The Curtain Wall Industry: History, Current State, and Challenges of Façade Design

By Akio

The Evolution of Façade Design

The first building introduced with a curtain wall was the Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851.

The Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. Appearance of Crystal Palace (right), Interior (left).

The Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. Appearance of Crystal Palace (right), Interior (left).

The Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition, London, 1851, pioneered façade design. For the exhibition hall for most exhibits, a greenhouse-like frame glass structure was adopted, which not only rendered the Crystal Palace the most glorious of all exhibits, but also pioneered façade design engineering.

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After nearly a century of development, façade fabrication, in terms of type, has developed from a simple exposed-frame glass one to a semi-exposed-frame or hidden-frame, full-glass one, as well as using various metal, stone, or artificial panels; in terms of structure, the façade fabrication has developed from a simple frame one to a unitized, point-supported, double-skinned, and membrane-structured one; in addition, more energy-efficient, ecological façade panels, photoelectric façade, and intelligent façade are gathering momentum.

Obviously, façade design technology is advancing rapidly. It helps architects free their minds and enables façade design to develop from being simple and monotonous to diversified, complex, and modern.

Architectural envelopes market is mainly driven by the development of the global economy and building industry. Global economic growth promotes investment in fixed assets, and the construction demands of all kinds of public facilities, commercial buildings, and high-end residential buildings provide a foundation for the growth of global architectural envelopes markets.

From the distribution of global architectural envelopes markets, it can be seen that the U.S. and Europe are still the dominant players, combined market share accounting for about 50% in 2009.

In the meanwhile, the emerging countries represented by China and India are enjoying rapid growth of their architectural envelopes industry.

Distribution of Global Architectural Envelopes Markets in 2009

Distribution of Global Architectural Envelopes Markets in 2009

According to related statistics, China is the country with the most super high-rise buildings being constructed and planned in the world. The number of buildings in the country above 200 meters accounts for 48.5% of the total number of the buildings in the world. A large number of projects to be started in the future will demand much from the architectural envelopes industry.

It can be predicted that in the future, the U.S. and Europe will still take the lead in the design and application of architectural envelope products, and the developing countries of Asia (especially China), the Middle East, and other regions will be the main battlefield and driver of new products and application demands of the architectural envelopes globally.

Industry Challenges

The traditional building industry suffers serious productivity waste because of poor utilization of building materials, engineering rework, idling of labor, etc. According to related statistics, the value of the resources wasted in construction for a project accounts for as much as 25% of the total investment, largely wasted in façade design, fabrication, and installation.

For sustainable and healthy development of the architectural envelopes industry, it is required to analyze the reasons for the waste from the perspective of the full lifecycle of a façade fabrication, examine the challenges arising in the development of the architectural envelope industry, and grasp the opportunities of industry development.

Challenge of project management mode

Façade design (especially for complex curtain walls) is a highly professional engineering task requiring a distinguished appearance, technical functionality, and significant investment in installation planning. So, like structural design, plumbing design, and electrical design, a façade design requires special expertise.

Typically architects designing façades try to avoid a single manufacturer’s product so that the contractor can bid alternatives. This means that the architectural drawings are not coordinated with shop drawings from a manufacturer until construction has started and by that time much expert knowledge has been missed with several consequences:

  1. the final design deliverables fail to embody the progress of façade technology and new products; and
  2. the design scheme cannot meet the building energy performance requirements in an economical way.

For a close coordination between façade design and main building design, an independent third party as façade design consultants are important.

At the building schematic phase, the architects ask the façade design consultants for advice on their schematic design, so as to make possible the best building appearance; at the design development phase, the façade design consultants determines the system to-be-adopted, reserved room, etc. for the architectural envelope to provide more refined façade design drawings for façade contractors bidding.

The façade consultants should be able to produce a 3D model that incorporates the architect’s construction drawings and fabrication drawings.

Data breaking from design to manufacturing

Compared with the traditional building industry, façade design engineering is mostly based on custom manufacturing in plants. It is an industry formed from the close combination of building and industrial manufacturing. It is hoped that the accurate 3D model and 2D CAD drawings of a complex façade models can be completely sent to the numerical control cutting machines in plants.

However, due to lack of relevant cross-industry standard criteria, the data chain from façade design to manufacturing breaks, resulting in poor collaboration in problem solving, which seriously affects the industrialization of the architectural envelope industry.

Furthermore, because of the limited accuracy of many BIM software programs in parametric modeling of the components, 3D models cannot be directly applied to industrial fabrication. When an architect changes 3D models, the façade designer has to redevelop the detailed façade design and generate new fabrication drawings independently, thus causing a huge waste due to delay and rework.

