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How facade and building engineers are creating a greener future for our planet

The UK’s commercial construction and property sector is taking important strides towards building a greener future for Planet Earth, with a commitment to radically improve the energy performance of all buildings over the next two decades.

As a leader on the global stage for cutting carbon emissions, the UK has already committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions across the entire construction sector by 2050 through its Net Zero Strategy, a set of policies aimed at decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy by the target date.

With official data revealing the bleak fact that our global built environment is responsible for nearly 40% of all carbon emissions, decarbonising the construction sector is one of the most important environmental projects in the history of humankind.

Among the key players working hard to make Net Zero Strategy a reality are commercial facade manufacturers who have stepped up to the challenge by developing innovative facade solutions to help reduce carbon emissions.

New facade technologies available today

The UK’s commercial building sector has already experienced rapid progression in environmentalism since the introduction of the Environment Act 2021, an updated regulatory framework aimed at improving the efficiency of building projects by reducing the waste produced during construction. The Act also gives new powers to national authorities for regulating the recyclability and disposal of construction materials, ultimately helping the UK meet its net zero goals by 2050.

There’s also a growing trend towards the circular economy – a model of production which involves reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible.

Facade manufacturers are currently making waves across the construction industry with new energy-saving technologies and more durable materials aimed at reducing carbon emissions, both during manufacture and throughout the working life of a building facade. This is a particularly crucial element of the UK meeting its net zero goals considering that, according to data from DEFRA, demolition and excavation are responsible for more than half of the UK’s total waste output.

The largest and undoubtedly most significant change to facade technology is that it is becoming one of the most critical elements of a building’s energy conversation strategy. Far from a time when building facades were simply aesthetic skins on the outside of a building, today’s modern facades are intelligent technological systems designed to interact with the building and its surrounding environment.

Smart Glass facades

Smart Glass is a digitally controlled glass facade capable of reacting to hot weather by applying an opaque tint to the glass. This remarkable engineering achievement helps commercial buildings cut down on their air conditioning usage which, according to the Building Research Establishment, currently accounts for almost 10% of the UK’s total electricity consumption.

Studies show that Smart Glass can reduce energy consumption by up to 20% for a typical commercial building, increasing to 30% during peak demand.

As artificial intelligence continues to evolve into a practical technology for daily use, it’s entirely plausible that we’ll witness AI-powered glass facades which use advanced data analytics to predict when a weather event is going to occur weeks before it is due.

But even though Smart Glass technology is still very much in its infancy, some fabulous examples can be found in cities around the world including the East Wintergarden building in London and the Kempinski Hotel in Bahrain.

Responsive facades

Responsive facades like those found at Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi offer full control of the facade’s appearance using mechanically moveable panels fixed to the outside of the building. The design is akin to having a second facade, with the benefit of being able to change the appearance of the building and engage sunlight and shadows throughout the day.

Responsive facades provide an added level of control that simply cannot be achieved from a standard building facade, helping to mitigate the staggering 40% heat loss many commercial buildings suffer during the colder months as a result of inefficient facade design.

More recently, engineers have developed a new type of responsive smart facade which encompasses solar technology to capture the sun’s energy. Movable panels follow the sun automatically as it glides across the sky. In Zurich, facade engineers recently trialled a similar technology with surprisingly effective results; the facade generated around 50% more electricity compared with static rooftop solar panels.

Thermal insulating mortars

The development of new lightweight mortar additives is driving positive change in the construction sector by providing construction firms with new lightweight thermal insulating materials.

A material called silica aerogel, which was recently used by NASA for thermal insulation in its Mars Rover, is making its way into the construction sector. The material is made by extracting the liquid from silica gel and using it as an additive in mortar. Early findings show that silica aerogel improves the thermal conductivity of a building by up to 60% and reduces coating thickness from 3.4cm to 1.4cm for the same performance.

Other developments include the introduction of recycled mortar containing plastic waste which offers the same thermal efficiencies as standard facade materials without the hefty carbon footprint.

More recently, construction engineers have introduced something called vermiculite into facade design. Vermiculite is manufactured by heating the mineral vermiculite. When subjected to ultra-high temperatures it expands up to 30 times its initial volume to become a lightweight material that can be used in building and facade construction.

Retrofitting for older buildings

Modern and innovative facade technology such as ventilated curtain walls and Smart Glass may not be compatible with every structure, but progress is being made to retrofit new facade technologies to older buildings where possible.

Historic England, the UK’s public body for the preservation of historic structures, is currently conducting research with the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the feasibility of retrofitting new energy-saving technologies to historic buildings in order to forge a path towards a low-carbon future in the historic built environment.

This important research outlines several areas where improvements can be made by retrofitting, such as better thermal performance. The research says that a primary focus of retrofitting should be on reducing heat loss through the building fabric – for example walls, doors, windows, floors and roofs – thereby cutting energy use and CO2 emissions.

It’s critical to note however that any work on listed buildings probably requires preapproval from the relevant authorities, and in most cases will also require a professional assessment to ensure that the retrofit doesn’t have a significant impact on the heritage value of a site.

Saving the planet one facade at a time

With increased awareness of the environmental impact of buildings and the urgency of mitigating climate change, many companies are implementing new sustainability practices and technologies to reduce their carbon footprint.

Although opting for a brand-new state-of-the-art building facade might not be possible today, restorative cleaning can give your commercial building a new lease of life both visually and in terms of energy efficiency.

A report by the Building Research Establishment found that facade maintenance can dramatically reduce the incidences of unplanned repair and optimise whole life performance. In other words, facade restoration can enhance the safety, effectiveness and longevity of your commercial building and its facade.

See Brilliance has over 30 years’ experience in providing specialist facade restoration and cleaning services for commercial building owners and occupiers across the UK.

Learn more about our restoration methods, including DOFF Steam Cleaning, TORC Cleaning, commercial facade and cladding restoration and restorative cleaning.

Get in touch with our restoration specialists to discuss your historic restoration project.

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