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Explorations in Terra Cotta: Designing a Sustainable Green Wall

For 2020’s virtual Architectural Ceramic Assemblies Workshop (ACAW), KPF’s Darina Zlateva, Director, Marianne Kwok, Director, Chuqi Liu, Architectural Designer, and Asli Oney, Digital Fabrication Manager, alongside Gustav Fagerstrom of Walter P. Moore, discussed their quest for sustainable materials and the development of a terra cotta green wall.

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Renderings of the terra cotta wall, acting as both an interior façade as well as an art piece (top).

ACAW is an event focusing on hands-on research and development workshops for individuals to explore the potential of terra cotta. This year, architects and façade engineers gathered virtually for the fifth annual conference, presented by Boston Valley Terra Cotta and the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, with additional support from the UB Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART) community.

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The team researched material lifecycles and sustainable sourcing, taking inspiration from some of their favorite KPF projects. Following CINARK’s pyramid graphic, the team highlighted how the carbon footprint of materials could differ based on location: using marble from nearby has a lesser impact than importing the same material from another location due to the transportation emissions. Natural elements such as timber rest at the lower portion of the pyramid while aluminum sits at the top. The team narrowed its focus to terra cotta for its low carbon footprint. However, the glaze requires outsourcing, although this can be reused and recycled from previous pieces.

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The Building Material Pyramid. Courtesy of CINARK.
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Terra cotta in its natural state as loose clay (left) and glazes (right) that add vibrancy and allow diversity in color to the material.

When tasked by the client to build a “green wall” in the building lobby, the KPF team decided on terra cotta for its sustainability and versatility.

The team designed the wall to take advantage of terra cotta's adaptability, creating hundreds of individual cells that link to one another, forming a façade that extends up the wall and horizontally onto the ceiling.

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Using 3D printing, the team created models of the tiles to test how the cells could fit together. The final product had to be minimal in weight but still have substantial integrity, resulting in a cell that was one inch thick. They also created prototypes of the different cell styles, deciding on three variations in total.

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Andy Brayman, ACAWorkshop Glaze Consultant and Ceramic Artist at Matter Factory, conducted a color study of terra cotta glazes to find which color would enhance the experience of the wall. The team decided on green and blue as the final colors.

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Andy Brayman's color study, showing a range of shades for the decided colors.

The wall features three types of cells, A, B, and C. A cells are for digital screens. The openings in the form allow a path for visuals behind the terra cotta to enhance the ambiance of the lobby.

B cells are glazing windows, a subtle design to contract cell A. These were inspired by Andy Brayman’s artwork, which is known for the way the light travels through the structure.

Both A and B cells are glazed blue to add an unexpected color that furthers the visuals present on the screens.

C cells hold living plants and are colored green to complement the natural elements of the wall.

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The team presented a virtual exhibition of the structure titled the “Nonagon.” The Nonagon is a sensory experience within a tunnel of terra cotta that surrounds you within color and music. Watch the team's presentation here.

KPF President and Design Principal James von Klemperer gave ACAW’s keynote presentation, titled "Terra Cotta In Practice: From Detail To Megastructure." His presentation covered terra cotta's uses through history and in the firm's practice, highlighting KPF’s new Midtown supertall, One Vanderbilt. View his presentation here.

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One Vanderbilt seen from East River (Left). Terra cotta details (right). Images courtesy of Raimund Koch.