New Trends in Metal Architecture

By Paul Deffenbaugh We live in a built environment that is varied and diverse, but increasingly, metal architecture is becoming more prevalent and influential. Chalk it up to modern, contemporary or post-contemporary aesthetics, but a significant portion of our architecture now is either substantially metal or heavily accented with metal. Will this trend continue? What… Continue reading New Trends in Metal Architecture
By Paul Deffenbaugh

We live in a built environment that is varied and diverse, but increasingly, metal architecture is becoming more prevalent and influential. Chalk it up to modern, contemporary or post-contemporary aesthetics, but a significant portion of our architecture now is either substantially metal or heavily accented with metal. Will this trend continue? What will change about the use of metal as we go forward? We talked with several architects who have been involved with Metal Architecture, and asked them what they are seeing in the world around them.


On the rise


For the most part, our group of architects said the use of metal, both as main material and accent material, was increasing. “With the bigger buildings we’re working on now,” says Mark Dewalt, AIA, principal at Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, Chicago, “the two materials we use are exterior glass and metal. We haven’t done a brick building in a long time. It’s kind of the nature of our work.”

Eli Broad Museum
Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid in association with Integrated Design Solutions, Troy, Mich., the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University is on the cutting edge of architecture and the use of metal. Its folded fins and textured surfaces show the versatility and depth of metal as a material. Only metal could be used to achieve this aesthetic.

“Metal as a cladding product is definitely on the rise,” adds Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, LEED AP, a partner in the Milwaukee-based firm Johnsen Schmaling Architects. “Both for interior and exterior applications, I think the biggest driver of the rise of metal is its versatility and the ease to custom fabricate it. Unlike any other material, metal can be folded, stamped, perforated, etched and coated in almost unlimited ways.”

Jeff Kershaw, associate at Orcutt|Winslow, Phoenix, draws the focus more to the increase in the variety of uses of metal. “I wouldn’t say that the use of metal is increasing; rather it is being used in increasingly creative ways. Likewise the use of metal in buildings, both on the interior and the exterior is more a staple than a trend. We are seeing more and more custom-fabricated metal.”

Integrated Design Solutions (IDS), Troy, Mich., does a significant amount of its work in higher education, where the traditional college campus aesthetics speaks more to red brick than bright metal. Still, associate architect Kevin Marshall, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, says, “Traditionally, we have been using metal more in a functional nature, and we are now getting more into the aesthetics of metal. It’s mostly increased on the exterior as a cladding material but we are also using it on the interior to express the architecture and the connection between interior and exterior.”


Color and versatility


Many building materials gain wider acceptance because of their performance. While metal has a good story to tell on the performance side, which we’ll discuss later, much of what’s driving this increase in metal is aesthetics: it’s ability to define a building.

Godfrey Hotel
The recently completed Godfrey Hotel in Chicago, designed by Chicago-based Valerio Dewalt Train Associates showcases how the light weight and versatility of metal lends it to breaking out of the traditional orthogonal box. Building planes are punctured by other planes and cantilevered sections seem to float.

Dewalt talks about how metal’s versatility alters its role in a building. “You can make some pretty bold moves in the juxtaposition of the planes. We can create a surface out of fractals.” His firm recently completed the Godfrey Hotel, Chicago, which breaks the plane of the building, and the lightweight aspect of metal panels allow that to be done more efficiently. It’s not the kind of design that can be done with brick. In no small part, the cost efficiency of metal makes this kind of design possible.

While the use of the material affects the shape of the building, it is the use of color that seems to be a rising trend. Dewalt has been on the jury for the Metal Architecture Design Awards and says, “Some of the stuff we’re seeing is very Mondrianesque. Architects are combining colors. The wall is no longer just a big silver wall.”

He also points out that the metal colors are becoming more “specular or metallic,” at the same time we’re beginning to see more earthy colors, which seem to emphasize the versatility of the metal.

Kershaw, based in Phoenix, is certainly more apt to see earthy colors. “The use of weathered or rusted metal has been on the rise for awhile here in the desert region,” he says. “And I don’t see that trend tapering off anytime soon.”

It almost feels as the variety of color in metal is unlimited. Schmaling says, “I don’t see a particular trend, but the diversity with which metal is used in contemporary architecture is stunning. I think it is exactly this level of diversity that makes the material an interesting and appropriate choice for an equally diverse body of architecture-residential, commercial and institutional.”

