Being the one major element to create that first impression of a building and make it recognisable, a building’s facade is a crucial part of the building design.
And since it is such an important part of a building’s iconic status, it is often made from highly visible materials such as steel, glass or aluminium. However, Paragon director, Henning Rasmuss, points out that many different materials can be used for this purpose.
“As long as you understand the module, performance and pattern potential of a material, one can use many things, from dry-pack stone to slate, bricks, plaster and paint in different textures, natural blue stone from Nairobi, rammed earth, rusted steel, resin castings, fibreglass, found objects and recycled panels and blocks,” he states.
According to Rasmuss, hand-made elements and facade components are ideal for the African market, where employment and skills levels are important factors to take into account.
“We as architects can design anything together with our clients and partner consultants, but local economies are often limited in terms of building skills. In the end, the vast majority of work on building sites in Africa is carried out by workers with low skills levels, and sometimes extremely low wages. This mitigates against the achievement, or some design and quality ambitions,” he says.
“At the same time, we need to consider work creation on our projects. Hence, we are sometimes very interested in hand-made elements and facade components that can be ‘man-handled’ and carried and fixed by hand.”
Bridging skills and language gaps
Even though hand-made elements can simplify construction, sophisticated documentation is valuable in precisely defining what needs to be made, how patterns are formed and controlled, and what the three-dimensional product will look like.
“In the end, the interface between architect and contractor is about communication,” stresses Rasmuss. “Modern software applications are only more modern tools that perform an ancient task: They transmit intention between inventor and maker. And they help us to bridge the skills gap, and sometimes the language gap.”
While often associated with the handcrafted components, incorporating recycled materials into facade design is still an emerging industry. Paragon includes recycled materials where possible for interior applications such as acoustic panels made from recycled PET bottles. Rasmuss explains that due to the extremely high ultraviolet (UV) impact in Johannesburg, for example, there are some concerns about the longevity of recycled materials in that environment.
While it seems contrary to refer to handcrafted building components in the age of Building Information Modelling (BIM), Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), Rasmuss sees this as a great opportunity to work in both worlds.
Paragon Group is currently partnering with an industrial engineer who is looking to prototype 3D-printed, water-harvesting panels on the facades of buildings designed for local clients in South Africa.
Some ten years ago, Paragon Group has 3D-scanned a hand-carved wooden panel, and turned it into a mould for a high-performance lightweight resin panel with pewter powder added to the mix. The result was a highly crafted, almost woven-looking facade panel with a dull, luxurious metallic sheen. This panel was installed on the CDH Head Office in Sandton.
“We still engage on this terrain, and we experiment with precast and moulded elements on an ongoing basis,” says Rasmuss. “There are great minds in Johannesburg which you can access. And the better clients are reasonably risk-friendly.”
“However, while architects can obsess about facades, it’s the life of people inside buildings and their wellness that matter the most. It’s in the impact on cities and citizens outside of the buildings where facades matter. Facades are only one important factor in good building design,” he concludes.
Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to Paragon’s Henning Rasmuss for the insights he shared.