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Spotlight: Facades
From a Copenhagen showpiece by 3XN to an exploration of AI design, our Spotlight on Building Envelopes explores the latest in façades.
InDéfense and Hôtel OKKO Bring a New Sense of Place to a Historic Region in France
Wildwood Bamboo cladding system by Fiberon
4 High-Performance Facades That Don’t Sacrifice on Style
The Hermitage of San Juan de Ruesta in Spain Returns to Life
Portrait of Material Cultures team
5 Regenerative Design Principles by Material Cultures
Casa Santos
A Case Study in Uniform Concrete: Casa Santos in Mexico
SlimLine 38 window system by Reynaers
4 Innovative Window Systems That Welcome the Outside In
Midjourney AI Architecture rendering
Artificial Intelligence Tools Conjure Architectural Renderings in Seconds
Spotlight: Facades

From the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel to the Grande
Arche de la Défense, the Historical Axis in Paris is a walkable 10-kilometre
stretch of architectural and cultural significance. So in order for a new
building to make any sort of impression, it must possess a little something
special. Case in point, the recently completed InDéfense and
Hôtel OKKO; it now anchors La Défense — the westernmost region of
the Axis and Europe’s largest purpose-built business district — which
dates back to the 1950s.

As the first structure you see when you enter the neighbourhood,
it needed to be an “eye-catching and dynamic” standout. This aspect
was top of mind when Danish architecture firm 3XN began designing
the 16,000-square-metre mixed-use project (its first in France), which
was commissioned by developer Vinci Immobilier and executed in
partnership with French firm SRA Architectes.

3XN designed a staircase between the two buildings to connect InDéfense and Hôtel Okko.
An agora with a spiral escape staircase links the two buildings, supplying bike parking for the occupants and open views to passersby.

Though the two buildings serve different purposes — as an office
space and a hotel — the firm wanted them “to work together but be
diverse, to have their own identities,” says 3XN founding partner Kim
Herforth Nielsen. To achieve this, the architects clad each in the same
material — aluminum — but applied different finishes: a warm matte
bronze (AluCopper from Alumet) and a cool mirrored silver (anodized
Aloxide from Coil), respectively.

Working with French high-tech facade manufacturer Rinaldi Structal,
the team devised a series of prefab cassettes of varying sizes for the
unitized envelopes (10 for the workspace and three for the hotel, plus
modules for the roof, corners, terraces and ground-floor structure),
arranged in a rhythmic checkerboard pattern. Their angles change
depending on what level they are on, self-shading the buildings by controlling
the amount of direct sunlight that reaches the interior. Perforated
side panels on the office building’s cassettes neatly conceal the
ventilation system, which can be accessed via clean-lined doors inside.

3XN staggered the different volumes of the office building (clad in bronze) to add another dimension and create shaded overhangs and sun-bathed terraces.

To create that required strong street presence, frameless windows
alternate with the metallic elements to lend an artful play of transparency
and opacity. “Both facades change throughout the day, depending
on time, weather and where you are in context with the building,” says
Herforth Nielsen. “It has a lot of life and energy.”

Wildwood Bamboo cladding system by Fiberon

The facade is a building’s first impression, making it important for architects to select cladding that makes a statement while being durable enough to weather the elements. These high-performance systems by EcoSupply, Pac-Clad, Fiberon and Lunawood embrace these principles across a varied material palette. 

Tekstur by EcoSupply
Tekstur cladding by EcoSupply

With an expansive portfolio of patterns and colourways, Tekstur (an EcoSupply brand) protective panelling makes an immediate visual and textural statement. A composite made by applying heat and pressure to resin-saturated kraft or decorative papers (recycled and FSC-certified), the material is resistant to impact, heat, water and staining; a variety of predetermined patterns are available, as is the option for custom designs.

Modular AL Wall System by Pac-Clad
Modular AL Wall System by Pac-Clad

This flexible system by Pac-Clad lets architects and designers combine vertical and horizontal panels of differing sizes and depths across one layout in cassette-style patterns. The surface of the 100 per cent recycled aluminum cladding can be flat or tapered, and can be perforated with motifs, logos, wording, shapes or images. The modules can be applied to a range of substrate materials with a concealed fastener system, have weep holes for pressure and moisture venting and are offered in 46 standard colours plus custom options.