Complementing the use of colors is the increasing use of textures, whether it is stamped on the metal or the use of perforated or expanded metals. The textures create colors through the reflections or sunlight, streetlight and even moonlight. The Michigan State University Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum was designed by London-based Zaha Hadid Architects and done in association with IDS. It stands as a stark outlier to the typical higher education building. The folded fins on the exterior façade demonstrate the versatility of the metal material, but the texturing of the surface also captures and reflects different lights and creates an everchanging read of the building depending on the time of day and weather.

Marshall speaks to the both the coloring and texturing of metal. “We’re becoming a little less afraid of color,” he says. “We want to make sure it isn’t going to date itself by becoming the avocado refrigerator from the 1970s.” Given the constraints of higher education aesthetic, Marshall says, “We haven’t done a lot with textures other than accent materials, partially because we’re trying to maximize the yield out of a piece of metal. If you have a directional pattern in it, suddenly you’re limited what you can do with joint patterns.” He explains that the textures in many metals are directional and that if you need to rotate a panel 180 degrees, that can substantially change the look of the building or the way the light reflects of the panel. “Sometimes that looks like a mistake and sometimes it’s exactly what you want,” Marshall says.

But the texture and color of metal can provide a surface richness that has unique versatility. IDS is completing shop drawings on blackened stainless steel wall panels for the atrium of the Michigan State bioengineering building. The wall penetrates the curtainwall and moves from the outside to the inside. “We like the black and the stainless has a surface richness to it,” Mashall adds. The ability to penetrate the exterior seems to be a particularly effective use of metal.


Performance and sustainability


Metal building products are seen as very modern materials and, as such, they should perform like a modern material. All the architects we spoke with pointed to two main characteristics of metal that affect its performance: recyclability and weight.

Juniper Network Ceiling
Even on interior uses, metal is trending upward. The perforated ceiling, designed by Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, for Juniper Networks, Bridgewater, N.J., is a premium ceiling material, but it allowed for the use of inexpensive light fixtures, which offset the increased costs.

“I think the biggest advantage of metal is its recyclability,” says Schmaling. “And the fact that many products and types of metals are available with a high recycled content. It’s easy to make the case for the use of metal with a client when it’s possible to point out not only the material’s aesthetic advantages but also its positive environmental footprint.”

Dewalt says it slightly differently. “We’re turning trash into a building skin. Look at major construction sites and you’ll see piles of rebar, metal and ductwork that are going to be turned into something else.”

The weight of metal has two significant impacts. Its lightness reduces transportation costs compared to brick or concrete and it allows for building bigger buildings. “As cities become denser and real estate more expensive we’re going to have to build taller buildings,” says Dewalt. “It’s not just the cladding, but metal decks and steel beams. Tension cables. They all come in to make the building lighter with less mass. So we can make it taller.”

In addition to weight and recyclability, metal can play a part in energy consumption in spite of its relatively poorer performance as a heat conducer. In the desert Southwest, metal screen walls have become popular, according to Kershaw. “Metal panels, usually with various perforations, are fabricated as a well in front of glass curtainwalls. This allows for shading while maintaining views. Additionally, this allows the building to meet current energy codes with large expanses of glazing.”


Influences in design


If the use of metal in design is driven as much by aesthetic as performance, as seems to be the case, we should be able to point out to major influences and drivers of the trend. Of course, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry has been a major influence and is cited by Dewalt as an important driver. But he also notes the building is nearing 20 years old and its influence may not be as significant as it was earlier.

Schmaling says, “A seminal project that opened our eyes to the vast possibilities embedded in the use of metal was Herzog and deMeuron’s de Young Museum in San Francisco.”

Those projects and probably dozens of others- including the Broad Museum at Michigan State- will always be influential in driving design and the use of metal.

But there is another influential driver of the use of metal that is particularly unique to this material: computer-aided design

Dewalt points out that CAD is important not just at the design stage where it gives architects the tools to create designs with wildly curved shapes and “geometry that has been freed from the relentlessness of the orthogonal layout.” But it is now used during shop drawings, allowing facades to be fabricated in specific details that allow them to be put together like jigsaw puzzles. That complexity of design and construction has never been available before. Metal’s characteristics of flexibility, light weight and versatility make it an ideal material for CAD designs.

Marshall adds, “The use of computer design to warp and twist and perforate will give metal greater longevity.”

The future for metal is unwritten and may be altered by unforeseen building materials and techniques. What will happen, for example, with carbon fiber and 3-D printers? Still, the role of metal in our built environment will trend upward not necessarily for any specific design aesthetic but because of its versatility. It can work in any design aesthetic.