What Is Cladding? - Definition, Systems & Materials

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  • 0:03 Definition of Cladding
  • 1:08 Basic Cladding Materials
  • 2:24 20th Century Cladding…
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What protects a building from the elements? Why do many modern homes have aluminum or vinyl siding on them? In this lesson, we'll learn the basics of cladding, an architectural term that refers to a covering or coating on the outside of a building.

Definition of Cladding

Cladding is any material used to cover a structure's exterior. Picture a protective layer over a surface like a roof or exterior wall. Just as your skin protects internal bones and organs, cladding protects against the elements and shields against environmental conditions.

Cladding doesn't have to be waterproof, but it often controls how elements hit or fall on a surface. Think about how a raincoat allows rain to slide off of you rather than soaking your clothing. Cladding can also serve a decorative function, to hide a more structural but perhaps not attractive substrate (which is stronger material that underlies a surface and acts as a stabilizer).

Diagram of rainscreen cladding

In the diagram, the cladding, made of lightweight panels attached to the surface, deflects rainwater from the side of the structure. Cladding is not usually part of the structural frame, so it does not support a building's weight. But cladding does keep wind and rain out, and it allows the structure to last longer.

Basic Cladding Materials

Cladding has been used in architecture for a long time. Over the ages, materials have varied. From ancient times through the 19th century, it was usually a hard substance like cedar wood or stone, or a material resistant to corrosion like copper, brass and bronze. Such metals will react with the elements (copper turns green, for example), but they still protect what's beneath them.

How was cladding applied to a building? It often involved an exterior layer of individual bricks, clay tiles, or overlapping shingles, which could be held in place by a layer of mortar, or by wood or metal pegs. Sometimes the tiles or bricks were overlapped and/or layered against a strip of molding, a piece of wood or other material placed at the intersection of corners, a roof edge, or other area to serve as a border. In all of these systems, each piece of tile or shingle would be attached directly to the building. As new materials were discovered, they were incorporated into cladding systems. But some materials, like asbestos tiles, have since fallen out of favor. Asbestos provided protection from the elements but it turned out to be dangerous to human health.

20th Century Cladding Materials

In the early 20th century, terra cotta panels (tiles made of glazed red clay) were decorative and fireproof, and often used on buildings in urban areas. The tiles were molded with ribbed backs that could be fastened to metal ties anchored into the building.

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