Facilities (Campus Spaces)

From the Outside In

building envelope

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

The exterior elements of building envelopes can provide crucial practicality with panache. And in so doing, such systems support the missions of the educational programs and functions they house and the university where they are sited.

An envelope is what encloses a building—a commonly used phrase is to keep the inside in and the outside out—by providing water, air, and temperature barriers and governing how much outside light and noise permeate inside, all while working in concert with other building systems. The exterior surface is the most conspicuous component, at least to the surrounding world, and as such makes first impressions that reflect on the institution as a whole.

Such is the case at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus near Pittsburgh. The vision of the near-net-zero campus, parts opened in 2014 and 2016 on the acreage of a farm, is sustainability in the form of immersive learning, research, and living. Campus infrastructure reflects and enables the driving ideal of green, through solar and geothermal arrays, daylighting, sewage processing, constructed wetlands, stormwater retention, waste heat recovery, and other components. So do the building envelopes of the newly constructed and renovated campus structures. Mithun was the design firm.

building envelope

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

The skin of the Chatham Eden Hall’s commons, the Esther Barazzone Center, from the outside in, consists of black locus panels, eight inches of mineral fiber insulation, a vapor barrier, and a wood interior wall, reports Walter Fowler, Chatham’s senior vice president for Finance and Administration. The overall look is modern, yet warm and natural, comporting well with surrounding plantings.

The campus’ South Orchard Hall student residence presents a similar attractive face, this time with a stained cedar rain shield with 10 inches of mineral insulation behind it, interspersed with triple-paned windows and, on the south side, awnings with bifacial photovoltaic (PV) panels.

building envelope

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

Nearby, a small, renovated barn from about 1900, now serving as a café, has “probably the most interesting building skin on campus,” Fowler says. The design essentially “hung a new building around the old one” and placed insulation between the two, he explains. In other words, technicians wrapped the original structure in cementitious rain-shield panels, insulation, and a vapor barrier, and left the interior barn siding exposed. There are triple-paned windows and, atop it all, roof-mounted PV panels.

The Working Envelope

Other envelopes and façades take wholly different forms to meet the needs of divergent buildings. For example, a 10,592-square-foot chiller plant constructed in 2018 on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst is an example of how “high-performance building envelopes can include the use of manufactured insulated metal panel systems,” says Jane Weinzapfel, principal of Boston design firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects. She explains that doing so “is generally most successful in designs using simple building forms with thoughtful detailing.” Using the metal panels, which are a “standard industrial façade material, in the large upper area saved money for the targeted use of accent channel glass and high-performance glazing below,” says Weinzapfel.

building envelope

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

She points out that the façade is a continuous wrapper with a “lower glazed base (that) puts ‘technology on display,’ while the energy-efficient insulated panel system above is punctuated with channel glass strips illuminating an upper equipment platform. The glazed base is highest at the north, to bring equipment in at the building’s bi-fold vehicle doors, and the glazed base slopes down along the east, south and west for reduced solar gain.”

In another sense the approach, by also creating an aesthetic exterior for a building type with unaesthetic connotations, created site options for the university. As the architect explains, “utility buildings often have been located out of sight at the ‘backyard’ of campuses. With campus growth, available sites now are often at a highly visible campus edge, or even at an important campus entrance, and are generally too big to hide. This can make the building and site design of critical importance.”

Meeting Campus Needs

Another case in point is the Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, designed by John Ronan Architects. Opened in 2018, the long, sleek, steel-framed building features a top-floor skin of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) atop a base of energy-efficient glass. The ETFE material is a four-layer plastic foil that responds to outside temperatures. It is linked to roof sensors and a compressor system that triggers the material to shrink or tighten in hot weather and expand in winter. In so doing, a frit pattern on the material contracts and expands accordingly, blocking out or allowing in sunlight. On the interior, there is no finishing wall, with the ETFE taut and firm to the touch.

building envelope 

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

Another standout: the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, completed with a major addition and renovations in 2016, is a set of buildings and forms with distinctive exterior forms and finishes. The overall look of the business school complex is one of variety as well as unity—the design firm was Kohn Pedersen Fox—for a diverse set of spaces, from classroom halls to a parking structure, over a city block.

building envelope

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

The façade features a projected cladding of textured, red terracotta tiles—they form a rain screen that sheds water and allows for evaporation—sitting above a base of sandstone, all in addition to large expanses of high-performance glass. The glass allows in plenty of daylight, reducing the use of artificial lighting, an exterior component that, like green roofs, contribute to and signal the sustainability of the business school complex. Sustainable systems there include a heat recovery wheel, natural materials, and stormwater retention.

Finally, as such examples show, building envelopes can take countless forms in differing materials to meet important, varied needs on campuses today. There are many options. As Weinzapfel adds, “with careful detailing either traditional or economical industrial materials can complement both performance and architectural expression.”

TWO TIPS ABOUT BUILDING ENVELOPES

  • Inform building users on how best to operate components like windows and exterior doors, as Chatham’s Fowler says. For example, leaving open the windows and doors of a highly efficient, or tight, building envelope lets in humidity. Getting it out of such an efficient envelope is difficult, placing extra demands on air exchange, humidity control, and condensing units.
  • Bear in mind that a high-performance exterior envelope that meets a range of important needs, from energy savings to building user comfort to aesthetic expectations, “does not have to mean high cost,” as Weinzapfel says.