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Selecting Resilient Exterior Materials

May 14th, 2024 | 7 min. read

Selecting Resilient Exterior Materials

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Owners have many factors to consider when selecting exterior materials for a new building. In addition to costs, aesthetics, and functionality, they should consider resiliency and the material’s ability to withstand different conditions. 

Resiliency’s definition varies depending on the context, but in the architectural world, it refers to a building’s ability to prevent damage and recover when damage occurs. Exterior materials are your building’s primary protection against the elements, and your choice can have lasting impacts on your operations and budget. 

At Neumann Monson, we discuss resiliency on every project and encourage owners to think about the long-term impact of their material choices. This article will prepare you for your project by discussing resiliency in greater detail and how it applies to exterior building materials. 

What Does Resilience Mean? 

Resiliency’s definition depends on the project and context. Generally, it refers to practices that prevent damage and help owners recover in unforeseen conditions. 

Natural disaster preparedness is one part of the equation. Some owners may have on-site renewable energy with backup batteries for operations to continue in a power outage. Others may plan utility redundancies to have a backup option during an emergency. When the worst occurs, the building can continue operating. 

Beyond natural disaster preparedness, resilient buildings are adaptable and flexible. They can fulfill different functions beyond their initial use. Design strategies like increasing column spans and decreasing floor plate spans allow for different configurations, increasing the building’s lifespan. 

Another way to think about resiliency is a building’s wider community and environmental impact. Practices like using local materials and adding features for public enjoyment can strengthen a community’s social and economic ties, making it more resilient to disasters and stressors. 

In other words, resilient architecture is more than preventing damage. It is the practice of improving the health and vitality of a region through thoughtful design decisions. 

What Makes a Resilient Exterior Material? 

Exterior materials play a crucial role in protecting a building and its occupants. A durable, low-maintenance, and sustainable choice can prevent damage, lower long-term costs, and make a positive net impact. 

1. Durability 

Durability is perhaps the most obvious trait of a resilient exterior material. A resilient choice will withstand different weather conditions and prevent damage during unideal situations. 

The right approach depends on your climate and the weather events you are likely to encounter, whether wildfires or hurricanes. In the Midwest, high winds and tornadoes are common issues in the spring and summer. Hardened materials like reinforced concrete and laminated glass can help prevent damage during these events.

Lone Tree Wellness Center at night

Pre-cast concrete, a hardened material, was used on Lone Tree Wellness Center

Other options include masonry with control joints to prevent cracking during expansion and contraction. For taller buildings and high-rise construction, materials like composite stone can provide durability while remaining lightweight. 

In general, you and your design team should consider worst-case scenarios. Resiliency means planning for all manner of occurrences, even unlikely ones.   

2. Low Maintenance 

A resilient material is also low maintenance. Materials should match the building type and function while reducing the need for upkeep. 

Generally, the best practice is to use natural materials local to your area and climate. Masonry, stone, wood cladding, and other options age naturally and develop a patina over time, reducing the need for replacements. Although these materials may have a higher initial cost, they can lower the long-term cost of ownership.

St. Luke the Evangelist Church with a limestone and Corten steel facade

Local limestone from Anamosa, Iowa was used at St. Luke the Evangelist. 

Similarly, consider how you will replace a material should an issue arise. Progressive cladding systems, for example, require you to remove surrounding panels to replace one. Maintaining these systems can be time-consuming and costly, posing challenges after storms or other damaging events. 

We also recommend avoiding systems with sealants and caulks, which degrade over time. For high-rise construction, these systems can be especially expensive and inconvenient. 

Additionally, consider where your building will experience the most wear. For example, it helps to put harder, durable materials at the bottom of a building, especially near entrances.

closeup of materials on the Beckwith Boathouse

More durable materials are placed near the bottom of Beckwith Boathouse

In addition to foot traffic, these areas can experience wear from snow and shoveling in colder climates. Planning for these issues during the design process will reduce the long-term costs of ownership while helping you maintain operations in less-than-ideal conditions.   

3. Sustainability 

Resiliency is also about minimizing environmental impacts and helping your community respond to daily stressors. 

For exterior materials, the most sustainable options are those produced locally. In addition to reducing the carbon emissions associated with transportation, local options keep money circulating in your community, improving its economic resiliency. 

Local materials can also help with maintenance. For example, if a portion of the building is damaged, you can get replacement parts more quickly than waiting for an overseas shipment. Local labor may also be more familiar with the product, easing maintenance. 

You should also consider how exterior materials will contribute to building performance. Specifying highly insulated materials can lower the building’s energy demand and help maintain internal temperatures during a power outage. 

Generally, energy codes specify a 60-40 ratio of solid to transparent walls. While solid walls are easier to insulate, glazing is necessary for light and views. Finding a balance between these materials can help your building lower its energy demand and maintain operations during unforeseen events. 

Learn More About Building Materials 

Exterior materials define a building’s identity and protect it from weather, moisture, and changing temperatures. Although there are many factors to consider when choosing exterior materials, resiliency should remain top of mind. 

A resilient exterior material should be durable and able to withstand less-than-ideal conditions, including natural disasters. It should also be easy to maintain and replace, especially after damage. 

At the same time, the choice should be sustainable, lowering the project’s carbon footprint. Preventing damage means preventing environmental damage as well. 

Beyond resiliency, owners should also consider a material’s visual identity, thermal performance, and cost. Learn more by reading about eight factors to consider when selecting exterior materials