In August 2012, Simpson Strong-Tie launched a comprehensive, innovative solution for curtain-wall framing. Our lead engineer for developing our line of connectors for curtain-wall construction explains the purpose of the curtain wall with the illustrations below.
First, curtain walls are not what you put up if you shared a room with your brother and sister when you were growing up. When I first learned about the use of cold-formed steel curtain walls, I laughed and thought: “Gosh, how useful this would be for someone growing up with 5 siblings in one bedroom!” I have always enjoyed the sense of humor that our engineers use to help explain technical topics.
Curtain walls can be described as exterior building walls with the primary purpose of protecting the interior building against the exterior weather and natural phenomena such as sun exposure, temperature changes, earthquakes, rain and wind.
To put it in structural terms, a curtain-wall system consists of non-load-bearing exterior walls that must still carry their own weight. Curtain walls are not part of the primary structural framing for the building, but they typically rely on the primary structural framing for support. Additionally, curtain walls receive wind and seismic loads and transfer these forces to the primary building structure.
Types of Curtain Walls
Glass and cladding curtain walls make up two basic types of curtain-wall systems. Glass curtain-wall systems are usually designed using aluminum-framed walls with in-fills of glass. The cladding curtain wall is a system with back-up framing that is covered in some type of cladding material. The cladding curtain-wall system is the type in which Simpson Strong-Tie products can be used.
The back-up framing is the structural element of the curtain-wall system. It is typically constructed with cold-formed steel studs ranging from 31/2″ to 8″ deep, in 33 mil (20 ga.) to 97 mil (12 ga.) steel thicknesses. The framing studs are typically spaced at 16″or 24″ on center. There are many different types of cladding materials. They include, but are not limited to, exterior insulation finish systems (EIFS), glass-fiber-reinforced concrete (GFRC), bricks, metal panels and stone panels.
One essential function of the curtain wall is to allow for relative movement between the curtain-wall system and the main building structure. At first, it was not obvious to me why making this allowance was necessary, but our product development team creatively explained some of the reasons why this is an important must-have feature for curtain walls.
Second, the structure sways and has torsional displacement due to movement from lateral wind or seismic loads.
Third, concrete structures typically encounter creep and shrinkage, and there may be foundation differential settlement or soil compression from high-gravity loads.
Lastly, the temperature differential may cause the building elements to expand and contract, which, again, can result in relative movement between structural elements. This is similar to a bridge’s steel plate expansion joint system.
And if you are a curious designer like me, you probably wonder why the relative vertical moment is so significant in engineering design.
One key reason is to ensure that the curtain walls do not collect gravity loads from the building, so as to prevent overloading and possible failure of the stud framing. In addition, a well-designed curtain-wall system needs to retain the primary structural load path as intended by the building designer.
The other reason is to protect the cladding of the building. If you remember earlier, the cladding material may be marble, granite or natural stones that are often very expensive and heavy. In some cases, the cladding can be one of the most expensive systems in a building. And there are times when it’s much more cost-effective to design for relative movement than it is to over-design structural framing to address the stringent deflection requirements.
Bypass framing is a term that is often used in curtain-wall construction. In this system, the metal studs bypass the floor and hang off the outside edges of the building. You can see from the illustration how the studs run past, or bypass, the edge of the slab. In this case, the studs are supported vertically on the foundation at the bottom, and then run continuously past multiple floor levels.
In steel construction, concrete fill over metal deck is typically constructed with a heavy-gauge bent plate or structural angle. Connectors can attach directly to the steel angle or the web of an edge beam.
It may seem that this type of construction is too complex and requires great efforts to detail the many connections needed to hang the curtain wall off the outside of the building. So what are the compelling reasons to choose bypass framing construction?
Bypass framing can accommodate flexibility for the architect. In another words, the bypass configuration easily allows architects to create reveals, set-backs and other architectural features. Plus, there are fewer joints to detail for movement when stud length can run continuously for several floors. Another benefit is that the exterior finish can also be installed on a curtain-wall system with a tighter tolerance than the edge of the structure.
One other special bypass framing type is known as ribbon window or spandrel framing. Ribbon windows are a series of windows set side by side to form a continuous band horizontally across a façade. The vertical deflection for this type of bypass framing is typically accommodated at the window head. This type of bypass usually works well for panelized construction.
Another common curtain-wall system is infill framing, where the studs run from the top of one floor to the underside of the floor above. Sometimes it’s a challenge to attach bypass framing to the edge of thin concrete slabs. In the following illustration, deflection is designed at the top track of wall panels.
In Part 2 of this blog post series, I will provide more details about how we have innovated products to be used for this application, plus a more comprehensive post about the products we offer and how they are typically used.
I would like to invite you to comment and provide feedback on this topic and tell us whether you’ve had any experience working with a Designer on a CFS curtain-wall project. If you are a Designer who specializes in this discipline, how are you designing curtain-wall systems for seismic forces?