What is it? What is it good for and why is it important in the discussion of sustainable architecture issues?
Even with little or no knowledge of Architecture, many of us know what we mean when we refer to the facades of a building. In their simplest expression these are the faces that the building presents to the public eye.
In historic areas like Old San Juan, buildings are normally separated by a party wall leaving no side yards. No front setbacks are required, affecting the urban perception of the street as a whole. The difference between one building and the next is accomplished by the surface treatment and particular design in each of them. Having just one public face, we refer to these buildings as “Painting Buildings” (like in a work of art hanging on a wall). This particular condition is common among residential and commercial structures in many historic city centers in Europe and cities like Old San Juan, Puerto Rico where the Spanish influence is evident in its colonial architecture.
On the other hand we have “Sculpture Buildings” where all their faces are exposed to the public view. These “Sculpture Buildings” are normally destined to Institutional, Government, Public and Religious uses. These are given more prominence in the urban fabric of the city and as such can be seen from different points of view, showing various public faces or facades.
Facades are characterized by their urban prominence and placing in the building. The most important, elaborate and articulate facades are the ones where you normally find the building entrance. Facades respond to multiple criteria. Climatic aspects related to the sun, wind, rains, surrounding vegetation, prevailing breezes, topography and material considerations are the easiest ones to identify within the sustainability discourse.
Building type and context are also taken into account as they relate to the surrounding environment. Design, construction and budget constraints along with desired project image are additional considerations, among others. It will be clear and easy to understand why an office-‐building facade has a design vocabulary substantially different from a hospital or a church.
Recent research and development technologies are being applied to the design of roofs in buildings. Historically speaking this has been the most neglected façade of our buildings. Until very recently, roofs were essentially remnant spaces where air conditioning equipment, emergency generators, TV antennae, and water tanks were located in an almost random fashion.
Roofs have acquired significant additional importance when it comes to sustainability. It is in this neglected façade where important design strategies, that affect their use in a fundamental way, can be developed. This Façade to the Sky is arguably the most important one when considering the many sustainable possibilities that it inherently has. It is here where we can develop green roofs to mitigate solar heat gains, bring wildlife into the city, reduce and control storm water runoff, practice urban agriculture, have nice water ponds for our contemplation or for growing edible fish, wooden decks to enjoy the sun, or the possibility to indulge under the shade of a strategically located gazebo. We can also implement rainwater harvesting and generate electric energy through the use of photovoltaic systems making possible buildings, with water and energy independence. Communications hubs and receptors, solar water heaters, storage areas, fire escape routes and other supplementary structures are some of the many possibilities that we have not yet fully explored, of the Façade to the Sky.
In yesteryears, when you requested directions to a place, you would have been referred to a map, or alternatively given a rough freehand (abstract) one line diagram showing you: streets, traffic lights and other reference points in the environment to act as directional cues to get to that place. If you request directions to a place nowadays, you will most probably get an email with a Google Map image showing in detail the Façade to the Sky of your destination and the surrounding environment making it easier to identify and relate to your environment in a more coherent way.
Roofs are the new important sustainability façades that we need to research and develop in order to design a viable sustainable building. If you take all the roof structures and think of them as a network of different facades, their importance becomes more apparent, with synergistic possibilities for “that second level” of the built environment.
Roofs, our Façades to the Sky, are a rediscovered component to be employed in the sustainable design of our buildings, communities, cities and other human-‐made environments.
The author is a practicing architect and regarded as the Father of the Green Building Movement in Puerto Rico. His office is located in a 200 year-‐old building in the historic district of San Juan. He is the founding past president of the Caribbean Chapter of the US Green Building Council.