Ceramic for architectural envelopes | by Livio Salvadori
In recent years, the world of architecture has been devoting ever greater attention to the building envelope in terms of both its aesthetic qualities and technical performance. Consisting of technological units that interact as a system and create a functional boundary between the interior and exterior spaces of a building, the envelope performs a variety of essential tasks. It protects the building from atmospheric agents and determines its aesthetic image, it helps reduce energy consumption and optimises climatic and environmental comfort, and it creates a private space.
It is therefore extremely simplistic to limit the discussion of the building envelope to mere aesthetic considerations: all parts of the construction must contribute to architectural quality while meeting a range of sophisticated and complex needs.
Outstanding results can be achieved through an integrated, coherent and conscious design approach that covers aspects such as structure, architecture, functionality, plant engineering, energy and comfort, and selects available and proven construction components and solutions.
Building envelope systems that use ceramic cladding elements have long been considered a dependable solution in terms of their aesthetics, technological reliability and technical performance, as well as the environmental sustainability of the materials themselves.
From traditional vertical façade cladding with mortar or cementitious adhesive installation through to special applications on prefabricated infill panels, sunscreen systems and the latest dry-mounted ventilated façade technologies, ceramic has demonstrated an exceptional ability to meet the needs of the world of architecture and construction.
This is evidenced by the many leading architects who regularly use ceramic elements for the envelopes of their buildings.
Ventilated façades in particular are evolving continuously and have achieved high levels of technical performance in terms of safety and reliability coupled with exceptional architectural quality and energy savings. The development of advanced structural anchoring solutions with exposed or hidden fixing systems and the use of external claddings made of innovative ceramic materials such as porcelain stoneware (available in large-size slabs or panels up to 160x320 cm in size and corresponding submultiples), single fired tile and latest-generation extruded terracotta allow for the creation of ventilated façades and solar screening systems (fixed and mobile) with solutions tailored to meet specific design needs. The versatility of these materials makes them ideal for creating special accessories and façade finishing elements that further enhance the uniformity of the building envelope.
The widespread availability of large-size thin porcelain panels has likewise led to the development of external insulation systems in which ceramic panels are used to protect the insulating layers, a solution that has considerable functional and aesthetic benefits.
In terms of environmental degradation, it is also worth noting that all ceramic tiles are unaffected by smog and do not suffer damage even if they are installed in industrial or highly polluted urban areas. To further improve these functional characteristics in façade applications, some companies have developed specific anti-polluting, self-cleaning and antibacterial solutions that provide an effective counter to the effects of atmospheric contamination. These innovative qualities are based on a photocatalytic process similar to photosynthesis: the tiles contain bioactive substances which in the presence of sunlight react naturally with polluting agents present in the atmosphere, making them biodegradable. The photocatalysts present on the ceramic surface use light energy to trigger an accelerated oxidation process capable of decomposing toxic organic and inorganic substances and transforming them into harmless environmentally-friendly components that can be easily removed and washed away by rainwater.
Ceramic is therefore a highly advanced and innovative material capable of meeting the increasingly stringent demands placed on modern envelope systems in terms of architectural and technological quality and sustainability.