Building EnvelopeA2P1045: The Basics of Building Envelopes: What They Are and Why They Matter

April 25, 2023


Commercial buildings have unique design and energy efficiency requirements that must be met for optimal performance. A vital component of these is the building envelope, which consists of several layers that form a barrier between the interior building environment and external weather conditions. From insulation and vapor control layers to air barriers and other materials, a comprehensive understanding of building envelopes in commercial buildings can help architects and engineers identify potential problems before they occur.

This article will explore what building envelopes are in commercial buildings and why they’re essential for ensuring an energy-efficient building.

What is a Building Envelope and Why Is It Important

Building Envelope Components and Layers

A building envelope is a set of components that form a physical barrier between the interior and exterior environments. This barrier separates the inside from the outside environment, protecting the occupants from any external weather conditions such as rain, snow, window, and heat or cold air. It also helps maintain an appropriate temperature within the building during summer and winter while controlling energy consumption.

Building envelopes are essential in protecting a building’s occupants from external elements, but they also play a key role in protecting the structural components of the building itself. By creating an airtight barrier around the exterior of a structure, moisture and air infiltration can be minimized, which can help reduce damage caused by water and dampness. In addition to helping insulate against temperature variations outside, building envelopes also help extend the life of any structural material used, such as wood or steel, by protecting it from rot, mold, and rust.

The layers of insulative materials within a properly functioning building envelope also regulate temperatures inside, which can protect against extreme climate changes that could cause cracks or distress in the building’s structure. In addition, properly designed and installed insulation layers help maintain interior temperatures at all times so extreme temperature spikes won’t cause harm. It is also important for architects and engineers to consider how various materials react to different types of weather when specifying a building envelope for their project.

In addition to protecting from external elements, a building envelope helps regulate air quality within the structure by minimizing airborne contaminants like dust, pollen, smoke, and more. Regulating airflow within the building envelope can help improve the indoor air quality for all occupants inside. In addition, properly designed and built envelopes can help reduce utility costs by providing better insulation against outdoor temperatures and reducing air infiltration into the interior environment.

Finally, building envelopes also play an essential role in soundproofing buildings from unwanted noise. The different layers within a building’s envelope help absorb sound vibrations to keep noise levels low inside the building.

In summary, building envelopes are essential in commercial buildings as they protect against outdoor elements while ensuring energy efficiency. They are also critical in maintaining good indoor air quality and creating a soundproof indoor environment. Overall, they provide great value when properly designed and installed.

Components of a Building Envelope

Building Envelope Components and Layers

A standard commercial building envelope comprises various components that work together to form an effective barrier between the interior environment and external elements. These components typically include cladding, control layers, structural framing, insulation, and air-sealing materials.

Cladding is a vital component of any building envelope as it acts as a barrier against external elements while providing aesthetic and structural benefits. Cladding options can range from siding, stucco, metal, stone, wood, or composite paneling, and each choice offers different levels of protection, durability, and cost.

When properly installed, cladding helps create an effective water seal to prevent moisture infiltration that could lead to structural damage. It also serves as an insulator for thermal regulation, protecting against extreme temperature fluctuations while keeping the indoor environment more comfortable year-round.

A building envelope’s primary purpose is to protect the structure and its occupants from external weather conditions. Along with cladding, building envelopes accomplish this by utilizing four distinct control layers, which include:¹

1. Air Barrier

The air barrier layer of a building envelope is essential for controlling indoor air pressure and preventing outside pollutants from entering the indoor space. This layer creates an effective seal that keeps heated indoor air inside during cold winters and provides resistance to prevent outdoor wind-driven moisture from permeating the walls in humid climates.

It can be constructed using various materials such as rigid foam boards, spray foam insulation, caulking, and masonry treatments. It is essential to properly install all components of the air barrier system to ensure tight seals around windows, doors, and other openings while considering local climate requirements as well. An effective air barrier implemented into your building envelope can help reduce energy costs, improve occupant comfort, and prevent health hazards related to indoor contaminants entering the building.

2. Vapor Barrier

The vapor barrier control layer helps prevent moisture from entering and condensing within the walls. However, due to increased insulation requirements, the wall moisture build-up can lead to mold growth, rotting structures, and more energy costs.

Many materials, such as polyethylene plastic sheeting or paints, can be used as vapor barriers, but careful consideration should be made when selecting the right option for your application. Properties such as permeability, location in relation to the other layers of the envelope, and local climate requirements should all be considered when making this decision. When correctly implemented, a vapor barrier control layer helps ensure that your living space remains healthy and comfortable while protecting against costly repairs in the long run.

3. Thermal Barrier

A building envelope’s thermal barrier control layer is essential to any construction project as it helps maintain the temperature difference between indoors and outdoors. This is important for comfort reasons and to protect your structure from mold growth, condensation, and structural damage due to extreme temperatures.

Materials such as rigid foam insulation, spray foam, and other specialized types of insulation can be used for thermal barriers. To provide maximum effect, the insulation layer must be placed correctly, concerning other elements within the envelope. Careful consideration should also be given to local climate requirements when selecting the type and thickness of material used for this purpose. When correctly implemented, a thermal barrier control helps create a healthy and comfortable indoor space while protecting against costly repairs in the long run.

