Façade Engineering: Moving Past the What Meets the Eye

28 July 2023
The facade of this building is covered in glass with odd angles.

This article by Katherine Chan, a Senior Associate in Walter P. Moore’s Houston Structural Group specializing in Enclosure Engineering, was published initially in Madame Architect.


Diving into the intersectionality of sustainability, social responsibility, and racial equity within the field of façade engineering, this piece examines how designers grapple with aligning their work with their principles. It highlights the importance of holistic building design, emphasizing that a façade is more than just the exterior appearance of a building—it plays a crucial role in sustainability and social justice. 

At some point in their careers, designers will generally ask themselves if the work they’re pursuing or doing is aligned with their principles. Whether that be from a sustainability perspective or a social justice lens, the pandemic has highlighted to us the disparity between privileged communities that can choose to ignore the challenges and marginalized groups that cannot. 

The façade of a building is the first thing you see when you walk toward it. So, how do we make façades that signal sustainable and socially responsible design? How do we ensure that the façade is pulling its weight in holistic building design? While I may buy wine for myself based on the label when I am at a loss at which bottle to get for a dinner party and the shopkeeper is too busy, I definitely strive for more than just good packaging for my façade design practice. While façade design may not have a good or bad binary, my general compass has directed me to design thoroughly and design holistically to be more than just the outside. An effective façade works with the building, and it’s more than just the cover art of a book—it includes the hardcover with the book jacket that protects the edges of the pages and the corners of the cover itself. I personally am partial to a matte finish cover because I like the way it feels in my hands when I’m reading. 

It’s these preferences, my detail-oriented focus, and appreciation for the iterations and different ways that translate from book cover appreciation to the façade that have motivated me to stick it out with façades even though I’ve questioned if there is another facet of the industry or an entirely different industry that is more suitable for me and my interests. I’ve stuck it out because there are so many iterations and ways to design and actualize intentions—different materials, performance (thermal, structural, air/water, blast, etc.), geometry, project teams, etc. I’ve gravitated towards institutional, cultural, higher education, and healthcare work because design decisions are generally made with an owner-operator, and there is a level of care that looks at the long run. I’ve worked with developers who have a similar mindset, and that stands out to me as I personally and professionally ponder how to align my day-to-day work with my aspirations for a more sustainable and socially responsible process. Much like how sustainable façade design is more than just adding insulation for thermal performance (and now includes carbon tracking for a whole building), socially responsible façade design extends to mindful and intentional material fabrication and sourcing.

As an Engineer

While I studied structural engineering, my 10-year career has been focused on façade engineering, generally as a consultant to an architect, sometimes directly to a building owner or developer. Working with building owner-operators in sectors such as healthcare, education, and cultural work has highlighted to me how important having an engaged owner is regarding impactful and long-sighted decisions. My experience collaborating with folks trained as architects in my façade team or external as clients has given me an appreciation that while architects are encouraged, if not forced, to confront the societal impacts of their work, engineers have traditionally not had the same sort of societal focus, although we similarly have a Code of Ethics.

Engineers adhere to a Code of Ethics defined by several different professional societies, and these multiple Codes of Ethics hold engineers accountable for the general welfare of the public. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Code of Ethics reads: “Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health, and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions, and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes, and devices.” This touches upon the decision-making, the principles, and ultimately, the political implications of engineering work upon the built environment and the people who live in it. As such, we pose the question: how do we put practice into theory of how to ensure our work is ethical and aligned with our core values?

As an industry, we’re addressing the climate crisis with commitments, changing the way we design, and tracking the carbon impacts of our designs. Architects and engineers alike have made commitments to track and improve the way we design to address the impacts of our projects on the environment, from building energy use to the process of manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building products. 

The Intersection

Frequently, marginalized communities are disproportionally impacted by pollution and climate change than their privileged counterparts. Examples of this environmental injustice include historically red-lined communities with an average of two degrees warmer in the summertime than their privileged communities. These communities also have less access to green spaces, parks, and trees, which is a direct result of systemic racism in the efforts to make policing “easier” in these communities. Over several decades, these intentions have created hot spots in our urban fabric. In addition, generally marginalized communities specifically Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) constitute a majority of the workforce in heavy industry, which is associated with pollution and negative health impacts as a result. From the pandemic alone, we can see how many frontline and critical workers are folks from these communities.

In addition, marginalized communities are disproportionally impacted economically (as opposed to their privileged counterparts) as their neighborhoods become targets for real estate development. Much of my work is from real estate development, which can create spaces that can be too expensive for the existing community to access. One facet of gentrification can also exploit sustainable retrofits through climate gentrification, where existing buildings are upgraded for sustainability (such as enclosure upgrades, electrification of appliances, etc.) to attract buyers at a higher price bracket than the existing homes in the area. This practice effectively prices out the existing community and results in displacement. 