Wildwood Bamboo by Fiberon
Wildwood Bamboo cladding system by Fiberon

A new finish offering for Fiberon’s Wildwood cladding, Bamboo’s blonde oak tone was inspired by sandy desert landscapes. Made from 94 per cent mixed recycled wood fibre and plastic content diverted from landfills and incinerators, the sustainable wood alternative is low-maintenance and has a durable composite core that is impervious to rotting, cracking, insects and decay; the planks have an open-joint profile and are offered in multiple lengths and widths.

Luna Layer by Lunawood
Luna Layer cladding system by Lunawood

The Luna Layer extra-wide spruce exterior cladding by Lunawood (shown here on an upper terrace of the Wittywood office building in Barcelona by Ballarin & Grinyó) has a brushed surface that will gradually turn a lovely larch-like grey over time if left untreated. The straight-edged tongue-and-groove planks are available in two widths and are easy to assemble on site.

As part of a larger regional project intended to bring back life, heritage and tourism to the depopulated area around the Aragón River in Northeastern Spain, Zaragoza-based Sebastián Arquitectos has restored a small stone chapel outside the hamlet of Ruesta. The hermitage of San Juan de Ruesta was originally built in the 12th century; it was known for its significant collection of Romanesque paintings before the artwork was removed in the early 1960s, when a pharaonic reservoir and dam were built nearby, hastening the area’s decline.

In 2001, in an act that Sergio Sebastián Franco, founder of the architecture practice, calls “cruel and unnecessary,” the local government demolished part of the chapel’s roof and walls and covered the remains with a metal structure. The brief to the firm (which is also working on the wider master plan) was simply to restore the building, but it proposed instead to reinstate the original volume and turn the chapel into a welcome shaded respite for pilgrims on the road to Santiago once more.

Sebastián Arquitectos topped the formerly abandoned San Juan de Ruesta hermitage with a new sandstone block roof to complement the original structure while providing visitors protection from the elements.

The church’s remains are complemented by a new stone volume, slightly set back and resting on a layer of concrete that emphasizes the boundary between past and present. Unlike the original shell, with its stones laid in random sizes and patterns, the new walls are composed of overlapping and uniform CNC-cut sandstone blocks measuring 40 by 20 by 20 centimetres, made by local stone manufacturer Olnasa. The architects could have chosen a different colour or material to demarcate the contemporary insertion more vigorously, but opted to keep things monochromatic and relatively low-key.

“Our criterion was to build in a similar language as the existing chapel but using different words,” says Sebastián Franco. The shingles, also made of sandstone but cut into much thinner 40-millimetre slabs, sit atop a wooden roof and timber panels, while steel columns and beams support the volume as a whole. The slant of the slabs, which taper at the top, was the result of two objectives. “Visually, we wanted to expand the horizontal lines of the roof along the facade and produce a continuous image across the new intervention by creating a shadow effect on the lower part of the blocks,” explains Sebastián Franco.

The uniformity of the CNC-cut sandstone blocks creates a compelling rhythm. Slanted to promote rainwater runoff, the tiles also feature small square holes that reference the original building’s putlog holes, furthering the seamless nature of the renovation.

More practically, the inclined design evacuates rainwater naturally. Small openings known as mechinales on the lower left corner of each block reference the small putlog holes still visible in the original apse while also ventilating and illuminating the interior. “We wanted to restore the light conditions of the ancient chapel, where simple candles would have been used, and reproduce that intermediate phase between darkness and light.”

The always-open arched entrance and a narrow rectangular void above let even more natural light filter in throughout the day, creating dramatic illumination effects in different dimensions. A nice final touch is how the original stones left over from the 2001 demolition have been re-used: Laid around the chapel at equal distance from one another, they create a grid pattern that echoes that of the chapel’s new (and old) walls.

Portrait of Material Cultures team

Material Cultures has an admirable goal: to steer the architecture industry “towards a post-carbon built environment.” Working with all levels of the A & D community, the U.K.-based not-for-profit, which was co-founded in 2019 by architects Summer Islam and Paloma Gormley (architect George Massoud joined as director in 2021), champions regenerative design and construction principles.

It advocates the use of bio-based materials and sustainable building methods that are economically viable and “touch lightly on the ground.” The group recently launched its first book, Material Reform, a collection of essays that call for a more harmonious relationship between the built environment and the natural world. Here, they — collectively — share some thoughts on how change can be implemented.

Recognize your responsibility

“It’s really critical that architects understand the consequences and implications of the way we build, acknowledge our role in perpetuating harm and accept that, as architects, we are uniquely positioned to positively influence not just material choice on building projects but also positive employment and labour practices both in the office and on the construction site.”

