Skyscraper Expert Antony Wood Calls for a Facades Revolution

Battery Park high-rises, New York City. (Anthony Quintano/Flickr)

Battery Park high-rises, New York City. (Anthony Quintano/Flickr)

As the director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Dr. Antony Wood spends a lot of time thinking about the high-rise envelope, which he calls “its single most important interface to the external environment.” For decades, hermetically sealed glass was the gold standard in facade design for tall buildings. With sustainability an increasingly urgent priority, things have begun to change for the better, says Wood. “But we have barely scratched the surface,” he argues. “So much more needs to be done.” Wood will issue his call to action next month in a talk and subsequent panel discussion at Facades+ NYC, the premier conference on high performance building envelopes.

Foster + Partners' Commerzbank tower, Frankfurt. (chaoki/Flickr)

Foster + Partners’ Commerzbank tower, Frankfurt. (chaoki/Flickr)

Wood mentions double-skin facades, green walls, and operable facades as among the most promising recent innovations in high-rise envelope design and construction. Double-skin facades like that pioneered in Foster + Partners‘ 1997 Commerzbank tower (Frankfurt), “perform as environmental ‘switches’ and provide for natural ventilation, while mediating the indoor temperature to a level that does not require 24/7 conditioning,” explains Wood. “Projects like the nearly-complete Shanghai Tower, with its large atria and communal sky gardens, take this idea to the next level, and add to the idea of a ‘high-performing facade’ a social as well as a highly functional dimension.”

Green walls offer a range of benefits, from increased energy efficiency to aesthetic appeal and the reduction of the urban heat island effect. “We’ve also seen sophisticated mechanical, operable facades that adjust to solar conditions, such as at the Al Bahar towers in Abu Dhabi,” says Wood. Other cutting-edge facades, like at Jean Nouvel‘s Doha Tower, incorporate historic building techniques to reduce thermal gain and thus improve efficiency.

Jean Nouvel's Doha Tower. (Steve Lee/Flickr)

Jean Nouvel’s Doha Tower. (Steve Lee/Flickr)

But while Wood finds the above encouraging, he does not think the AEC industry has gone far enough to meet contemporary social and environmental needs. “It’s patently ridiculous that we talk about buildings have a design life of only 50 to 100 years,” he says. “We should be designing for the ages, as there is very little practical experience in dismantling tall buildings—not to mention [it being] destructive to the environment and a waste of embodied energy—and modifications can be prohibitively expensive.” Tomorrow’s facades should incorporate interchangeability and flexibility as fundamental priorities. “We have to start designing and building for a future we cannot fully anticipate,” argues Wood. “Durability is important, but adaptability is perhaps more so. Facades are the first line of defense in this cause.”

Wood identifies “a lack of collective will” as the principal obstacle to true innovation in facade design and construction. But he also envisions a way forward: through more research funding; more holistic design thinking; and a reorientation away from proprietary facade design. “A more sustainable business model would be ongoing consulting engagements that establish a meaningful feedback loop with clients and keep design one step ahead of demand, with an emphasis on interoperability and longevity,” he concludes.

To hear more from Wood and other experts in facade design and construction, register today for Facades+ NYC.

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