Architects are adding composite exteriors to buildings for a striking effect, plus functionality.

David Riebe knows architecture. And he knows composites, too. After earning a master’s degree in architecture, he spent most of the 1990s practicing with several firms. In 1998, he began a 12-year stint teaching design, theory and technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In 2010, he left academia to join the composites industry, becoming a partner at Windsor Fiberglass Inc., a fabrication shop in Burgaw, N.C.

The career leap was not a stretch. “A lot of teaching dealt with emerging technologies and transitioning from a design-oriented practice to a fabrication-oriented interest,” says Riebe. He has combined his knowledge of both fields to create a line of semi-customizable composite cladding in partnership with Jefferson Ellinger, associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and founding partner of E/Ye Design, an architecture firm based in Jackson, Wyo.

The marriage of architecture and composites is not new. But the use of glass fiber-reinforced plastics within buildings has been limited. “So far, composites have been largely pigeonholed within architecture to columns, cupolas, cornices and other decorative elements,” says Riebe. “There’s a real chance to bridge cutting-edge design with cutting-edge materials.” He and Ellinger hope the fiberglass cladding they have developed and installed on three buildings so far will help push the envelope of composites usage in construction.

They are not alone in their quest to push composites to the forefront in the architecture industry. “The market potential is so huge it makes the marine market look like a pinprick,” says Bill Kreysler, president of Kreysler & Associates Inc., American Canyon, Calif., and chair of ACMA’s Architectural Division. The custom fabrication shop has spent more than two decades designing, engineering and manufacturing composite products for architectural projects ranging from cathedrals to concert halls. “I keep telling my friends on the material side – resins and fiberglass – that if we can get a little help introducing our products to the construction industry, the potential is mind-boggling,” says Kreysler.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider three recent design-build projects that have placed composites front and center – literally. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Gilday residence in Wyoming and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s net-zero laboratory all feature FRP facades. The exterior of these buildings are both visually striking and functional thanks to the teamwork of composites companies, architects and general contractors.