Naked Design

Naked Design

Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh.
Courtesy PNC

My studio partner, Hao Ko, keeps a Mark Twain quote on his desk: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I’ve often thought of facade design as a corollary to fashion design. Quality materials are stitched together, guided by thoughtful design and minimal flourishes. Clothing must be functional, comfortable, and look good. Fashion, like architecture, must constrain itself to the limits of the human body, and for both, it’s all about the details.

As with fashion, new styles and considerations emerge in facade design. Conventional wisdom long held that facades account for a third of the energy demand of a building, with another third from people, and a final third from lighting and equipment. But in the last five years, while occupant density has increased, loads from equipment and lighting have dramatically reduced. The facade now impacts a greater proportion of the energy demand of a building and plays a larger role than ever in human comfort.

Ben Tranel.
Courtesy Gensler

Unfortunately, facades, like fashion, are too often considered for exterior appearance only. And while aesthetics are important, there is more to creating value than simply holding a runway fashion show of options for what the building can look like from the outside.

It is time for new design thinking, inspired by the most exceptional examples of building facades around the world, that give consideration to both user experience and elegant design, achieving a whole that is greater than a series of compromises between performance and aesthetics. In a world where tenant attraction is top of mind for owners and developers, a building that offers enhanced comfort through individual control of temperature and lighting, access to the outdoors, and a beautiful aesthetic will create real and lasting value for its owner and users.


The recently completed Tower at PNC Plaza is designed with operable facades to provide people the opportunity to feel connected to the outdoors, and literally feel a breath of fresh air by simply opening a window. This old-fashioned idea is finding new traction in the simple fact that when people have a degree of control of their environment, they are both happier and more comfortable while saving energy, because a user-operable facade allows for wider variances in the temperature of the space, reducing both first cost and operating costs.

To meet the 2030 challenge, California and other jurisdictions are implementing ever-more-stringent energy codes that are driving new technologies and a reconsideration of the all-glass facade aesthetic, which seems to have run its course. Natural ventilation, active solar shading for light control, enhanced insulating values such as triple IGUs, operable facades, and double walls are just some of the ideas that warrant consideration in response to new energy codes and occupant demands for improved comfort. Thinking more holistically, these technologies can be combined with workplace concepts such as the free address concept that allow individuals to move to a different part of the building based on their activity and personal preferences for daylight and temperature, thus offering a variety of experiences, energy savings, and increased user choice and comfort.

Styles change with time, but the current forces driving facade design, such as stricter codes, competition for tenants, and creating a building that is a platform for human productivity, health, wellness, and great experiences, demand a more thoughtful approach. As we design facades for the future, we must take up the challenge of a new paradigm that considers performance, aesthetics, and human enjoyment. Or to adapt Mark Twain, “The facade makes the building, a naked design has little or no influence on society.”