Before real estate development, there was also eminent domain. From an environmental impact and cultural standpoint, governmental and economically driven seizure of land through eminent domain has resulted in the erasure of cultural ties, which has correlated with natural disasters such as wildfires. Lands inhabited by Indigenous Peoples contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, making them essential voices in the global effort to combat the effects of climate change. Native American cultural ties and rituals included the traditional seasonal burning of dried grasses to prevent wildfires and to foster healthy ecosystems in forests.  

Marginalized communities frequently settle in areas that were historically undesirable land due to economic pressures and systemic boundaries against land ownership of areas with more access to resources or transportation, such as the results of red-lining, divestment of funds from predominantly Black neighborhoods, and highway-induced residential migration. These areas are also disproportionally affected by natural disasters in general, and with more disasters and weather unpredictability caused by climate change, these marginalized communities are further impacted. 

The How

Many of the examples and explanations of the intersectionality of sustainability and racism in the context of the built environment are explored in-depth in works such as “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein and “The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee. I read and discussed these works as well as others through the discussion sessions with a formal group of colleagues. We try to focus on how the built environment is a direct reflection of society’s values and of historical events and trends to drive home the fact that our work directly impacts our society and the communities we live in. Having a group like this (formalized or not!) of peers is the first step I think in getting into a headspace of generating ideas on how to shift our standard of design. My closest industry discussion peers have blossomed into friendships where we can talk deeply and contemplate how we can be better at doing our part.

I see the path forward on a micro and macro scale to address how façade engineering can be sustainable and socially responsible (and just). 

The micro-scale includes examining the products we specify and collaborating with our contracting partners to source locally and from minority-owned (from both an ethnicity and gender perspective) businesses to address the generational wealth gap. Also, sourcing locally can provide positive impacts on minimizing carbon associated with the transportation of materials from an embodied carbon perspective. See? It’s all interrelated! Having those trusted confidantes and collaborators to brainstorm ideas no matter how wacky is important, too—these discussions are how we normalize, asking what we can do for each project and design decision.

On the macro scale, industry discussions have already been ongoing in the architectural engineering and construction industry to address not only the industry itself (diversity of designers, equity of education, retention, pipeline, etc.) but also how we design. To get really specific for façade engineering, we need clients (which include architects and building owners) who are collaborators. Having discussions early on with clients to assess their appetite for these aspirations to cultivate sustainable and socially responsible design is the first step. Much like how building envelope commissioning is now a vital component to achieving specific levels of LEED aspirations, identifying the goals themselves first is required before tracking the successful completion of those goals as we complete a project. 

Engineers love a rubric and matrix, but we also need to keep conversations going, hold space for the gray area, and discuss how projects and processes may deviate from a set path. We can’t lose sight of the messy and human aspects of the design process because we are humans ourselves, and we’re designing for humans. Ultimately, we have to keep in mind who we are designing for, too—and that’s the communities we serve. That has to be the guiding principle, and we must not let the quantitative process block us from our goals.

This can look like bringing in the community and asking for feedback about the façade material throughout the design process. I have been able to do this for our pro-bono community impact work, but I strive to do this for every project. I’m involved with a design collaborative called Design Advocates. One of our projects was with the Concourse House, which is a nonprofit transitional home for mothers with young children coming out of homelessness. The Concourse House gives women the space, support, and tools they need to transition into permanent housing. During COVID, the activities of the Concourse House took place in the garden. Design Advocates tried to help them make this garden better suit their needs. Through a series of workshops and community engagement activities, we developed three sensorial pavilions that would help them continue existing programming outside. We designed three pavilions, each one focusing on engaging different senses through touch, sound, and light. The decorations from the workshop will become a part of the pavilions—the stained glass will be included in the light pavilion, and wind chimes will hang from the sound pavilion. We held a community day where we showed the women in the Concourse House renders of our design and received their feedback and ideas for the design.

Speaking of the macro scale, on an industry level, as co-chair of the Society of Façade Engineering North America Branch, our launch event features three moderated panels that discuss three prominent topics: Sustainability, Innovative Materials, and Globalization and Procurement. We’re starting here as these three topics, I feel, are the most prominent that, at the core, all intersect with social responsibility as well. How can we track carbon across project work, as a firm, and as an industry? How do we develop innovative materials sustainably? How can we procure materials from around the world while minimizing carbon from transportation? How do we study and address the economic and societal impacts of the ever-increasing global fabrication processes? It’s these questions and more that require discussion and collaboration from across the industry to address.

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