James Timberlake to US AEC Industry: Bring Facade Manufacturing Home

KieranTimberlake's Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion, James A. Michener Art Museum. (Michael Moran/OTTO)

KieranTimberlake’s Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion, James A. Michener Art Museum. (Michael Moran/OTTO)

KieranTimberlake has long pushed the boundaries of conventional facade design. The Philadelphia-based firm started using pressure-equalized rain screen systems in the 1980s, well before other architects brought the technology on board. Their Melvin J. and Claire Levine Hall, at the University of Pennsylvania (2003), was the first actively ventilated curtain wall in North America. The designers at KieranTimberlake have introduced new materials and assemblies, such as the SmartWrap building skin deployed at Cellophane House, part of MoMA’s Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling exhibit. One of the firm’s latest projects, the Embassy of the United States, London, incorporates an outer envelope of three-dimensional ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) panels with integrated photovoltaic cells.

Melvin J. and Claire Levine Hall, University of Pennsylvania. (Michael Moran/OTTO)

Melvin J. and Claire Levine Hall, University of Pennsylvania. (Michael Moran/OTTO)

Thus founding partner James Timberlake speaks from experience when he calls out the American AEC industry for a lack of attention to high-performance building envelopes. “We see performance—not only of the building, put particularly the facade—as being a critical element of architecture, and of the long-term sustainability of not only architecture but building in general,” said Timberlake. “We think that architects, manufacturers, and contractors need to be thinking innovatively in that way as they help build the future of not only North America, but China and Europe as well.”

For Timberlake, who will deliver the keynote address at next month’s facades+ Chicago conference, the missing link is production. “I think the United States and North American market has abrogated its duty to produce high-performance, sustainable, and affordable facade choices over the last four decades,” he said. “The last time we produced anything that was innovative was in the late 1960s. Since then, all of that production went to Asia and Europe. I think it’s now time to make that stuff here.”

Moving facade manufacturing back to the United States would benefit manufacturers and designers as well as the economy in general, says Timberlake. “The President of the United States has, in the last few weeks, put out a clarion call for manufacturing to return to the USA rather than offshoring. I think we can be competitive; I think we should be producing innovative wall strategies here,” he said, noting the potential impact on unemployment. “There have always been [American] companies that have been innovative with bespoke strategies, but at this point they are considered niche constructors. In the long term we would like to see those niche manufacturers expand their market reach to be the distributors for some of these other types of facade strategies, or even return to producing the kinds of curtain walls that made the Lever House and Mies van der Rohe’s buildings in Chicago, and made the gleaming skyscrapers of LA.” Architects, said Timberlake, would benefit from greater integration and lower labor and shipping costs were facade manufacture to relocate from abroad.

The key to reintegrating facade manufacture and production, argued Timberlake, is demonstrating the existence of a market for cutting-edge envelopes. “They need to see that the design and engineering capability is here in the United States,” he said. “Three-dimensional design used to be the purview of Europe and Asia, but over the last five to ten years American architects and engineers have become quite capable of working three dimensionally. We’re turning out three dimensional designs and engineering solutions that are unique and innovative in terms of their technology, and also are affordable solutions and quite sustainable.” As proof that it can be done, Timberlake points to auto companies, including Volkswagen and Tesla, that have recently set up production centers in the United States. “I don’t see curtain walls and facades any different from that,” he said. “There’s a robust labor market ripe for that to be rolled out here.”

Timberlake admitted that his concern with the building-products supply chain might strike some as unusual. “What architect thinks about that? We do,” he said, referencing KieranTimberlake’s history of integrating design and research. “We see economy as a part of design; design incorporates economy. You have to think about the market, sustainability, affordability, production, and manufacture. You have to think about how good it looks, and you have to think about whether you can get it to the marketplace.”

Cellophane House. (Peter Aaron/OTTO)

Cellophane House. (Peter Aaron/OTTO)

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