Production and installation requirements of a complex curtain wall

Compared with traditional manufacturing, a façade panel has a higher degree of customization, which is reflected by not only different designs for different projects, but also different façade panels even in a project, so fast and flexible production is required as needed.

With the emergence of new materials and new technologies, and people’s constant pursuit of different building appearances, façade fabrication becomes bigger and bigger in size and increasingly complex in shape, accompanied by increasing of difficulties in field installation. In this case, if the delivery sequence and installation process are not well managed, the installation positions of façade panels may be confused, thus causing project delay and the waste of resources.

It is a pity that seamless connection of data for detailed façade design drawing, detailed joint fabrication technology, and field installation positioning (as well as realization of drawing-less and model-driven fabrication design which is a concept advocated in the machinery industry) is now beyond the capability for most BIM tools.

What we need is an accurate data integration environment incorporating building design, detailed joint design, and field installation together covering a series of management activities, including façade fabrication production, positioning, detection, cost estimation, and risk control.


Screen-Shot-2014-12-23-at-1.55.20-PM-225x300Excerpted from Technological Changes Brought by BIM to Façade Design

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Small Solutions for the World’s Biggest Challenges

By Catherine

Nano molecule structureWritten by Catherine Bolgar*

Nanotechnology is one of the biggest trends for the future, bringing new materials and new understanding of the world at the smallest scale: that of molecules and atoms.

Ten or 15 years ago, nanotechnology was seen as hype,” or a passing trend, says Andrei Khlobystov, professor of nanomaterials and director of the Nottingham University’s Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Centre in the U.K. “But as time goes on, nanotechnology is becoming much more a part of our life. It doesn’t go away because there are still a lot of opportunities, still huge scope to contribute to economy and society.”

Nanotechnology can contribute solutions to help address the grand challenges in the world—energy , health care, sustainability —he says.

Carbon nanotubes, for example, conduct electricity better than most metals, offering a way to replace metals, such as gold, platinum and palladium, which are in increasingly short supply. Their electronic properties make them ideal for use in transistors, while their size—80,000 times smaller than a human hair—opens new opportunities for miniaturization. The sum of such properties holds promise for smaller, more powerful, faster computers.

Carbon nanotubes also are extremely strong—and already used for certain components in cars—but light in weight. And they’re made of cheap, plentiful carbon. You could almost make them from trees and grass, Prof. Khlobystov says.

“It’s never just one thing that nanomaterials offer; it’s always a whole set of different properties,” he says. “That’s what makes nanotechnology so exciting.”

Some of the biggest advances have been in medicine, with early diagnostics and other tools. Already, nanomedicine is being used for blood and breath analysis and to precisely measure the quantity of medicine in the blood in order to adjust the amount a patient needs to take.

Tumors might be detected more quickly, via blood tests. “It’s possible to use nanoparticles to make imaging technology much better, to image tumors,” says Dave H.A. Blank, scientific director of MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “This is really growing fast.”

See Dave Blank’s fantastic TEDx Talk about nanotechnology:

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A new approach includes a lab-on-a-chip that has tiny channels etched on it, so that 1/1000th of a drop of blood is enough to analyze.

“We can measure how the liver or heart responds to medicine,” he says. “The advantage is you can easily go through the body,” because of the small size.

In three or four years, a nanopill, containing a complete laboratory, could look for colon cancer. It would pump in material from the colon and could measure if there’s cancer, whether it’s at an early stage, and send information to a smart phone. The pill itself would be made of organic materials, and the electronic parts are silicon—which is just sand, Prof. Blank says, so there’s no damage to the body or the environment. “I expect that in five years there will be regulations that everyone take such a pill,” he adds.

An organ-on-a-chip is the next goal. “You take tissue from the lung, grow it and put it on the lab-on-a-chip or organ-on-a-chip,” Prof. Blank says. “You can look at oxygen behavior in the lung or blood in the liver or how the heart muscle responds to electric impulses. We can watch how cells communicate with each other.”

Nanotechnology also can make new materials. One of the most exciting is graphene, which is a two-dimensional substance made up of a single layer of carbon atoms. It’s flexible, durable and an excellent conductor of electricity.

Rubber bands coated with graphene could be used in medicine as cheap, flexible sensors. Graphene ribbons could act as semiconductors. Graphene and carbon nanotubes could lead to mobile phones so tiny and flexible they could be printed on clothing. Graphene oxide could reinforce concrete or be applied like paint to stop corrosion.

Why are we only now starting to discover so many new properties in something as common as carbon?

One reason is that matter at an atomic level has its own rules, which until recently were unknown to us. The discovery of atoms came from observations about them in large numbers, not as individuals. Advances in equipment—such as electron microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy or atomic force microscopy—allowed researchers to see actual atoms, which are smaller than the wavelength of light .

Now we find that certain things may not be as we thought,” Prof. Khlobystov says. We once thought that a piece of gold was made of gold atoms and that all those atoms were the same. “They are the same if you look on the macroscopic level,” he says. “But as you start zooming in, you see that not all the atoms are the same. And there are defects, edges and faults.”

Beyond how atoms look is how they act on an individual level. “When you make things smaller, new physics and new properties kick in,” Prof. Khlobystov says.

The next challenge is to control chemical reactions between individual atoms, using carbon nanotubes as tiny test tubes. “They can produce new chemical products in a sustainable way and can produce entirely new materials,” he says.

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Stronger, Lighter, Cheaper

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*
NanomaterialIndustrial materials involve trade-offs. Desirable qualities tend to come with undesirable flip sides. Strength, for example, tends to come at the expense of ductility, or the ability to stretch without breaking. So the stronger something is, the more it’s likely—ironically—that when it does fail, it fails completely.

What if you could have both high strength and ductility? This is likely to happen, thanks to breakthroughs in new materials, many of which involve building the materials in innovative ways at the atomic level.

A microscopic view of metals would show them as made up of grains. Stronger materials have smaller grains, and more ductile materials have larger grains, explains Yuntian Zhu, professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University in the U.S. However, if you make an entire part with small grains for high strength, it might fail catastrophically under stress.

When you make any structure, you want at least 5% ductility. The more ductility, the safer it is. But the downside is that the strength comes down,” he says.

Dr. Zhu found that by forming steel with larger grains inside and gradually moving to smaller grains at the surface, the result has both strength and ductility. This gradient structure is found in nature, he says, for example in plants and bones.

Near the surface, it’s harder. As you go deeper it gets softer,” Dr. Zhu says. “Nature just puts raw materials where they’re needed most. It minimizes the material cost. In nature, that proves useful.”

Using a gradient structure in steel could extend the lives of bridges, ships and oil pipelines, for instance.

Hardening steel by working it is another technique to make steel that’s both strong and ductile. Twinning-induced plasticity—or TWIP—steel is strengthened by twisting, deforming, bending, flattening or hammering it. At Brown University, researchers twisted cylinders of TWIP steel to deform the molecules on the surface. The molecules in the center remained unaffected, providing the flexibility, while the surface got harder, providing more strength.

Usually when something is strong, it’s also heavy. What if you could have both strength and lightness?

Nicholas X. Fang, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed a foam material that can withstand a weight 10,000 times greater than its own.

“It’s as light as aerogel, yet as stiff as a hammer,” he says. Much of the space between the structures is void, which is why the material is so light.

The material uses nanotubes or nanowires a quarter of the size of a human hair to form a network or structure that takes away the load. “Each of the nanotubes under the load are under compression or a stress state,” Dr. Fang says. “But they turn out to be quite resilient. In the lab, we compress the samples to 60% of their original size.”

Dr. Fang is contemplating applications for this new material. The material could absorb impact while reducing weight, for example, in a tennis racket that’s lighter than aluminum alloy, yet able to deliver similar strength against a bouncing ball.

It could be important for microstructures in batteries,” he adds. Batteries receive a lot of shock when charging, which causes the structure to suddenly expand—and corrode. “If we could use this material in a battery, we could solve the challenge of quick charging,” he says.

Satellites also could benefit from a material that’s very lightweight, to reduce the payload, yet able to withstand shocks.

Nanowires in three-dimensional structures also are being explored by researchers at the University of California, Davis. By combining atoms of semiconductor materials—such as gallium arsenide, gallium nitride or indium phosphide—into nanowires that form structures on top of silicon surfaces, they hope to create a new generation of fast electronic and photonic devices.

The nanowire transistors could be used to make sensors that can withstand high temperatures and are easier to cool.

polymer surfaceSomething everybody wants to be strong yet shatterproof is their smartphone screen. Researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio have come up with a transparent layer of electrodes on a polymer surface that could stand up to repeatedly having adhesive tape peeled off and retain its shape after being bent a thousand times. The new film may be cheaper to make than the coatings of indium tin oxide now used on smartphone screens.

In fact, in a number of cases, the materials or processes themselves aren’t necessarily expensive, which makes them likely to be adopted relatively quickly.

It’s actually quite easy,” says Dr. Zhu about making steel with a gradient structure. “The only thing is, can we do it in an industrial way or develop a technology to do it?” The cost is likely to be very low, and some in industry already are trying it.

“It might take a few years for widespread adoption,” he says.

The super-strong foam material developed by Dr. Fang isn’t expensive, but the manufacturing process is—at least for now. Only a few centimeters of the material can be made, which is a limitation of the printing process, not the material itself, Dr. Fang says. “Now it’s important to connect the dots to make it into a larger format at lower cost.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.



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