Be an agent for change

“The entire industry and its supply chains need to be involved in a transition to a more circular and bio-based construction economy, from contractors to policy- makers, saw mills to construction skills academics. The most effective levers, however, are in the hands of the state — policy-level change is one of the strongest tools we have to incentivize change in what is an oth- erwise conservative industry. Architects are uniquely engaged with different actors along the supply chain and across the industry; through our own work and the way we engage with the other actors, we can both demonstrate best practice and demand better practice from collaborators.”

A collaboration with sustainable developer Human Nature, the Phoenix in Lewes, East Sussex, will rejuvenate a former industrial site and be populated with buildings made from prefabricated timber and hempcrete insulation. People will be prioritized through the inclusion of parks, courtyards, community spaces, a health centre and more.
Explore alternative materials

“There is so much to learn from Indigenous knowledge and building practices around the world, from how to build with what you have at hand to how to build in low- impact ways and how to adapt the way we live to the climate we inhabit. We are excited about bio-based materials. These materials are regenerative; they regrow and, if planted and managed sustainably, they can provide environmental benefits too. In the long term, they can be composted and return to the bionutrient cycles from which they came.”

Shorten the supply chain

“Inherently, locally manufactured materials build value into the economic and social systems in the places in which we build. The shorter supply chain also means less energy is spent in transporting materials. It also requires the distribution of construction and manufac- turing skills across an economy, not just in urban or manufacturing centres. These are all things that are good for rural economies, but they are also good for our buildings. The less energy we spend in building, the better — and a more resilient construction skills economy can coalesce around more locally sourced natural materials.”

Reprioritize our relationship to the land

“The land is our most precious resource. We draw materials and food from it, and it sequesters carbon, is home to our ecosystems and is where we build our homes. The care for all living things on our land has not been a priority — to both our environmental and economic detriment. We need to understand the consequences of building with and on our land, making more informed choices about how we prioritize land use and who has access to that land.”

Casa Santos

Just a short trek from Todos Santos in Baja California Sur, Mexico, is a mini compound offering a unique escape from the bustle of the up-and-coming tourist town. Surrounded by a desert landscape dotted with low-lying scrub and cacti, Casa Santos responds to its environmental context through resilient and sustainable architecture that celebrates place and performance.

Identical in size, shape and colour, Casa Santos 11 concrete cubes create a harmonious expression that complements their desert placement.
Identical in size, shape and colour, Casa Santos’s 11 concrete cubes create a harmonious expression that complements their desert placement.

When architects María Gómez, Héctor Coss and Giovanni Ocampo were commissioned for the project, it was initially intended as a private villa for two business owners and their families. In a move that proved fortuitous, as the retreat is now available for public bookings, the trio broke away from a standard house set-up by sequestering different room functions (bedroom, kitchen and living space) into 11 separate yet identical cubes arranged into three clusters (two main groupings of four and a guest set of three).

“From the very beginning, we were fascinated by the idea of completing the program with formworks,” Gómez says of the decision to have the modules made from concrete. This was also a pragmatic choice: The seismic desert region experiences dramatic temperature shifts from day to night. Another priority was to ensure that the structures blended in with their surroundings, so the architects collected rock samples to formulate a colour-matched vegetable-pigment tint for the Cemex concrete.

The exteriors’ fluted surface creates shadows that help keep the interiors cool.
The exteriors’ fluted surface creates shadows that help keep the interiors cool.

After prototyping for design, dimension and hue at their workshop in Oaxaca, a single 4-by-4-by-3.2- metre frame was developed as the formwork for all 11 buildings. “This allowed us to achieve great efficiencies of scale in the construction process,” says Gómez. She also notes that all scrap metal left over from the formwork was used for doors, gates and fences across the property (which also includes an oasis-like plunge pool and a low-slung maintenance and storage shed).

An aerial view of Casa Santos, overlooking the 11 identical concrete cubes and plunge pool

Poured on site, the 11 cubes are defined by their “sunset pink” tone and thick ribs, which give them a compelling texture and aid in climate control. “The channels provide shadows throughout the day, which lowers the temperature during the summer months,” says Gómez. Inside, these “gutters” contribute a pleasing visual rhythm that is enhanced by smooth concrete dividing walls and flat-fronted built-in wood furnishings. Large sliding glass windows afford access to private terraces framed by open steel canopies, which can be draped with canvas for further protection from the sun.

