3 design trends influencing university enclosures

Growing interest in material transparency, the adoption of more stringent environmental regulations by several states, and extreme weather events are all influencing the design of university buildings.

While indoor air quality has been in the spotlight since the global pandemic’s onset, university buildings are incorporating other design elements that reflect trends in society at large.

Growing interest in material transparency, the adoption of more stringent environmental regulations by several states, and extreme weather events are all influencing the design of university buildings.

Below, we consider how these trends are playing out in new construction and retrofit projects:

Tiffany Coppock is a commercial building specialist for Owens Corning.

Trend #1: Pre-cast construction. Regardless of the cause, construction interruptions threaten project logistics, timelines and budgets. Precast construction brings a heightened level of predictability and efficiency to the job site. Components are fabricated in a controlled environment and delivered to the job site ready for assembly in context with other elements.

Constructed with precast concrete panels, the Barbara A. Marshall Residence Hall on the campus of Kansas City Art Institute is a good example of precast construction efficiency. The project team sought a complete wall panel solution that was fabricated in a controlled environment and transported for efficient installation at the job site on a tight project schedule.  The project broke ground in July 2018 and was dedicated in January 2020.

The 222 panels were fabricated in the controlled conditions of a production facility, then shipped by flatbed truck to the job site and placed by crane into the concrete cast-in-place frame. This process allowed for the cohesive building envelope to be achieved in a panelized, modular approach integrating the thermal barrier into a strong and simple solution. The project manager noted that compared to a traditional wall assembly requiring multiple components (steel substrate behind curtainwall, batts, drywall, etc.), the design process was much more efficient.

The exposed concrete contributes to the “transparency of materials” sought by the architect and delivers an aesthetic ethos that is warm and cozy in the winter and cool and inviting in the summer.

Trend #2: Environmental stewardship and resilience. On January 1, 2021, Canada and several U.S. states across the nation adopted legislation to reduce the global warming potential (GWP) of several products. As more robust environmental agendas take effect and the planet continues to experience extreme weather events linked to climate change, adoption of stringent environmental regulations may accelerate in the years to come.

According to the Alliance to Save Energy, buildings account for about 40% of all U.S. energy consumption and a similar proportion of greenhouse gas emissions.  New regulations are inspiring manufacturers to research and develop building materials with dramatically lower GWP. For example, Owens Corning evaluated more than 100 blowing agent formulations (to develop FOAMULAR® NGX, an extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation. Validated by a third-party verified Environmental Product Declaration and Optimization Report, the new XPS delivers a greater than 80% reduction in GWP and qualifies as 1.5 products towards LEED 4.1 points for Options 1 and 2 under the Materials and Resources: Environmental Product Declaration (EPD).

These environmental regulations come at a time when the U.S. is experiencing an increase in extreme weather events. In 2020, the U.S. shattered records for extreme weather events, with the most $1B weather events ever recorded according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. And next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, an epic hurricane that cost at least $70B in damages making it one of the costliest storms in U.S. history.

Stringent regulations and escalating incidents of weather are calling for buildings designed to withstand weather while complying with stringent environmental codes.

Trend #3: Vegetative roof assemblies (VRAs). More occupiable space, increased access to nature and strict stormwater management codes are building design trends that have been capturing the interest of designers, building owners, and occupants. VRAs provide an opportunity for universities to address all of these design goals into a highly functional element of the enclosure.

Serving as a giant sponge atop the building, VRAs include vegetation and substrates that can help contribute to the quality of urban air in many ways. The evaporation and transpiration processes that occur in vegetative roof assemblies can help counteract the urban heat island effect. Insulation designed into the assembly collects rainwater and helps navigate it through the building. Prominent VRAs atop buildings across the country serve as venues for concerts and public gathering spaces, providing occupiable space and attracting birds and wildlife to the urban environment. The U.S. Coast Guard headquarters near Washington D.C is built into a terraced landscape. Tucked into the hillside, the headquarters’ occupants have even seen the occasional deer wander onto the rooftop. In Fort Worth, Texas, the Dickies Arena plaza deck provides occupiable space for entertainment events, breathtaking views of the skyline, and even a look down into the rodeo venue.

Conclusion: From a higher education perspective, integrating these design trends into the university environment provides a practical real-world example of theory surrounding the transparency, efficiency, and sustainability concepts discussed in the academic setting.

Tiffany Coppock, AIA, NCARB, CSI, CDT, LEED AP, ASTM, RCI, EDAC is the Commercial Building Systems Specialist at Owens Corning. Tiffany resides in the Dallas Fort Worth area.

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