Exterior Decorating

board formed concreteAre you designing for the function and performance of the building, or just doing some exterior decorating?

Funny things can happen early in design on a project, when an architect or interior designer makes color boards for the owner to make selections from, or to present to a municipality, or some other entity with authority, for approval.

It’s natural for interior construction products to be selected on the basis of color and appearance – color may be the driver that leads a designer to select the product, manufacturer, finish, and size. Performance is often not a big factor in the choice of interior finishes. For example, a specific color is desired for a conference room wet bar backsplash, to coordinate with a company’s logo colors. The material could be natural stone or metal or ceramic tile or epoxy paint… and then the perfect color is found in a ceramic tile. So that tile gets specified.

However, the performance and function of exterior materials is much more important than their colors. Appearance is important, of course, but the primary function of the walls and roof of a building is to keep water, snow, hot air, and cold air out of the building. Performance should be a primary factor in the choice of exterior materials. But sometimes the exterior components of a building get selected based nearly solely on color, too. Once in a while, by mistake, early in a project, exterior material design decisions are made without even an understanding of the way these materials will be attached to, or constructed as part of, the building. Then they get presented to the owner or authorities having jurisdiction, and it’s not until later that the team realizes the selected exterior materials won’t work.

I know this happens, because as a specifier, I’ve had some interesting experiences writing specifications based on the information I’ve been given by the architect for different exterior construction products, including fiber cement cladding, aluminum composite material panels, and aluminum windows. Sometimes, for these and other building envelope products, I’ve just been given the manufacturer’s name and the color – but not a product name. I’ve worked backwards from the color finish, and have narrowed my options down to the only product by that manufacturer that comes in that finish, and, viola, I have the product. Usually this is fine, but several times, I’ve ended up specifying a product that is nothing like what the architect thought it was. What happened was the architect selected the finish from the manufacturer’s available finishes, but didn’t check to make sure that the selected finish was available on a product that would work for the application. Then the team figured out later, after more detailed drawings had been developed, that that was not at all what was envisioned.

Few people pick a car to buy based solely on the colors available from a particular dealer or maker. Most people pick the general type of car model they want, maybe compare some different makes and models for performance, safety, and price, and then look at available colors last. Most buildings are meant to last longer than most cars – they certainly shouldn’t be designed with color foremost in mind. Performance and function of exterior materials need to be foremost in the mind of the designer of a building. Color selection should come after that.

There was probably little room for design-team-confusion during the design and specification of the board-formed concrete wall in the photo above. However, most of our exterior construction products do not include their own structure, air/vapor/water barrier, and finish, all in one material, the way this concrete wall does. All of these functions need to be considered when selecting exterior materials. If the exterior finish can’t stand up without backup structure or substrate, but you’re just thinking about finish, you’re just decorating.

If you, the architect, are not designing for the function and performance of the building’s exterior materials, who do you think will do that, and when? This design work should be done by someone on the architect’s team, and should be done in conjunction with, if not before, exterior finish material selection.


I should mention that I did not coin the phrase “exterior decorating” myself. It’s a good one that I like to borrow.

6 thoughts on “Exterior Decorating

  1. Great blog Liz. We have been using that term internally for years. It’s unfortunate that too much of the industry has put traditional architecture in a back seat to purely esthetic design. Even worse is the comment that the contractor will figure it out. Those architects are no longer our clients…

    • Thanks, Tom.
      It is one thing to understand your scope of work, and to accept that you don’t know everything you need to know in order to execute your scope of work – and to know that you need to pull someone else onto your team. It’s a different thing to deny that part of your scope of work is part of your scope of work! The contractor shouldn’t be designing the building.

  2. I would be interested in how the concrete wall meets the continuous insulation code and also provides thermal mass where it is needed. I am seeing a lot of Macaroni Grille and Stucco-muffin anti-architecture as of late. Is this being caused by the new code?

    • Hi, Niccolo, most projects with concrete walls as the exterior finish that I’ve worked on have rigid foam insulation on the interior, with gypsum board over it. A number of the projects I’ve worked on meet the requirements of the energy code by using the performance path rather than the prescriptive path, and don’t include continuous insulation. If you want to take advantage of the thermal mass that a concrete wall offers, insulation does interfere with that – but maybe using the performance path, and an energy model, could let you do it.
      I didn’t work on the project that incorporates the photo (Tommy’s, on Colfax). It’s just a good example of an assembly I could have started writing specs for without having to beg the architect for a wall section drawing.

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