Guest Author Series - Howard Yao | Glass Age | Corning

Design and Application

Glass Age Guest Author Series- Howard Yao

How do developers and designers look at materials differently?

There are so many ways I can look at buildings:

       - Socially, they are containers or places that facilitate the various activities of our lives.

       - Urbanistically, they are formal objects that shape our built environment.

       - Aesthetically, they can be a magnet for praise or ridicule.

       - Financially, they are often the most expensive things we buy or invest in.

       - Historically, they give you a glimpse into the values and technology that were available to a culture.

       - Physically, they are an assemblage of materials - thousands of different materials that work together             towards a singular outcome.

It is this last point where you can begin to see how a designer looks at materials for their physical qualities. Designers often have a wide range of material properties they seek, some poetic and some quite pragmatic. A designer may want something strong, fireproof, transparent, lightweight, insulating, or colorful. It is through this lens that designers can take a design concept and begin to assign and specify materials that serve all the various needs of a building.

After 20 years of architectural practice, my career is now in real estate development at Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. At any given time, I have at least a million square feet of development in design or under construction in the San Francisco/Bay area. To put it into perspective, that’s about 17 football fields. I think developers and designers look at materials a bit differently, the main difference being timeframe. A designer is involved in a project for a few months for a small interiors project to a few years for a new complex building. As a developer, my timeframe is much longer. We own the land, we develop a building, we lease the building, then it continues for decades of lease renewals and countless tenant improvement construction projects within that building.

Because the developer timeframe spans decades and not just months or years, I place a high value on a few elements when considering materials:

1.       Enduring beauty

2.       Cost-effective operations and maintenance

3.       Flexibility to accommodate ever-changing tenant needs


One technology I am particularly excited about is the use of smart windows – glass that can change from clear to tinted in a quick and seamless way. This technology is not particularly new; however, recent developments have made this technology perform faster and more cost efficiently. So instead of just using smart windows in smaller applications like skylights or conference rooms, Alexandria Real Estate is currently exploring the use of smart windows for the exterior of entire buildings. This extensive use of smart windows helps me achieve my three project goals.

Enduring Beauty – The design of a building can be highly subjective, but the physical properties of a material are very objective. At its most basic level, glass has always been valued for its transparency and durability. Glass does not fade, warp, or tarnish – it continues to look beautiful after many decades. The use of smart windows also allows for the elimination of all exterior window shades. This is significant because people that pull down shades tend to leave them down. So, from the interior, exterior views are obstructed. From the exterior, the beautiful design of a building becomes a random patchwork of window shades dangling at various heights. By using smart windows, there are no window shades to leave down, the interior view is never blocked, and the glass exterior is crisp and clean, expressing the architect’s intended vision.

Cost-effective operations and maintenance – The use of smart windows are a solid state system with no moving parts. The tint of the glass only changes when a low voltage electrical current is introduced, otherwise the glass stays in its current state, consuming no energy. But smart windows can significantly reduce a building’s energy consumption and lower energy costs. As the sun heats up one side of the building, instead of directing more cooling to that area, the building can simply darken the glass of that area, until the sun moves on to another face of the building. With the use of sensors, the glass can automatically darken when needed but then lighten when the solar heat gain is no longer present. To save energy while preserving views is a definite win-win.

Flexibility to accommodate ever-changing tenant needs – Our tenants can range from a small startup company, to a biopharma giant, to the next pre-IPO technology company. Each of these tenants have different needs, and smart windows allow one building to better adapt to those various requirements. A conference room can be full of natural light for a meeting but darken immediately for a video presentation. When a conversation goes from casual to confidential, the occupants can change the glass tint to respond to the environment. 

These are some of the ways I hope smart windows will help shape our next generation of development at Alexandria Real Estate. Whenever a material can help make a building more integrated, higher performing, flexible, adaptable, recyclable, and beautiful, then both developers and tenants win. And I have yet to meet a designer who wasn’t excited about working with this material as well!


Article contributed by Howard Yao, Vice President, Real Estate Development & Design, Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc.