Redefining the Building Envelope

Island Exterior Fabricators

Island Exterior Fabricators is proud to bring new expertise to building envelopes. I spoke with Ed Harms, managing partner at both its headquarters and Calverton, New York and Kyle Birchall, its business developer in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Looking at architectural publications filled with images of modern buildings exquisitely clad in unexpected materials from metal shingles to metal frames decked with interesting polyurethane moldings makes it easy for the layman to forget that building envelopes really are much more than futuristic or decorative additions to the exteriors of finished structures.

Beautiful as modern façade systems are, building envelopes include all exterior elements that protect buildings’ interiors, both structurally and non-structurally. The craftsmanship and materials used to envelop buildings play a major role in the energy efficiency, aesthetic value, and overall quality of the finished product, as most designers would hope to protect interiors from the elements in beautiful, effective, and durable ways.

The building envelope division originally started as a general contractor in New York but was doing so well that, when Ed was charged with heading up this division in 2010, it was turned into a very large, independent operation. Kyle joined the company at the launch of the Boston division in 2013, and this has grown from a young satellite office to a fully-fledged branch in its own right. In addition to these two offices, the company also runs another office in New York City.

Island Exterior Fabricators offers a refreshing deviation from the traditional client-contractor relationship, as it believes in clear and skillful design and development and execution processes that ease the intricacies of projects. It also focuses on exceeding client expectations and balancing the interests of all parties involved. To ensure a healthy turnover of successful projects, it cultivates strong and lasting relationships with both its clients and, very importantly, with its industry partners.

Collaboration is key. The company prides itself on systems that outperform those of its competitors, and it is always looking to improve on technologies available on the market today. “While prefabrication of building envelopes has been around for a long time, the systems and technologies that we bring to the market are redefining how envelopes are delivered and how they perform. It allows our products to play a far superior role in how the envelope is delivered,” says Ed.

The company is exceptionally agile in meeting clients’ project needs and will do anything to help develop envelopes and façades that function exactly as expected, whether that is as part of a design’s noise reduction, temperature control, and or aesthetic strategies. All of these often demand highly technical solutions, so the finished project meets required performance criteria while remaining true to the intended design.

The company’s business model and technological capabilities are very cleverly designed around its industry challenges. Dealing with traditional envelope construction is a common issue as outdated installation methods are costly and slow with much less to offer in terms of quality. In a bid to turn these outdated techniques around, Island Exterior Fabricators has completely changed the world of building envelope design and installation, with cost-effective solutions being an added benefit.

Its prefabrication facility eliminates most of the fieldwork, ensuring the highest quality production from the very beginning. Prefabrication significantly simplifies the installation process and eliminates the risk of quality issues cropping up later. “There is a great misconception that prefabricating building envelopes mean a lack of quality as well as being very limited in its design and material possibilities, while in reality, the contrary is true,” says Ed.

The company arranges its teams and resources to respond to how buildings are being created today. Efficiency in both assembly and delivery is very important, and the company is forever developing new technologies to speed the building process. Maintaining the highest level of quality throughout is imperative as the excellent long-term performance of the envelope results in the long-term sustainability of a building. Therefore, building envelopes must achieve a number of very important factors, making schedule management of the utmost importance.

Firstly, envelopes must render the building entirely weather-tight to prevent the structure from being damaged by the elements. Secondly, it must provide and maintain thermal insulation, and thirdly, it must provide acoustic insulation. “The long-term performance of any building envelope in these three areas ultimately decides the sustainability of a building,” says Ed.

It takes much dedication and innovation to bring all of these elements together in a way that satisfies function, form, and the owners’ budget. Much has changed in this innovation-driven industry, lately. “In the past ten to fifteen years, we’ve identified a shift in ideology in nearly all stakeholder circles. Job performance is changing to a highly collaborative type of group mentality, and long-term performance is becoming increasingly more important,” says Kyle.

Traditionally, contractor and subcontractor goals were not always aligned with those of the ownership or design team. “We aim to first understand the scope of the work that we are responsible for from a technological and prefabrication point of view and then, from an installation perspective, to enable the successful completion of each project,” says Ed. With the increased sophistication and geometric complexity that modern design presents, advancements in hardware and software development have brought about phenomenal improvements in the design of buildings’ thermal and fire resistance, making them more energy efficient and saving lives.

Its façades are incredibly adaptable and are typically supported by steel-framed backbones wrapped in extruded aluminum and fabricated into panels. “It is our goal to be the best versed in transforming the most diverse range of materials into exquisite façades, and that is why our clients come to us. When a client has a new material or a new application for a traditional material, and they need an envelope partner who will embrace the challenge of designing and integrating their ideas, they come to us,” says Ed.

And this really is where this company excels. When a client wants their design to reinterpret an ancient material, like stone or terracotta, Island Exterior Fabricators can make it happen. With the use of computer numerical control (CNC), automated fabrication tools can bring beautiful 3D computer designs to life on automated fabrication lines. The company’s team of over one hundred designers and engineers collaborate with designers and architects to tailor designs and technology around each client’s specifications and goals, to render a fresh, unique result every time.

There are a few prize buildings that stand out, one of which is the National September 11 Memorial Museum at 180 Greenwich Street, New York. This project is particularly exceptional for being the company’s best example of leading architecture and advanced technology which was developed in response to its blast and ballistic specifications.

Another one of the company’s prime example building envelope projects is the Bloomberg Centre, on 2 W Loop Rd, also in New York. Having been featured in several prominent architectural publications, this building’s custom-designed envelope really demonstrates Island Exterior Fabricators’ ability to achieve superb quality, even in exceptionally complicated architectural designs. Then, settled along Hutchinson River Parkway, the New York Public Safety Answering building is another sample of its breathtaking portfolio that stands out as the company’s first fully unitized aluminum curtain walling project.

Always leading the way in terms of technology, form, function, and the reinterpretation of familiar materials, Island Exterior Fabricators is heading for ever greater success. With the growing need for high-end building envelopes, breaking into new markets with its continued advancements will no doubt ensure its place in American design history.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 18, 2019, 7:48 AM EDT