The double-skin facade is a system of building consisting of two skins, or facades, placed in such a way that air flows in the intermediate cavity. The ventilation of the cavity can be natural, fan supported or mechanical. Apart from the type of the ventilation inside the cavity, the origin and destination of the air can differ depending mostly on climatic conditions, the use, the location, the occupational hours of the building and the HVAC strategy.
The glass skins can be single or double glazing units with a distance from 20 cm up to 2 metres. Often, for protection and heat extraction reasons during the cooling period, solar shading devices are placed inside the cavity.
The essential concept of the double-skin facade was first explored and tested by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in the early 20th century. His idea, which he called mur neutralisant (neutralizing wall), involved the insertion of heating/cooling pipes between large layers of glass. Such a system was employed in his Villa Schwob (La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 1916), and proposed for several other projects, including the League of Nations competition (1927), Centrosoyuz building (Moscow, 1928–33), and Cité du Refuge (Paris, 1930). American engineers studying the system in 1930 informed Le Corbusier that it would use much more energy than a conventional air system, but Harvey Bryan later concluded Le Corbusier's idea had merit if it included solar heating.
Another early experiment was the 1937 Alfred Loomis house by architect William Lescaze in Tuxedo Park, NY. This house included "an elaborate double envelope" with a 2-foot-deep air space conditioned by a separate system from the house itself. The object was to maintain high humidity levels inside.
One of the first modern examples to be constructed was the Occidental Chemical Building (Niagara Falls, New York, 1980) by Cannon Design. This building, essentially a glass cube, included a 4-feet-deep cavity between glass layers to pre-heat air in winter.
The recent resurgence of efficient building design has renewed interest in this concept. Since the USGBC rewards points for reduction in energy consumption vs. a base case, this strategy has been used to optimize energy performance of buildings.
Examples of notable buildings which utilise a double-skin facade are 30 St Mary Axe (also known as The Gherkin) and 1 Angel Square. Both of these buildings achieve great environmental credentials for their size, with the benefits of a double skin key to this. The Gherkin features triangular windows on the outer skin which skelter up the skyscraper. These windows open according to weather and building data, allowing more or less air to cross flow through the building for ventilation.
The cavity between the two skins may be either naturally or mechanically ventilated. In cool climates the solar gain within the cavity may be circulated to the occupied space to offset heating requirements, while in hot climates the cavity may be vented out of the building to mitigate solar gain and decrease the cooling load. In each case the assumption is that a higher insulative value may be achieved by using this glazing configuration versus a conventional glazing configuration.
Recent studies showed that the energy performance of a building connected to a double-skin facade can be improved both in the cold and the warm season or in cold and warm climates by optimizing the ventilation strategy of the facade.
The advantages of double-skin facades over conventional single skin facades are not clear-cut; similar insulative values may be obtained using conventional high performance, low-e windows. The cavity results in a decrease in usable floor space, and depending on the strategy for ventilating the cavity, it may have problems with condensation, becoming soiled or introducing outside noise. The construction of a second skin may also present a significant increase in materials and design costs.
Building energy modelling of double-skin facades is inherently more difficult because of varying heat transfer properties within the cavity, making the modeling of energy performance and the prediction of savings debatable.
Reviews of the literature
A literature review on double-skin facades was written by Harris Poirazis in 2004. The main aim of the report is to describe the concept of double-skin facades based on different sources of literature. The literature survey covers a brief description of the concept, history and common double-skin facade types and classifications. A technical description including construction parameters, (facade) opening principles and choice of panes and shading devices is also given. The possibilities and limitations of the system are described and the advantages and disadvantages are presented. Daylight simulations control strategies are also discussed. Finally, roughly 50 case studies are briefly described.
In order to serve as a literature report for the SHC IEA Task 34/ECBCS Annex 43  an extensive description of modeling approaches and methods for DSF was added in the existing literature review report (in 2006), covering modeling issues including airflow and thermal simulations. In his PhD thesis, an analysis of different double-skin facade types is carried out and conclusions are drawn for integration in Nordic climatic conditions.
- Bryan, Harvey (1991). "Le Corbusier and the "Mur Neutralisant": An Early Experiment in Double Envelope Construction". Proceedings of the Ninth International PLEA Conference. pp. 257–62.
- Braham, William (2005). "Active Glass Walls: A Typological and Historical Account".
- Meyer Boake, Terri. "The Tectonics of the Double Skin: Green Building or Just more Hi-Tech Hi-Jinx?" (PDF).
- Grondzik, Walter T.; Alison G. Kwok; Benjamin Stein; John S. Reynolds (2009). Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings. John Wiley and Sons. p. 133.
- Mingotti, Nicola; Chenvidyakarn Torwong; Woods A. W. (2010). "The fluid mechanics of the natural ventilation of a narrow-cavity double-skin facade". Building and Environment. 46: 807–823. doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2010.09.015.
- "Home" (PDF). ashrae.org. Retrieved 2012-12-27.[permanent dead link]
- iea-shc.org Archived December 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.