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Energy-Efficient Envelopes Sarofim building among recent projects using sophisticated strategies b y M a r k O b e r h o l z e r, A I A

Located at the edge of Houston’s Texas Medical Center, the Fayez S. Sarofim Research Building occupies a tight site between a transit center and Braeswood Bayou. The building design by BNIM Architects adopts a variety of high-performance wall system technologies that enhance the building’s energy efficiency while creating a subtle yet intriguing urban presence. Although the concept of the “high performance” envelope is not new, recent interest in sustainability and energy efficiency have led to increased study of the ways in which the building envelope contributes to the overall efficiency of a building. In general, a high-performance envelope is one that manages heat transfer, solar heat gain, and moisture control while effectively admitting natural light and modulating interior comfort.

The most energy efficient contemporary buildings begin with efficiency in mind at the very first stage of design. Overall building efficiency relies on many factors, including solar orientation, efficient massing, thoughtful mechanical systems, and a well-designed building envelope. The design of the Sarofim building deftly integrates a number of strategies starting with its basic layout—two long wings separated by an atrium space. The lab wing’s long side faces north, allowing lab spaces to be full of natural light yet avoiding glare. Similarly, the office wing faces south, avoiding eastern and western exposures. These long wings help shade the ground-floor outdoor space, which is cooled by prevailing breezes channeled through an outdoor passage that runs through the middle of the building. One of the challenges of energy-efficient design is balancing the best form for daylighting – long linear wings – with the best form for minimizing heat transfer, which relies on reducing the size of the exterior envelope. The Sarofim building addresses this challenge by introducing a large atrium between the two linear wings. In addition to housing circulation and assembly space, the atrium reduces the amount of exterior surface area of the building. The atrium space also contributes to the efficiency of the mechanical system. The central atrium is conditioned in part by the return air from the office wing. The office wing is maintained at a higher air pressure than the atrium, forcing the return air through elegant vents integrated into the office’s glazing system. High-Performance Wall Systems

Recent design innovations of cladding systems have incorporated technical advances that address energy efficiency, occupant comfort, and maintenance of the building’s skin. In the past, load-bearing walls served both as a building’s structure and enclosure. The structural function of exterior walls has been obviated by the steel and concrete frames that form the structure of almost all contemporary buildings. Most cladding systems – whether of glass, metal, or masonry – completely enclose the building and creates a positive seal that separates the inside and outside, thereby preventing moisture penetration

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photo by Richard Payne, FAIA

Integrating Efficiency in Design

The atrium is conditioned in part by the return air from the office wing, which contributes to the overall efficiency of the Sarofim Research Building’s mechanical system.

through the cladding. In the case of a glass and aluminum framed glazing system, this envelope is as thin as a “curtain” of glass over the building. The walls of the Sarofim Research Building illustrate how new ideas about this exterior layer are being applied. A large part of the exterior cladding of the building is made up of a clay tile rainscreen system. The clay tile units are attached to the building walls with stainless steel supports, but the joints are left open instead of being sealed. Leaving these joints open allows moisture and ambient air behind the outer layer of the wall, helping reduce the buildup of pressure on the outer layer of the wall. The outer layer forms a “rainscreen” while the inner surface of the wall forms the positive seal against moisture and infiltration. In contrast, a typical wall assembly relies on sealants to prevent wind-driven moisture from entering the wall. A rainscreen wall can be thought of as a cavity wall with open joints, or a wall that allows partial penetration of air and moisture into the assembly. If the space between the inner and outer layers of the wall is increased from a few inches to a few feet, then the wall is considered a “double skin” envelope. In Texas, the most recent building to utilize this technology is

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