Commercial Rainscreens vs. Barrier Walls: Which Is More Effective?

Water and moisture management are among the most important aspects of new construction design, as a building’s ability to repel unwanted precipitation has a direct impact on its condition and lifespan. When unwanted water finds its way into a building over an extended period of time, it can wreak havoc on the internal infrastructure. As a result, incorporating an adequate water control system into your design plans should be a top priority.

Two common ways to protect a building from the elements is through a commercial rainscreen or a protective barrier wall. Both options have their pros and cons, and the best choice ultimately comes down to your budget and design preferences. In this post, we’ll review both options. But first, let’s take a look at the most common ways water can enter a commercial building:

4 Common Ways Water Enters A Building

Before you can truly appreciate how rainscreens and wall barriers operate, it’s important to be aware of the most common ways water can penetrate a building.

  • Gravity – Gravity pulls rainwater down, which means your building must be equipped to expel rainwater away from its foundation.
  • Wind propelled rain – Wind propels water sideways, which increases your attack surface.
  • Surface tension – Surface tension allows water molecules to combine and create film layers on surfaces. 
  • Capillaries or narrow spaces – Adhesion actually allows water to move upwards through narrow space in a building.
  • Condensation – When air temperatures fall below the dew point, moisture condenses on exterior surfaces

What Is A Commercial Rainscreen System?

A commercial rainscreen system consists of a series of elements that work together to keep water, vapor, and moisture out of a building. It also protects the exterior wall from other weather-related elements such as ice build-up and harmful UV ray exposure. A commercial rainscreen generally has three primary components:

  • Exterior cladding layer – This is the first line of defense against rainwater and moisture. The cladding layer also protects the building from wind, ice, and UV ray exposure.
  • Air Cavity – Consists of a small open space that helps reduce the amount of water that makes its way to the protective barrier. It also promotes ventilation and helps eliminate vapor.
  • Thermal Layer – This layer sits directly on top of the exterior wall. By the time water reaches the ventilation layer, it has lost momentum and is likely to be pulled downward by gravity.

Pros And Cons Of Commercial Rainscreens?

Rainscreens are multi-layer systems commonly used on commercial buildings to keep water out. Rainscreens provide a number of protective benefits:


  • Reduces Condensation
    The air cavity layer of a commercial rainscreen system promotes air circulation which helps reduce condensation and moisture around the building’s exterior.
  • Supports Infrastructure
    Rainscreens help regulate the temperature of your exterior wall by promoting air circulation, which ultimately reduces the risk of cracking or damage. By protecting the building from the elements, it also helps increase the lifespan of the facade.
  • Energy Efficiency
    Because commercial rainscreens promote exterior airflow and regulate temperatures, hot and cold air are less likely to be transferred to your building’s interior, which means your HVAC system won’t have to work as hard to maintain an internal temperature.


  • Expensive
    Because rainscreens are comprised of multiple elements, they may be more expensive upfront both in terms of materials and installation. 
  • Installation
    Since a rainscreen system consists of multiple layers that must be connected, installation can be more difficult than other solutions. This is why you should only work with a subcontractor that specializes in commercial rainscreens.
  • Components And Requirements Vary By Region
    Different components and materials may be required in different areas of the country depending on climate.

What Are Barrier Walls?

Barrier wall systems come in many different forms, but they all serve the same purpose — preventing the flow of air, water, and vapor from entering or exiting a building. A barrier wall protects a building from weather often through the use of a single element. Metal siding, panels, and curtain walls are all examples of protective wall barriers. Some wall barriers may also include a separate vapor barrier.  The key to ensuring an effective barrier wall is proper installation and the lifespan of your gaskets and sealants. This can’t be stressed enough. All materials must be precisely installed to ensure optimal performance.

When dealing with barrier walls, it’s also important to pair them with a cladding material that is also water-resistant in order to increase its effectiveness. Using a material that doesn’t absorb moisture, such as concrete, is usually a good idea.

Pros And Cons Of Barrier Walls

Barrier walls are often single-layer systems, such as metal panels, that protect the exterior wall from elements. Below are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using barrier walls in a commercial design.


  • Accessibility
    A barrier wall system often consists of a series of panels, each of which can be independently removed and inspected if needed. As a result, it’s easy to conduct inspections and make repairs on specific portions of the system at any given time. Rainscreens are much less accessible.
  • Cost-Effective
    Generally speaking, barrier wall systems may be more cost-effective simply because they don’t require as many parts. This also might lead to cheaper labor costs since installation will likely be more efficient.
  • Less Direct Exposure
    When installed properly, a barrier system should cover the entire exterior wall, which means your building should receive complete protection from severe weather and UV rays.


  • Lack Of Ventilation 
    Because barrier walls are completely sealed, there is significantly less ventilation within the system. This means that any moisture that does make its way in is less likely to dry. This is why it’s important not to use wood or any other moisture collecting cladding materials. 
  • Potential System Failure
    Barrier wall systems are very effective until a seal or gasket fails and allows water entry. Because wall systems are usually comprised of a single element, there is no backup layer to eliminate water once the initial wall is compromised. Over time, it’s easy for the weather to break down the sealants and make them less effective.

Both commercial rainscreens and barrier walls are strong, effective options for protecting a building from water exposure. Climate plays a huge role in determining the best fit. For example, some dry areas of California may not need to control for moisture in the same manner someone building in Florida. 

Regardless of how you choose to keep water out of your building, the most important thing is the quality, skills, and experience of the subcontractor your choose to do the work. Because rainscreens and barrier panels require complex installation, you need to work with a company you can trust to get the job done right.

At Unique Building Group, we have over 30 years of experience installing commercial rainscreens, and there is no project too complex for our firm. Contact us today.