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The Authenticity of Materials in Contemporary Architecture

Architectural materials used to be simple. Stone was stone, wood was wood, brick was brick. But as we have advanced construction technologies and increased standardization to maximize building efficiency while reducing costs and maintenance, the authenticity of these natural materials has been blurred. These days, many of the standard “natural” materials we use to clad our buildings are increasingly representative of the real thing. The question is, has this been a positive change or a negative one? Perhaps the most important thing for designers to know is when it is appropriate to use them and when it isn’t.

There can obviously be many benefits to using engineered materials such as reduced upfront or lifetime costs, reduced maintenance, and in some cases, better energy efficiency. Most faux and engineered wood products are especially known for being virtually maintenance free and more durable than real wood, making them perfect for use on larger commercial projects and those in extreme environments where real wood would require constant upkeep. The biggest disadvantage of these products is that they don’t feel like real wood or, in many cases, even look like real wood up close. For this reason, it is best to reserve the use of faux wood for parts of the building that the end user won’t come in direct contact with and will only see from a distance.

The quality of manufactured stone veneer and thin brick has drastically improved over the last decade or so and they are much lighter weight and easier to install than real stone or full depth/face brick, which drastically reduces structural and installation costs, especially given the steep decline of skilled masons. The lighter weight also means these materials can be used in applications they couldn’t before, such as floating above a large expanse of glass storefront.

Unfortunately, they still have their limitations. Special attention must be given to how these veneer materials wrap corners and terminate at openings and they cannot be installed below grade. They must be held 2-6” above the ground and walking surfaces to allow for proper moisture drainage and prevent damage to the veneer, which forces us to think about how to finish the wall/foundation below the veneer, especially in climates where foundation insulation is required. All these conditions can make or break a great project.

There are some fantastic (and some less so) faux and engineered materials on the market that, if used selectively and intelligently, can enhance architecture by offering greater durability and lower maintenance while providing substantial cost savings to clients. There are, however, some considerations to keep in mind when deciding where and when to use these materials. The truth is that there is no true substitute for authentic materials at the human scale. Imitation is still imitation and, if used in a condition that will be directly exposed to people’s senses, will always seem a little cheap. But if used in the right settings, around the periphery of the end users’ senses, these materials can bring great value and flexibility to contemporary architecture.


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