Long Live Metal

Sharing the Glass Spotlight

Architects have long favored glass for its aesthetic appeal and practical advantages. It offers unique opportunities to add beauty to a building while increasing transparency and enhancing energy use. Glass, however, is far from the only material used in a building’s design.

Metal also plays a key role and has been used for centuries for its durability and weather-resistant properties. Aside from its structural benefits, metal offers various ornamental advantages.

Metal’s versatility is something that Mike Wallace, president of Americlad LLC, knows well. His Rogers, Minn.-based company fabricates metal for architectural construction and industrial markets.

“Metal can enhance a building and give it a high-tech appearance,” he says. “Metal is clean, long-lasting, sustainable, and, in most cases, can be recycled. Aesthetically, it’s incredibly pleasing.”

Different metals, such as aluminum, steel, magnesium, copper and zinc, have various properties and characteristics. Aluminum, for example, is known for its corrosion resistance and lightweight attributes, which makes it a popular choice for building façades and windows. Copper, on the other hand, is a decorative metal often used for accents.

Wallace says the availability of different types of metal products is immense. There are various options for wall panels and exterior façades, including aluminum composite materials, aluminum plates, single-skin cladding and all kinds of sheet-metal products. Each offers many customizable opportunities, particularly 1/8-inch aluminum plating.

“We see architectural firms coming to us with odd requests, such as a weird eyebrow for the top of a building and whatnot,” says Wallace. “That’s where 1/8-inch aluminum shines because you can do much more customized, decorative work with that product compared to many other products on the marketplace. As a result, we see many funky projects in different applications where architects are looking for something different than standard flat panel applications.”

Adding Some Flourish

Along with the ability for unique designs, finishes can enhance the appeal of metal further. These include wood finishes and custom colors. Wallace explains that paint companies can mix and match almost any color. There are endless possibilities, he says. Different textures are even available, which are helpful for architects looking for a natural design.

“When you look at stainless steel, there are boss textures that are available in the materials that broaden the availability of natural metals,” he adds. “That’s something architects are fond of, especially the purists in the market. They’re looking for something natural, like copper and zinc, which are built to last.”

Additionally, architects who understand the anodization process increasingly request the method, says John McClatchey. He is the vice president of sales and marketing at Atlanta-based Southern Aluminum Finishing, a metal fabrication company. Anodized finishes offer more color variation on projects, he explains.

The anodizing process thickens the natural oxide layer on the surface of a metal part, forming an anodic oxide film. This increased thickness protects the part’s surface and enhances its visual appeal. Aluminum is one of the most commonly anodized metals.

The process offers numerous benefits, including improved abrasion and corrosion resistance, a reduction in long-term maintenance and additional protection. However, dyed anodized finishes are not lightfast, which leads to fading when exposed to the sun, says McClatchey. He adds that the lack of consistent colors typically scares glazing contractors away from using anodized finishes. Everyone wants things to look uniform, which paint provides.

Despite that, McClatchey says architects still request dyed anodized finishes because they want their projects to look random. To stand out.

“For example, the Austin Energy District Cooling Plant in Austin, Texas, has thousands of blue panels, each looking slightly different,” he explains. “It sort of looks like water. The façade of the building, having all these different blue-color anodized panels on a water treatment facility, which you wouldn’t think would be architecturally pleasing, looks cool.”

Wallace says that architects have also honed in on dry-joint applications, meaning no caulk is involved. Dry joints essentially create a rain screen or pressure-equalized system that allows little-to-no water to penetrate behind the panel.

“It used to be where we would see about 70% wet and 30% dry,” he says. “That’s totally flip-flopped. We’re seeing more dry joints than we ever have.”

The reason for that, he explains, is because of aesthetics. Caulk joints can be unsightly, especially on panel walls. However, some architects prefer caulking because they want no water to penetrate the building “in any way possible.” While water can get behind the panel system of a dry joint, the system is designed to drain or evaporate the water.

Nathan Mittag told USGlass magazine this past year that he’d seen more requests for perforated metal panels. Mittag is the vice president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Architectural Wall Systems. Perforated panels are sheet metal panels with small holes or shapes throughout the surface. They allow airflow and light to pass through and add aesthetic appeal to a building’s façade.

You Can’t Have Everything

Wallace says that he often tells architects to tone downtheir aspirations. Take zinc, for example. If an architect wants a radius-type formed panel, a zinc panel cannot be welded and ground into many things. So, he has to guide the architect toward better options.

Mittag explains that the key to happiness between architects, contractors and fabricators relies on proper communication. Contractors need to involve the glazier and supplier early in the process. This ensures the architect understands what is feasible and what is not, like weird eyebrows.

Joshua Huff is the assistant editor of USGlass magazine. Email him at jhuff@glass.com and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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