Characteristics and Useful Predictions

Of what use is such a taxonomy? If each genus has its typical characteristics, problems and benefits can be predicted in advance. The theoretical becomes consequential to the formal, the

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Whatever theoretical decision is made has a predictable or likely impact, downstream. This is in contrast to many forms of architectural theory, which illuminate problems or the sources of conflict

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Several individuals have provided concepts for this paper, including Professpr Doug Noble, Winfred Ho and Professor Marc Angelil. USC faculty research funds were used to photograph buildings in the UK. Thanks to Terri Boake and Elizabeth Valmont for photographs (attributed).

Rights and Permissions

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