The Middle East's cladding sector is undergoing an evolution

Technology and material selection are playing significant roles in the Middle East’s cladding sector, experts tell Construction Week


Technology adoption has accelerated over the past couple of years, with every industry starting to digitise in one way or another.

The construction sector, however, has proven to be more resistant than most towards this shift to smarter solutions, and slower in its acceptance of digital approaches to designing and building projects.

Cladding dictates how a building appears and how it forms part of an overall urban environment, so the right choice of materials and an appropriate design are the deciding factors in whether it is ultimately fit for purpose, say design and build professionals.

Thermal, acoustic, and fire resistance requirements are vital factors to take into account, from concept design through to maintenance, and the more ambitious the project, the greater the need for attention to detail, says Avinash Kumar, associate partner at Dubai-based architecture firm Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ).

“While the aesthetics of a building’s façade are important, cladding also has a vital role to play in improving efficiency.

“Currently, wall cladding is primarily made from wood, concrete, aluminium, or glass, and photovoltaic (PV) cells with aluminium are currently the most common type of cladding. This is normally comprised of an outer layer of aluminium sheet followed by insulation boards,” he explains.

“External thermal insulation composite systems (ETICS) or external insulation finishing systems (EIFS)have [historically] been the most effective type of cladding. They use an insulation board that can be cut and shaped into any form. This envelops the building, eliminating any heat bridging.”
Techniques are evolving throughout the industry, however, according to Kumar.

“Some of the newly introduced cladding systems are made from terracotta, concrete fibre boards, and single-component metal cladding panels,” he says.

“Single-component metal cladding systems are more user-friendly and don’t contain any composite material, making them non-combustible. The UAE market has seen a change in Dubai Civil Defence norms, which have banned all composite metal panels that have combustible cores.”

He continues: “In the past decade, architects in Dubai have been experimenting with different materials, and we have seen a few new types of cladding materials, such as perforated screens, wood plastic composite (WPC) panels, and timber panels, being used in low-rise built forms. We are also starting to see an increase in the use of mineral fibre panels replacing the old, traditional metal panels.”

Steve Daniels, built environment leader for the Middle East at Aurecon, agrees that innovations are taking place throughout the field of exteriors. “The world of façade engineering is going through an exciting evolution. Curious architects and developers ask what’s possible, and we now have the technology to make almost anything possible, really.”

He adds: “At Aurecon, we use virtual reality to demonstrate to our clients a 3D visual mock-up early in the design process. In this way, architects, suppliers, and owners can examine the different combinations of glass, system colours, and sizes – and their associated costs – without going through the time-consuming and costly process of a physical mock-up.”

According to engineering consultant Ramboll, the extent of the innovations within the field of cladding are wide-spread, but they are “only being reflected incrementally on most projects”.

“We are seeing exciting innovations in construction, such as robotic construction, 3D printing, the use of adaptive or responsive systems, alternate materials such as composites, and further adoption of modular construction,” the company says.

“Innovations in design include the adoption of parametric design, more precise simulation models, and complex geometries. However, on the majority of projects the innovations may be incremental or quite hidden, for instance through the use of nano-coatings, more sustainable materials, recyclable materials, better performing insulation, self-healing materials, and so on.”

Among the global innovations are ceramic tiles that help to scrub the air clean of vehicle emissions, which are currently being developed for transport hubs, as well as water-sensitive materials that seal themselves in the event of rain and allow air to circulate during dry weather.

These are among the “smart cladding” solutions that Kumar says are set to become an increasingly important part of building construction.

“Looking ahead, one area that is going to grow is smart façades – implementing strategies to manage and reduce radiant and convective heat loads outside the building before they can reach the interior,” he explains.

Daniels emphasises the importance of the role that  exteriors can play in the success of any construction project. He also warns, however, that experience of design and implementation is vital throughout the project.

“A façade is one of the key influencers that determine the value, commercial success, and project risk of a building, but it is also one of the most common sources of building failure. Few people realise how complex a façade system can be,” he says.

“In a typical 30-storey building, for example, there will be approximately 18,000m2 of façade. This will consist of approximately 3,000 panels, with each panel having approximately 300 parts constructed from various materials. This adds up to nearly a million parts, so it is no wonder that things can go wrong if proper controls are not in place.”

Daniels continues: “Some of the conditions that a façade needs to accommodate include wind speeds that can go above 100km per hour; temperature differences, and associated thermal expansion of up to 80°C; plus rain, humidity, mold, and even seismic activity and lightning.

“Besides being designed for all of these external conditions, a façade on a tall building also needs to [...] look good. In short, it is a complex machine and should not be trusted to inexperience,” he says.

Speaking from a design perspective, architect Salim Hussein of Atkins says: “Cladding is a critical part of the building and plays a functional role as well as an aesthetic one.

“Cladding is arguably the key component in conveying the identity of a building – not only the identity of the designer, but also that of the client. As such, it is a critical design decision that every architect faces.”

Hussein adds: “As buildings become more adventurous in their designs, as sustainability becomes an accepted standard in all buildings, and as manufacturing processes such as 3D printing become more commonplace, the opportunities to excite and delight viewers are becoming ever-more expansive for architects.”

Daniels concludes that a balance needs to be reached between aesthetics and efficiency. The age-old issue of form versus function still applies, he says. “There is no point in designing something beautiful if it does not meet its intended purpose. In the case of a façade, this is to maintain a desired internal environment.

“The façade provides part of a buildings unique identity or personality; it must allow a building to blend in with, or in some cases stand out from, its surroundings. But it must also work,” he explains. “There is no reason why, with carefully integrated and well thought-out design, manufacture, and installation, a façade cannot look incredible and also perform well.”

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