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Unitized Systems Are Raising the Level and
Complexity of Curtain-Wall Design
Factory-built components let architects achieve the quality clients now demand
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By Sara Hart



Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. List the benefits of unitized construction systems.

2. Describe how unitized systems differ from stick building.

3. Discuss the collaboration of disciplines required of unitized construction.

Facade engineering has always been science. Now it’s art, too. As reported in this magazine last August, a building’s skin is no longer a passive wrapper articulated with spandrels, mullions, and low-e glazing. Because of growing client demands and technological innovations, making a curtain wall now requires a team of collaborators—designers, engineers, and fabricators. The linear path to creation has been supplanted by integrated teamwork.


A staircase behind the Burberry facade creates a zone that enlivens the showrooms for several floors, blurring the line between inside and out.
Photography: © Chun Lai Photography


This developing paradigm of collaboration is the logical consequence of a shift away from so-called stick building to unitized systems, especially in those projects that require small margins of error and demand a high level of craftsmanship. Whereas in stick construction everything is done in the field, as raw materials are processed and assembled on-site, much of unitized construction takes place off-site. The facade is engineered as a system of components, which are fabricated in the controlled environment of a factory or workshop. The components are shipped to the site, where they are usually hoisted into place by cranes and connected to each other.

Unitized construction is particularly well suited to the demand for high thermal performance, weather tightness, and increasingly, quality detailing. Although quite different in program and execution, the success of all three projects discussed here depended on a close collaboration among all the disciplines.


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