The Transformation of Building Surfaces from Traditional Boxes to Fluid Skins

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


`Today when the entire society is wrapped in an enormous sheet of film, what we can do is to beautifully visualize the content of the wrapping rather than make the content look real' - Toyo Ito

The paper examines the need for building skin and traces its evolution and the reason behind it. The transformation of building skin from what it used to be and how it is used now sheds light on what aspects have gone through that transformation, their need for it, and implications. The building skin is neither a strict pattern nor an ornamented wall, they are like membranes, whose characteristics and properties can be altered as per function and requirement. Skins not only affect the interior and exterior environment but also influence other aspects for example cost, skill, time of construction. Buildings are categorized according to function performed by their skin and analyzed according to get better understanding of building skins.




The shelter has evolved a long way from the rock age. Today, buildings are not just architectural demarcation of space but a smart and responsive elements with constantly upgrading components. The most interactive layer with the inside and outside world is the envelope of the building. Human needs can’t be satisfied and that preaches us for more delicate, protective and smarter skin. Since the industrial revolution the building skin has gone through exponential changes – experimenting the new. Building envelope started with the stone and mud, and progressed to materials like glass, steel, cladding materials etc.

As the time grew, so did the human needs. To cater these needs the building skin has gone through ground breaking changes. It is important to understand the process that brought us to the present context for further betterment of it. The history teaches us about the survival of fittest, we need to carefully scrutinize it to design for the future. In the recent years the scope of building science and growing consciousness of the interrelationship and interaction between the built form and both the interior plus the exterior settings has led to enhancements in building performance. Because of quickly changing building techniques, materials and equipment, the capability to foretell the performance of the buildings has become much more important.

This study aims to explore how the surface led to ornamented surface which further transformed into enveloped skin. The factors which shed light on enveloped skin are important part of the study as the impact of it is so prevalent that it deputizes an identity to the building. The skin is now not only the part of the building, it also affects its environment. It gives an identity to itself and the context. The following chapters reveals in detail the origin of building skin and how it evolved over generation, role of industrial revolution as a catalyst in time capsule, how skin acts as a mediator between inside and outside world, role in creating self-proclaimed identity and the journey of building skin from past to future. The paper then elaborates on the parameters relating to design of building skin and the aspects for building skin evolution and the factors effecting and got affected by it. From this understanding, research on selected buildings according to their building skin was done to study the different facets of it. This employed personal observation, literature and technological research.


How are buildings transforming from traditional ways of articulating surfaces using walls, projections, etc. to a continuous skin membrane? What are the implications of such transformations?

1.3 AIM

This study aims to explore how the surfaces of the buildings have transformed from traditional box to a fluid skin and what are the inferences of these changes.


To find out the evolution of building skin.

To find out how has the traditional ways of ornamenting surfaces has transformed to an enveloped skin.

To find out how skin designing has become more and more prevalent.

To find out how a skin gives an identity to a building.

To find out how a building skin plays a role of representation.

To find out what are the contributions of skin designs in past few years.


The research will undertake skin as a membrane/envelope.

The research will undertake only few works of architects to be studied in depth.

Case studies illustrated in the study will be in chronological order.

The transformation is analyzed from the box facade to a single membrane type skin.

The study will undertake case studies from 19th century to 20th century.


All types of building skins may not be discussed in the research.

The practical constraints of time and resources limit first hand extent of the study.

Most of the architects/experts referred in the text are foreign residents and are inaccessible.


The entire research process will involve secondary resources.

The concepts and implications of building surfaces in architectural design are evaluated by analyzing them in terms of materials,

The effort to analyze building skins is done under three sections with case studies falling under each category. These three major categories in the study are:

Skin as identity

Building skins: intelligent facades

Skin as representation

Skin as identity: This section explores on how the building skin is serving an identity to the building itself. How different material have an impact on the viewer in identifying the type of the building.

Building skins: Intelligent facades: This section explores on why we need intelligent facades in today’s scenario. The basic purpose of building is to shield people from the external climate conditions, such as severe solar exposer, temperature difference, precipitation and wind. This chapter discusses about how are the building skins are been designed to prevent side effects of external climate conditions and what are the major reasons behind it.

Skin as representation: This section deals with how a building skin serves a role of information carrier in a building.

In each section there are case studies followed by analysis.

Apart from these three sections followed by case studies in each, the study starts with the evolution of a building skin and its importance.

Selection of CASE STUDIES:

  • Selected on the basis of their evolution in terms of material, construction type, construction techniques etc.
  • These are included in between the study in order to specify under what section they lie.
  • They are arranged in chronological order.
  • Analysis is done after the completion of the literature review in terms of materials, cost of project, etc. in order to analyze the transformation of the skins studied.



The building form probably began with simple construction techniques being used to protect from the wind, sun, rain and other natural calamities. Gradually, as the craving for better shelter grew, suitable and new building materials were identified and advanced construction skills were developed.

“Vernacular architecture throughout the world is usually characterized by the judicious and advantageous use of readily available local materials and an experiential understanding of climate and site.” (Fitch, 1960)

The early building envelopes that sheltered humans from the thriving natural elements were probably a cave which provided a sense of privacy and safety. The initial building envelopes were semi-spherical structures which comprised of a roof and walls (Figure 1A). At initial stage, however, the two prevailing forms of envelope evolved, depending on the climate and accessible materials: the wooden frame and the brick wall.

Thus, ultimately the roof, walls and the floor turned out to be the features of the envelope that have sustained to this day with very slight change in use, concept and even materials used. A primitive dwelling might have walls of brick, wood or stone, a wood roof structure, a floor of stone or hardened dirt and a slate tile or thatched roof. Such dwellings are still found in present era all over the world.

Let’s take one element of the envelope, the building wall, its basic performance necessities have remained the same from back then till now: safety of the interior space from the natural elements and security for its inhabitants. However, our expectations have enormously grown, both in terms of the capability to monitor the effect of exterior water and complete performance, sunlight and the ambient external surrounding temperature on our interior setting. According to the society's structure and economy, such demands as degree of stability of our exterior system, its scale and ornamentation and our desire to have an extensive variety of exterior envelope choices may also fluctuate considerably.

As compared to the most of today's walls, the medieval or renaissance brick walls were just what was required. Originally the walls were a single homogeneous material— brick-exposed or stone on the interior and exterior surfaces. Such walls are still constructed nowadays, though the wall is more likely to be reinforced concrete or concrete block.

The moment the structural wall converted into different finish faced materials the commencements of flexible performance abilities emerged. The split-up of facing and the structure presaged the layered exterior walls of now. The high-grade facing and its detailing also gave protection from the weather for the structure within.

The revolution in the concept of the walls—and the actual beginning of today's concept of the building envelopes—followed with the invention of the steel, (and later, the reinforced concrete) frame in the nineteenth century. The exterior face of the wall became a screen against the elements and was no longer required to support the floors and roof. Though, for few decades steel frames were buried inside masonry walls, and the buildings continued to be designed in renaissance or gothic styles. The contemporary architectural revolution began in the early 20th century and changed this and by mid-century the concrete or steel framed office building with its glass curtain wall and lightweight metal had become the fresh world-adorned vernacular materials in the market of buildings.

2.1 Towards the Future

In last few years, the field of building science and a rising awareness of the interaction and interrelationship between the building and both the exterior and interior environments has directed to enhancements in building performance. Because of quickly changing building techniques, materials and equipment, the ability to calculate the performance of buildings has become much more significant. The need to save global material and energy resources also involves more efficient buildings.