Learning More About Building Facades

Building-facades (3)A building facade is just the exterior face of the building, and the word ‘facade‘ is used as an architectural term to describe the presentation of the building exterior. The word is not used often outside of architectural and engineering lingo, but should become a part of the commonly used lexicon of everyone interested in understanding the historic brick buildings of Washington, SC

The photo below shows the common “Washington Row“ style home in Washington, DC from the front exterior. This particular style of row home is ubiquitous in Washington DC with a square bay and segmented window headers.

Other common designs of DC historic brick row houses include the following architectural styles:

  1. The Wardman
  2. The Italianate
  3. Second Empire
  4. Queen Anne
  5. Washington Row


This type of historic building facade is very common in the historic neighborhoods of Washington DC, Georgetown, and Capitol hill and Capitol Hill. However, the aesthetic and elements of building facades can vary so greatly that it can include all different types of materials and architectural details. In other entries on the IDS website, you can see a variety of types of building facades such as glass curtain walls, granite stone, and many other materials.

In the image below, the architectural elements of the facades are similar, but the building to the left has a segmented bay.

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Building facades serve several purposes, some functions are obvious but the details of how building elements work in systems is interesting.

1. WEATHER SHIELD. It’s important, in almost every non tropical climate in the world, that building facades keep the weather out of the building. In the winter the facade walls must be insulated enough to keep the cold out. In the summer, depending on the exact material makeup and climate zone on the building, a facade may work as a heat sync, but more importantly than anything else, the facade must keep wind driven precipitation out of the building.

2. DURABILITY. Some materials are inexpensive and can go up fast and be replaced fast, but in most climates it’s important that materials are durable and withstand weather and time. All materials deteriorate. Some materials such as stone and brick deteriorate on a very long time scale. These materials, in some cases, can last for thousands of years.

2. FENESTRATION. Fenestration is the admittance of light into a building. Windows or fixed glass openings provide such light, but the openings in a masonry facade are engineered with great effort to allow these openings to support the individual masonry units above.

3. STRUCTURAL SUPPORT. One of the core purposes of a wall is to support the roof. In the case of Washington DC multiple level buildings, the facade, in many cases is also part of the supporting structural load path to hold the floors in the building as well. In most cases in buildings like this, joist or set with a fire-cut into mortised beam pockets. In traditional balloon framing, by comparison though, the floors were built with a rim joist fastened and in cases hung or recessed (similar to let-in bracing) from wooden studs.

4. CONTROLLED ACCESS AND SECURITY. Doors and portals allow people to come and go into and out of buildings. However, in most places in America security is extremely important. Doors need to be able to be strongly secured to give us the freedom to leave the property unguarded without concern of unwanted entry.

5. BEAUTY / STATUS. Some building owners may think of themselves as humble and believe that but they’re not concerned with the aesthetic of their property. But the truth is Going back thousands of years, humans have been making efforts to work within economic constraints to create the most prestigious and building facades possible. Evidence of these architectural efforts are present in every city in America.

Another picture of traditional 100+ year old Capitol Hill building facades follows, showing the historic beauty of which we are so fond.

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By comparison, contemporary facade construction may be very different, here the builder has used a plywood type of siding.

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The building in the photo below, a commercial highrise building, is an example of a completely different type of facade, built with aluminum frame glass and aluminum panels.

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In the photo below you can see several buildings with great variety in each facade. The example of commercial buildings shows starkly contrasting architectural styles.

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The image below shows a skyscraper with a glass curtain wall facade. The curtain wall is continuous glass almost uninterrupted throughout the entire building facade.

Upkeep is required for all types of building facades. In the case of modern skyscrapers, access is an extremely difficult challenge. Many of the commonly used materials on modern facades can last for years without the need for maintenance. Nonetheless, at some point like the oldest brick buildings of Capitol hill, modern building facades will also need to have an overhaul and maintenance rework.

Elastomeric sealants can last up to several years. One of the limitations on elastomeric sealants is unlike brick masonry, they do not hold up well against ultraviolet rays from the sun. There are a few products that are both elastomeric and flexible and also hold up and are adorable against the forces of ultraviolet rays.

Restoration of brick motor Inn masonry historic walls is required. Most of these buildings were built over a 100 years ago, and most of the mortar used was a lime mortar. In modern times, today, there are very few masons who specialize in the use of lime mortars. Masons working in the area of historic restoration required special training that is unique to areas like Washington DC. Historic brick facades were built using different tools and techniques then the common methods of modern times.

In this article we talked about the following terminology and concepts, follow the links below for more related information from the IDS website:

These concepts are part of the fundamentals of historic masonry restoration, tuckpointing, and brick repair.

The links in the list above will take you to other articles with more information on defects, failures, preservation and repair of historic masonry. You can learn a lot more on our blog. Feel free to check it out. If you have questions about the historic masonry of your building in Washington DC, fill out the webform below and drop us a line. We will be in touch if we can help.