In June 2022, CosciaMoos Architecture attended the annual AIA conference in Chicago. It’s always nice to get out of the office, meet with colleagues, and see the latest technological offerings, but this year seemed extra special, as the conference was being held in-person for the first time since the onset of COVID-19. It was a busy 3 ½ days of networking, attending seminars, and checking out the expo floor to see the latest products within the industry, and we learned and saw a lot of things that will benefit our own projects.

Designing buildings within the urban context is ingrained in CosciaMoos’ DNA. We continually strive to improve this environment by enhancing the character of communities, creating thoughtful designs, and activating the streetscape. However, due to the prevalence of work-from-home culture, urban living now has to compete with the ease of living out in the exurbs. Working with our urban-developer clients, we’ve seen this play out through tastefully designed, light-filled apartments and robust amenity offerings.

An amenity space can’t just be a dingy basement room with a few treadmills in the corner – urban tenants expect inviting spaces that allow a mix of uses, from semi-private remote work during the day to more public spaces for unwinding at the end of a long week. While we toured the expo floor, we noticed a number of materials that could be used to create spaces that feel one-of-a-kind. Manufacturers are modifying some of their typical offerings to create more layered effects, creating something less flat and more visually appealing. Some of the options we saw included pixelated wall panels that provided different images depending on how they are viewed, and open, linear ceilings that drop the scale of the space while keeping it open. Both of these options introduce tangible materials to the space to help make it more architecturally inviting.

Access to the outdoors is also a crucial amenity for a lot of our urban projects where space is at a premium. Sometimes the solution is a private balcony or terrace, and the expo featured newer products that allow slimmer profiles (RE: more ceiling height below). Another solution is a communal roof deck with additional programming to draw in tenants and encourage usage. To expand these possibilities, we saw a range of fire-pits (socializing), artificial lawn materials (relaxing), and rooftop structures (shade) on display. A third option is to bring the outside in through the use of vegetated wall assemblies. These serve a dual-purpose by acting as a feature element of the space and improving its atmosphere both figuratively and literally.

In addition to material improvements for amenity and outdoor spaces, we also witnessed some remarkable leaps in glazing technology on display. The most stunning examples were from manufacturers showing how large they could fashion a single insulated glazing unit without any distortion and with a relatively narrow sightline. The two largest on display, a 10ft W x 12ft H CRL sliding door and a 6ft W x 12ft tall Andersen swing door, were surprisingly clear and easy to use. While these were made intentionally large to draw people in, the more moderately-sized samples around these behemoths were similarly clean and clear.

Not only were these glazed units beautiful, but they also were capable of performing well with thermally-broken frames and low U-factors. With the industry-standard continually improving to meet more stringent energy codes, these newer glazing options allow us to design comfortable and energy-efficient spaces without blowing client’s budget.

Thermally-efficient windows are great, but they pale in comparison to the thermal performance of the well-built wall around them. A wall that performs well, in addition to looking beautiful, is critical to meeting the needs and expectations of our clients. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to replace the “guts” of the wall after it’s built, so it’s important the wall is constructed correctly from the get-go to function properly.

One such wall advancement on display was an all-in-one sheathing system by Georgia-Pacific that combines a glass-mat sheathing product with a vapor-permeable weather resistive barrier. The intent behind these kinds of the products is to reduce the amount of labor on-site by reducing the numbers of “layers” within the wall assembly. The only additional work needed for a dried-in enclosure is to seal the panel joints with the manufacturer’s approved mastic or tape. It’s a complex tradeoff between loss of redundancy within the assembly in favor of speed and cost of construction.

In addition to advancements in enclosure, manufacturers were also showcasing ways to improve a building’s thermal envelope, particularly with regard to continuous insulation (CI). CI is an important tool in our climate to mitigate the temperature difference between the outside and inside of the building. Sometimes the conversation ends once the type and thickness of material is decided upon, depending on the project’s goals and construction type. However, the attachment to the building is just as important to control how much CI is truly obtained. The obvious advancements on display (one such company was a lanyard sponsor) were composite rail assemblies. These perform much better at restricted heat transfer compared to the “standard” continuous steel Z-girt sub-structures. Less in-your-face was the number of clip and rail assemblies on display in the various mockups throughout the floor. These limit and isolate the attachment points back to the structure with less proprietary materials, thus reducing the overall transfer of heat. Both of these approaches can simply improve the thermal performance of the wall by delivering a true R-value much closer to the design R-value.

Last but not least, we were excited by the exterior façade materials on display. While some things were cool by their very nature, such as 3D-printed GFRC building panels, the items that really intrigued us were the new twists on the more “traditional” materials we use extensively in our work. Choosing a brick with a patina can introduce variation to the façade in a simple way. Selecting a textured fiber cement panel can create shadow effects and help break down the scale of the façade. Playing with the perforation of a screen wall or changing up the spacing of baffles can make a sterile material like metal feel much more tactile. Before we even left the expo floor, we were imagining ways we could incorporate these new materials into our projects.

After two long years of remote events, the AIA conference was a welcome opportunity to connect with colleagues and learn and discuss the latest industry developments in person. The CosciaMoos team left Chicago excited with the direction the industry is heading and truly inspired to implement these newer technologies in our practice.