A Wave of Metal Design Trends

One of the great pleasures in directing this magazine and its sister publication, Metal Architecture, is getting to sit in on the judging panels for design awards. At Modern Trade Communications, we manage three design award programs every year: the MCN Building and Roofing Awards (see here), the MA Design Awards and the Metal Construction Association’s Chairman’s Awards. That means, every year I get to sit with three judging panels and listen as they discuss the merits and qualities of some of the most exciting architectural designs in the world.

New trends in metal construction design

By Paul Deffenbaugh

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I can’t tell you how much I learn in each of those sessions, and how exciting it is to hear the judges evaluate the projects. Often there is disagreement about the work. We all come to the table with our own aesthetics and biases. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for the same project to get recognized in all three awards programs and have its virtues extolled by all the judges. It’s also not unusual to see that same project appear in other awards programs, such as those run by the AIA or through other associations.

What that tells me is that there is surprising consistency within the architecture community about what constitutes good design. The type of design may change over the years, but within a period of time, there is consistency.

Over the last couple of years, we have identified a handful of design trends in the metal construction industry. They may pertain to the use of other kinds of construction material, such as concrete or wood, but we don’t see a lot of those projects, so I’m hesitant to suggest that these trends fit a wider shift across all of the architecture community, although it would be surprising if they didn’t. After all, the architecture community doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and one firm likely is using all the materials and palettes available to serve its clients, not just metal.

Here then, are the trends we see:

Perforated Inside and Out: The increase in the use of perforated metal materials both for exterior and interior applications is overwhelming. To my mind, the trend began in the southwest where designers relied heavily on perforated panels to provide shading against the harsh sun, but others quickly picked up on it as a way to manage more sophisticated daylighting schemes. To allow in light, provide views, to reduce solar gain and—not unimportantly—bring new design touches to old schemes.

Inside the buildings, we’re seeing perforated panels used to expose MEP systems and open up the interior. They are also being widely used to create patterns such as logos or even images that are subtly emblazoned on walls.

Bright, Bright Colors: Look through our magazines or across our websites, and you will see buildings—often educational—that make statements with bright, bold colors. In these instances, designers are using smooth metal panels and letting color do the talking without playing with texture such as ribbed panels or perforations. Architects are specifying combinations of colors, splashing them across large façades and adding intersecting colors to the heavily adopted practice of designing with intersecting planes. On a personal note, I worry that these color selections will become dated and these buildings could soon fall out of fashion.

Cantilevered Planes: This trend seems to be in partner with the perforation trend. We are seeing designers use large, projecting planes—roofs or floor—that cantilever away from the building. Usually they provide outdoor spaces that feel secluded and shaded, breaking the barrier between the inside and outside of the building. The cantilevered elements form outdoor rooms. In addition, we see large, cantilevered panels or scrims that project from façades to provide shading.

Customized Off the Shelf: There’s no question that designers are pushing the boundaries of design. Even the most mundane box store has elements that would have been difficult to execute in the past but are now expected. In the metal building system category, the increase in customization is especially true. Pre-engineered metal buildings account for approximately half of all one- and two-story buildings constructed in the United States, according to the Metal Building Manufacturers Association, which shows how effective and efficient these building types are.

Increasingly, though, architects are specifying them and then asking for greater customization. They want the cost effectiveness but with higher design concept. That places greater burdens on the building manufacturer and erector to deliver on those customizations, but the result is a built environment that is more dynamic, sophisticated and enjoyable.

Fabricators and Installers Are Kings and Queens: If increased customization is true in the metal building system category, it is running wild and rampant through the metal wall fabrication and installation arena. Fabricators and installers increasingly are asked to make and install wall systems that do everything you can do with a piece of paper. It’s an origami test. A violation of the “don’t bend, fold or mutilate” admonition of building science.

Because of that, fabricators and installers have taken on greater importance in the building team. Designers work more closely with fabricators to be able to deliver on their vision; fabricators and installers need to push their own limits to be able to execute a vision that is unique and—often—never been done before. Every project is custom. That makes the stakes higher because every project also has to perform from a simple building science perspective but also from a health and safety perspective. Given those stakes, fabricators and installers are becoming linchpins in the construction team.