Architectural Finishes – What are they and what purpose(s) do they serve?

An analysis of architectural finishes and the role they play.

What is an architectural finish?

We often talk about ‘architectural finishes’ within the construction industry and in everyday language in relation to aspects of a building that is visible to anyone using or viewing both the exterior and interior parts of a building. Architects and designers typically use this terminology specifically to describe a wide range of surface treatments to horizontal surfaces (floors and ceilings) and vertical surfaces (walls) fixed to the main structural elements of the building (floor and ceiling slabs, block walls or stud walls) to complete or enhance the aesthetic experience of interior and exterior parts of a building.

How to define the term

A search for a clear definition of “architectural finishes” yields meagre returns however a simple unpacking of the root words is helpful. ‘Architecture’ according to the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture is about the design of structures that is ‘in keeping with aesthetic, functional or other criteria’ while a ‘Finish’ is simply something that completes or concludes a process. The engineering network website gives the closest thing to a formal definition; defining an architectural finish as “a standard finish characterized by a uniformly good appearance. This finish is most often specified for ‘exposed’ surfaces”. The primary supporting structures of any building are the foundations, floors, columns and beams, walls and roof, all of which can be architectural in as much as they convey both functional and aesthetic intents.

Architectural finishes that complete the treatment of any horizontal and vertical surfaces whilst not being strictly necessary for the structural integrity of the building, serve both functional and certainly aesthetic purposes. As such, it is a description that can be applied to both the surface treatments applied to the exterior as well as the interior of a building or structure and includes its overall expanse (surface area) and may also refer to its junctions and connections between one surface treatment and another (in reference to the ‘finishing’.

Prague’s Nationale-Nederlanden building designed by Vlado Milunić and Canadian Frank Gehry. The shape of the building was created by the use of 99 concrete panels, each a different shape and dimension.

Prague’s Nationale-Nederlanden building designed by Vlado Milunić and Canadian Frank Gehry. The shape of the building was created by the use of 99 concrete panels, each a different shape and dimension.

Architectural finishes in a holistic sense can refer to a variety of textures, solidities, colours and materials and refers to hard and soft permanently fixed finishes such as plaster or render and other surface coatings, such as paint and wallpaper, internal and external claddings of timber, stone, glass, resins and aggregates, metals, ceramics and polycarbonates. This emphasis on a fixed nature indicates a line of separation between architectural and decorative finishes which typically encompass loose decorative finishes for example, curtains and blinds, screens and cushions and temporarily attached fixtures that are designed to be removable for ease of regular updates due to changes in style and taste.

Structural or not

Architectural finishes by their distinct permanent and fixed nature can in some instances contribute to the structural weight of the building and need to be included in the structural calculations at the design and detailing stage prior to construction to ensure that these can be adequately supported by the building supporting structure. Although loose fixtures and fittings such as furniture and furnishings are also supported by the building fabric, these do not provide structural stability but may place additional demands on the building’s primary structural support. In differentiating between interior decorative finishes and architectural (interior and exterior) finishes, we can see that architectural finishes can serve a supportive structural role, an integral functional role such as protection against water permeability and improvement of the resistance of the primary structure to dirt, as well serve an aesthetic role by enhancing the overall beauty of a building or structure.

Current trends in architectural finishes for interior use include:

  • Ironmongery ranges specially design to appeal to specific aesthetic tastes,
  • water or oil-based paints for modern and historic buildings with breathable, wipe-able and fungicidal
    properties,
  • paper and vinyl wallpapers,
  • metals such as aluminium and stainless steel that may be milled, textured and embossed panels,
  • external metal (aluminium, copper, titanium) patterned and embossed claddings,
  • external rain screens.

The staircase for Google, 6 Pancras Square, London, UK used blackened stainless steel with over-wax finish to create a sculptural feel. Showing view from below the stairs. Photography by Tim Soar.

The staircase for Google, 6 Pancras Square, London, UK used blackened stainless steel with over-wax finish to create a sculptural feel. Showing view from below the stairs. Photography by Tim Soar.

Traditional brick and natural stone claddings are also staging a strong comeback due to their durability and low maintenance costs. Some of the architectural finishes mentioned above can also play a key role in the process of reconfiguring and redeveloping an existing building to extend its lease of life, and also in terms of re-use of buildings or change of use of buildings from one typology to another. This whole area of building refurbishment and change of use of buildings means that often it is not the primary supporting structure that undergoes major changes, but the architectural finishes are removed and may be changed, or modified and reconfigured to facilitate the process of extending a building’s lifespan, or transform it into new use(s).

The Red Brick Art Museum in Bejing, China, designed by architect Dong Yugan, uses brick for interior and exterior cladding incorporating sculptural surfaces and structures. Image from dezeen.

The Red Brick Art Museum in Bejing, China, designed by architect Dong Yugan, uses brick for interior and exterior cladding incorporating sculptural surfaces and structures. Image from dezeen.

Ultimately, the terminology ‘architectural finishes’ describes final finishing for horizontal and vertical (interior and exterior) surfaces and is not describing a new idea at all, as many of the types of finishes identified above have been around for hundreds of years. They are an integral part of architecture and building; serving as a conclusion of the process of achieving functional and aesthetic purposes. Although these finishes may not help provide structural support for a building or structure, they serve clear functional purposes and make an unquantifiable contribution to the perception of the beauty of buildings and structures.