​How Metal Cladding Works, From Connection Details to Material Choices

Steel, copper or aluminum cladding can be found on many of the world’s most iconic buildings.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

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If the façade is a building’s skin, then exterior cladding could be considered both the makeup and sunscreen of architecture. It’s aesthetically pleasing, yes, but also functional. It can enhance the structure’s overall appeal while protecting it from environmental conditions at the same time.

Metal, in particular, is arguably the most favored material for cladding contemporary architecture. It looks futuristic, molds to any desirable design and can serve as a barrier against harsh conditions. Renowned architecture firms like Gehry Partners, Steven Holl Architects and SOM use copper, aluminum and stainless steel to embolden their architecture — and not just purely out of cosmetic concern or artistic taste. Architects are harnessing the versatility of metal cladding to serve a multitude of purposes. Thanks to the malleability of metal combined with the ease of creating design standouts via digital fabrication, the material is showing up more and more on major building projects.

PALÄON Research and Experience Center in Schöningen Spears by Holzer Kobler Architekturen

Who’s innovating in metal cladding?

What exactly is so attractive about this material? And who in the world spends all their time trying to advance it?

One company that specializes in metallic skins is Alucobond, a 40-year-old U.S.-based manufacturer that creates cutting-edge metal cladding for architectural projects around the world. Organizations like Alucobond develop ACMs (aluminum composite material) to fit the façades of a wide array of structural forms, helping them become shining examples of contemporary design. ACMs give way to flat, formable, ageless and simple-to-process products that are perfect for a building’s outer shell. Plus, they just look cool. Metal-clad architecture combines practicality with a futuristic aesthetic that make it a go-to material for countless forward-thinking firms.

When it comes to material finishes, metal-clad architecture is incredibly versatile. While the technique usually brings to mind shiny copper, steel or aluminum façades, brands like Alucobond, with its wide range of aluminum finishes, can evoke other materials altogether. Some structures can appear prismatic, while others are textured to look like wood.

Winter Cabin on Mount Kanin by OFIS arhitekti; photo by Janez Martincic

Set on a snowy mountaintop in the Julian Alps, the prefab cantilevered cabin by Slovenian firm OFIS arhitekti features a wooden shell clad in Alucobond ACM. The exterior panels include a protective topcoat that battles against ultraviolet rays, wind and snow degradation. Learn more about Winter Cabin’s construction here.

How is metal cladding made?

Perhaps even more impressive than the finished product is the way in which metal cladding is born. Brands like Alucobond have developed optimal manufacturing processes for multiple types of metal cladding, offering three different ways of installing it.

Alucobond® PE, the original ACM, consists of two sheets of smooth .02-inch aluminum thermo-bonded to a polyethylene core in a continuous process. In other words, it’s made of super-thin aluminum panels that are extruded and combined under high pressure with plastic — hence the malleability. Alucobond® PLUS is the brand’s ACM that’s best for buildings with higher fire safety regulations. Alucobond® Axcent is also offered for any project that needs a painted metal trim.

Orona Zero by Xabier Barrutieta architects; photo by Daniel Sanchez

The super-sustainable Orona Zero building is the new San Sebastian headquarters for Orona, a global R&D company that centers on urban mobility and elevation solutions. Located within the company’s new innovation ecosystem called Orona Ideo, the hollow cylindrical structure is built on a 15-degree incline. The 50-foot-high building features a reflective pedestal of Alucobond naturAL Reflect panels. Two thousand triangular pixels make up the skin of the curved exterior façade and catch the sun at different angles throughout the day, creating a prismatic effect. Learn more about Orona Zero’s design here.

Why is metal cladding fantastic for façades?

If the chemistry weren’t hard enough to get a grip on, the installation process is even more technical. Alucobond, like most metals, can be installed in one of three ways: Route and Return Wet Seal, Route and Return Dry Seal and Rain Screen. Today, the company uses these methods to manage any moisture that infiltrates the wall cavity of a building. Such cladding also improves the thermal efficiency of the overall structure. So, yes, it’s mostly waterproof and an amazing conductor of heat. At first glance, metal cladding may seem solely aesthetic, but it’s also sustainably functional.

Typical sections through metal-clad façades; via Alucobond

Here are the three installation methods in more detail, ranked least to most efficient:

1. The Route and Return Wet Seal method is the most economical way to install Alucobond. The setup is simple: A silicone sealant is placed between each panel as an air and water barrier, then basic male/female clips simply attach the cladding to the building — no matter the size, shape or complexity of the panel designs. There’s one problem with this method, however: It leaks.

2. The Route and Return Dry Seal method is a little less messy. It requires gaskets to be inserted into the joints between the panels instead of the silicone sealant. This allows the façade to stay much cleaner over time. The system also features continuous extrusions around each panel to enhance structural integrity and act as a secondary gutter system. But this method often causes concern over the durability of the gaskets.

Typical Alucobond cladding detail (radius outside corner detail); via Alucobond

3. The most-requested kind of installation is the Rain Screen attachment method. Architects can get a rain screen with inboard or outboard insulation, but outboard is becoming increasingly popular. By definition, a board installed outside of the building wall means that the walls are free from the normal penetrations required by typical inboard insulation construction.

In less technical terms, there’s zero seepage, zero frustration and loads of thermal efficiency. Outboard insulation typically costs more than inboard, but the savings in HVAC costs far outweigh initial payment. Usually, fabricators perform rigorous amounts of testing on their rain screens before doling them out to customers.

Dominion Office Building by Zaha Hadid Architects

Zaha Hadid’s design for this curvaceous office structure features protruding levels clad in Alucobond Plus in the custom Spectra finish. Situated southeast of Moscow, the building was constructed for the growing creative and IT sectors. It includes a central light-filled atrium and a striking interior maze of black-and-white floors built as shared spaces for collaboration and connectivity. The exterior, aluminum ground-floor plates make for a dramatic rectilinear design. Learn more about Dominion Office Building’s architecture here.

How do I choose the right kind of metal cladding?

In the end, choosing metal cladding is an aesthetically subjective venture, but also technologically objective. The type of product an architect chooses is based on a wide variety of important factors, and formability in design might be the most important. To count on cladding as the external envelope for a major piece of architecture is an exercise in thorough research requiring a rigorous process of testing and experimentation.

One way Alucobond guarantees satisfaction is by helping its clients put together large-scale models of projects before specifying the final product. In the case of manufacturing massive aluminum paneling for brilliant and bold architectural projects, seeing is the key to believing — and paying less.

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