A building envelope is the physical separators between the conditioned and unconditioned environment of a building including the resistance to air, water, heat, light, and noise transfer. The three basic elements of a building envelope are a weather barrier, air barrier, and thermal barrier. The weather barrier may be in a different location than the air and thermal barriers such as in house with an unheated attic. The term building envelope is sometimes used synonymously with building enclosure but the latter term also includes the broader aspects of appearance, structure, safety from fire and security. The act of creating a building envelope is sometimes called weatherization.
The building envelope is all of the elements of the outer shell that maintain a dry, heated, or cooled indoor environment and facilitate its climate control. Building envelope design is a specialized area of architectural and engineering practice that draws from all areas of building science and indoor climate control.
The many functions of the building envelope can be separated into three categories:
- Support (to resist and transfer mechanical loads)
- Control (the flow of matter and energy of all types)
- Finish (to meet human desires on the inside and outside)
The control function is at the core of good performance, and in practice focuses, in order of importance, on rain control, air control, heat control, and vapor control.
Water and water vapor control
One of the main purposes of a roof is to resist water. Two broad categories of roofs are flat and pitched. Flat roofs actually slope up to 10° or 15° but are built to resist standing water. Pitched roofs are designed to shed water but not resist standing water which can occur during wind-driven rain or ice damming. Typically residential, pitched roofs are covered with an underlayment material beneath the roof covering material as a second line of defense. Domestic roof construction may also be ventilated to help remove moisture from leakage and condensation.
Walls do not get as severe water exposure as roofs but still leak water. Types of wall systems with regard to water penetration are barrier, drainage and surface-sealed walls. Barrier walls are designed to allow water to be absorbed but not penetrate the wall, and include concrete and some masonry walls. Drainage walls allow water that leaks into the wall to drain out such as cavity walls. Drainage walls may also be ventilated to aid drying such as rainscreen and pressure equalization wall systems. Sealed-surface walls do not allow any water penetration at the exterior surface of the siding material. Generally most materials will not remain sealed over the long term and this system is very limited, but ordinary residential construction often treats walls as sealed-surface systems relying on the siding and an underlayment layer sometimes called housewrap.
Control of air flow is important to ensure indoor air quality, control energy consumption, avoid condensation (and thus help ensure durability), and to provide comfort. Control of air movement includes flow through the enclosure (the assembly of materials that perform this function is termed the air barrier system) or through components of the building envelope (interstitial) itself, as well as into and out of the interior space, (which can affect building insulation performance greatly). Hence, air control includes the control of windwashing (cold air passing through insulation) and convective loops which are air movements within a wall or ceiling that may result in 10% to 20% of the heat loss alone.
The physical components of the envelope include the foundation, roof, walls, doors, windows, ceiling, and their related barriers and insulation. The dimensions, performance and compatibility of materials, fabrication process and details, connections and interactions are the main factors that determine the effectiveness and durability of the building enclosure system.
Common measures of the effectiveness of a building envelope include physical protection from weather and climate (comfort), indoor air quality (hygiene and public health), durability and energy efficiency. In order to achieve these objectives, all building enclosure systems must include a solid structure, a drainage plane, an air barrier, a thermal barrier, and may include a vapor barrier. Moisture control (e.g. damp proofing) is essential in all climates, but cold climates and hot-humid climates are especially demanding.
The thermal envelope, or heat flow control layer, is part of a building envelope but may be in a different location such as in a ceiling. The difference can be illustrated by understanding that an insulated attic floor is the primary thermal control layer between the inside of the house and the exterior while the entire roof (from the surface of the shingles to the interior paint finish on the ceiling) comprises the building envelope.
Building envelope thermography involves using an infrared camera to view temperature anomalies on the interior and exterior surfaces of the structure. Analysis of infrared images can be useful in identifying moisture issues from water intrusion, or interstitial condensation.
- Architectural engineering
- Building enclosure commissioning
- Mechanical engineering
- Structural engineering
- Leaky condo crisis
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- Training Material (software, presentation slides, e-textbook, case studies, templates) on Building Envelope - Natural Resources Canada
- Ontario Building Envelope Council
- British Columbia Building Envelope Council
- Alberta Building Envelope Council-South Chapter