Interview with facades specialist Charis Cosmas

In our latest blog series we interview specialist consultants from across the practice.

Here we speak to facades design expert Charis Cosmas

facades designer charis cosmas
Associate Facades designer, Charis Cosmas. Image: Harry Borden

“Taking an advisory role and developing relationships lets us help clients in the best possible way.”
Charis Cosmas, Associate Facades Designer

When you tell people that you’re a facades engineer, what tends to be their next question?
What’s that? I’ll usually explain that I take what an architect has dreamt up and make it feasible. Also, there’s typically a variety of requirements that the client wants, whether it’s residential or commercial, and all of them have a slightly different emphasis. Cost is often a large factor, but always balanced by the performance and technical requirements. It’s considering all of these various things.

I guess a common assumption might be that facade engineering is all about how the building looks…
It is important, how it looks, but the facade is a complex part of the building. We collaborate with most disciplines – a big one is acoustics, especially on urban residential projects. When a building is surrounded by traffic and railway lines there are strict noise requirements, but you also want to have a delicate facade that can be ventilated and looks good with lots of light coming in. The more open you make something, the more noise ingress you’re going to have, so it’s about looking for the magic space where that tension comes together and we can create something great.

Where does the facade begin and end? Does the front door count?
Yes. When you look at a building, everything you see on the outside to the internal – what you touch on the inside – is a facade. The full wall build-up and the insulation all count. The glazing. The frame holding the glazing. The solid wall. You’re layering on components that overlap and affect each other. Something that benefits you in one area might negatively affect another. It’s that marriage of the different components and performances that you’re trying to find.

How important is technology in getting the best results?
We’ve been using computational analysis and scripting to enable what we do for a long time. More and more now, we’re collaborating with architects on this. If we have a script, then we share that with architects or we link the two together. Once you start and get into a rhythm with it, that can be really powerful.

Can the simplest facade sometimes be the most challenging to realise?
Definitely. Whiteleys is my big project at the moment, which is a £1 billion development of an iconic heritage building in west London. There’s a retained facade and then there’s a whole masterplan of new buildings and facade elements. Even though it looks simple and crisp, the facade is actually very complex. It’s a steel window system on a large scale. That’s rare, but we’ve learnt a lot from similar work that we’ve done on Battersea Power Station, which has proved beneficial in making this project a success. Assisting the client in understanding the procurement routes and which contractors could deliver it was one piece of the puzzle. There’s a lot more complexity to it than meets the eye… which has been fun!

External view of The Ray office building on Farringdon Road, London EC1
One of the projects Charis has recently worked on is The Ray. Facades design helped reinvigorate the old site and provide new high quality office and commercial space. Image: Rob Parrish Photography

Is it accurate to say that facades are subject to trends?
Yes. At the moment precast concrete is in. There was a time when terracotta was fashionable. Glass is always popular. What’s becoming a trend – well, not a trend, more of an impactor – are energy performance and sustainability requirements, which are getting more stringent as climate change becomes a dominant global issue. Meeting those while maintaining the visual is becoming increasingly challenging. Finding ways to make all that work and really deliver the best value is the new frontier of how to push things forward.

What would you say is a facade crime?
I’d say a facade that is not created holistically with the building, which is when the design is crowbarred in later and achieves less elegant and efficient results. Also, glass quality. It’s got better over the years, but getting that glass quality can be difficult to achieve or hard to control without the right specification. That’s something we really hone in on – we have a very strong specification. Another thing about glass is that it’s supposed to be transparent, so if it’s not – or it has weird reflections – that tends to stand out, I find.

Are there common challenges for facade engineering wherever you are in the world?
We’re a global team. I lived and worked in Hong Kong and Beijing for three years. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, each client has a different story and something central that really matters to them. It’s about listening and responding to that. One client might just want the building done really quickly. For another, it’s all about getting the quality but keeping costs down. Then you’re looking at repetition, how you can get the most out of materials and the best reduction in the depth of the facade. More internal area usually means more value.

So the odd centimetre here and there adds up across an entire building?

What do you think is special about what the facades team offers our clients?
Obviously, we are technically on top of our game. We also work within the wider specialists group so we can draw upon other expertise. Most importantly, we develop close relationships with our clients by listening to their needs. Understanding what they want lets us deliver the best possible advisory role.

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