4. Water Barrier

A building envelope’s water barrier control layer is essential to any building envelope as it prevents water from entering the walls and other parts of the structure. Water infiltration can lead to various problems, including mold growth, rotting structures, and increased energy costs due to insulation requirements.

Depending on the application, materials such as specialized membranes can be used for water control layers. However, it is essential to note that different materials have different degrees of permeability, and therefore, careful consideration should be made when selecting the right product for your project.

In addition, local climate requirements should also be considered when determining the type and thickness of material used for this purpose. When correctly implemented, a water barrier control layer helps keep all building occupants safe and comfortable while protecting against costly repairs in the long run.

It is essential to understand that each control layer plays a role in forming an effective building envelope, so they must work together in tandem to do their job correctly. With proper design and construction techniques, you can ensure your walls can withstand the elements.

Understanding Your Climate and Its Impact on Your Building Envelope

Skagway Public Safety Building - Skagway, AK

Skagway Public Safety Building in Skagway, AK


To create a healthy and comfortable interior space, it is essential to consider your climate when constructing or retrofitting a building envelope. Different climates can have varying degrees of extremes in terms of temperatures, UV exposure, and precipitation levels. Therefore, knowing the local conditions and their expected frequency is critical to selecting the right type and thickness of insulation, water barrier materials, and other components that make up the envelope.

Temperature extremes are perhaps the most crucial aspect to consider when evaluating climate effects on a building envelope. Depending on location, these can range from very hot summers to extremely cold winters necessitating proper selection of thermal barriers for comfort and protection against costly structural damage. In addition, excessive sunlight exposure may require specialized colors on outside materials depending on climate characteristics.

The amount of precipitation experienced in any given area is another crucial factor that must be considered when constructing or repairing a building envelope. Rainfall patterns will influence the type and placement of windows, doorways, rooflines, and gables that act as water deflectors.

Finally, careful consideration should also be given to local wind speeds, which can determine how materials are attached to the structure to ensure they stay securely in place throughout strong winds. Considering these factors, you can create a safe and healthy indoor atmosphere while protecting your structure from potential damages caused by extreme weather events.

Factors to Consider When Choosing the Right Building Envelope Materials

Along with local climate, several additional factors are needed when selecting materials for the building envelope. Knowing the protection required against heat loss or gain to achieve optimal comfort levels is essential when selecting products with insulation characteristics.

The durability of products should also be evaluated. Durability encompasses the ability to resist wear and tear over time and resistance to UV exposure, rain, wind damage, and any other environmental elements that could cause premature material degradation. Evaluating and comparing the performance ratings attached to different materials can be beneficial in understanding their properties better before making a decision.

In addition, it is essential to consider the compatibility between materials used on different areas of an envelope, such as walls, roofs, and windows. An ideal situation would involve all components working together seamlessly to create a well-insulated structure that prevents energy losses from occurring due to air infiltration or conduction through corner frames and doorways.

Taking the time to research options available for each area before making any material choices can help ensure you have a cohesive package that results in an effective building envelope capable of providing comfort and protection throughout its lifetime.

Tips for Installing and Maintaining a Healthy Building Envelope

Installing a healthy building envelope requires careful consideration of many factors. To ensure optimal performance, it is essential to use the right kind of materials for each specific surface and to adhere to installation instructions coming with them. In addition, taking the time to double-check measurements, seal off any gaps between components, and adequately secure all fasteners can help reduce the likelihood of air infiltration or conduction over time.

The products’ condition should also be monitored occasionally as some may require additional maintenance work, like cleaning or treating surfaces with specific compounds to extend their longevity. Checking for signs of wear and tear or degradation more often in areas exposed to direct sunlight or extreme weather conditions can help prevent problems that could otherwise lead to expensive repairs down the line.

Finally, it is worth noting that while specific building envelopes may not require regular attention, they should still be inspected periodically in case something unexpected occurs, which can be costly if left unresolved for extended periods. By following these tips and paying close attention when installing materials, you will have a better chance of creating a healthy, durable envelope that holds up well throughout its lifetime.


Building envelopes are a critical element of any structure, with their primary purpose being to protect against the elements while providing necessary insulation and protection. The components of the building envelope should be made up of materials appropriate for your regional climate and evaluated for compatibility with additional structural elements such as framing.

It is also essential to consider factors such as durability, energy efficiency, and comfort when selecting materials for a building envelope. By considering these tips and assessing the impact on the life cycle of a building’s envelope, you can ensure that you have an effective barrier between the inside and outside of your structure.

Contact Advanced Architectural Products today!

SMARTci 2 in 1 System

Advanced Architectural Products offers various best-practice building envelope solutions, including SMARTci continuous insulation systems and GreenGirt composite metal hybrid (CMH) sub-framing. To learn more about our solutions, fill out our online contact form or give us a call at (269) 355-1818 today.


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