View of large sliding window that provides entry to the bedroom interior
Large sliding windows provide entry to the interiors, where the ribbed concrete surfaces are continued and blended with smooth walls and wood furnishings.
SlimLine 38 window system by Reynaers

As glazed facades continue their reign in contemporary architecture, today’s window systems are constantly evolving to meet the needs of modern buildings — from improved insulation to sound absorption. These innovative window systems manufactured by Jeld-Wen, Salamander, Reynaers and Kova elegantly fade into the background to bring views into focus, all without compromising functionality.

Northern Tri-Pane Collection by Jeld-Wen
Northern Tri-Pane window collection by Jeld-Wen

Designed specifically for colder climates, these thermal-performance windows by Jeld-Wen feature two 1.2-centimetre argon-filled air pockets between three panes that add an extra layer of insulation and reduce radiant heat condensation. The interior panes also buffer exterior noise transfer and increase internal sound absorption for a quieter environment. A range of operating styles and frame finishes are available.

GretaFenster by Salamander
GretaFenster window system by Salamander

German-based window and door manufacturer Salamander recycles end-of-life windows and production waste for the minimalist PVC profiles of the GretaFenster system, which gives them a roughly textured and modern concrete look. The windows themselves are made to equal Passive House standards, with all-weather performance and high UV values. The flexible system can be configured to suit a range of architectural styles.

SlimLine 38 by Reynaers
SlimLine 38 window system by Reynaers

Offered in three surface styles — inclined Classic, stepped Cubic (shown) or straight with shadow gaps Ferro — the SlimLine 38 series of high-insulation steel-look aluminum windows (and doors) by Reynaers can be customized with concealed hinges and drainage, as well as optional screens, safety balustrades and glass corners for views free of obstructing profiles.

Window Wall System by Kova
Window Wall System by Kova

Suitable for homes and high-rises, this window wall system by Kova has a tilt-in panel design that can be safely installed from the inside. The kit of parts features an adaptable PVC thermal break (glue or cap) that accommodates different panel materials and thickness and is non-strutted for easy disassembly and recycling.

Midjourney AI Architecture rendering

From initial sketch to final rendering, realistic models of architectural concepts traditionally take days (if not weeks) to produce. The fantastical facades pictured here — structures sheathed in swaths of multicoloured fabric, glazing encased in Antoni Gaudí–inspired curves — are different. They were created by artificial intelligence.

A.I Artificial Intelligence Colourful architectural rendering of curved building

Using text-to-image A.I. tools (Midjourney is one of the most popular), designers and architects are conceptualizing boundary-pushing envelopes using little more than a string of text. Enter a few words and these tools get to work, scouring image “memories” developed during the A.I.’s neural network training. Seconds later, they generate new forms and invite the human on the other side of the screen to refine, remix or upscale their appearance. A welcome disruption to a manual process or a threat to the human element of creation? Two designers weigh in.

Andrew Kudless, principal of Houston-based design firm Matsys, is specifically interested in A.I. tools’ ability to render building envelopes. Inspired by a fascination with the fabric curtains used to wrap construction scaffolding, he’s been employing Midjourney to explore the possibilities of textile facades, documenting his process and sharing the results on Instagram. Could they be constructed in real life? Probably not, but that’s not the point.

Artificial Intelligence rendering of Building made of sheets

“Visionary architecture always has a role to play in the design process, even if it is simply aspirational,” Kudless says. He sees A.I. tools like Midjourney supporting — not supplanting — a human designer. “Some might see this as a threat, but I love the idea of clients using these tools to help them envision their desires for a project. It helps start a conversation with the designer around shared objectives,” Kudless says. “These images are able to quickly establish an atmosphere for a project that has always been incredibly difficult using digital modelling and rendering tools.”

Like Kudless, Southern California–based multidisciplinarian Hassan Ragab is using Midjourney to develop concepts for complex, sometimes dreamlike facades. Drawing on his architectural vocab- ulary, he prompts the tool with descriptions of building styles and materials, repeatedly refining hundreds of generated images until his vision is realized. Ragab is bullish on the tool’s potential to make the human-led design process redundant. “I think as these tools evolve, they will make a lot about our jobs obsolete,” Ragab says. “That’s the natural process of technology.” That’s not to say these tools are without limitations.

AI Rendering of dynamic organic shaped building

As is the case with other artificial intelligence technologies, certain elements of human design haven’t yet been perfected by A.I. Ragab points to copyright as one issue (who does the final image ultimately belong to?). Bias is another; in Ragab’s experience, the data sets the A.I. is trained on unintentionally lean toward Western architecture. “If we are not addressing these flags, these tools will really be biased. Some cultures could perish digitally.”