Design and Application
Glass as a Surface Material in Architecture
How is the evolution of advanced glass solutions transforming architects’ and designers’ perceptions of glass?
As architects and designers, we have always looked to glass to provide transparency and strength (or protection) in our applications. This has most typically come in the form of using glass to define a transparent enclosure i.e. a window, an office partition, a table top, or full glass building exteriors known as curtainwalls. These applications have historically relied on glass production methods that consisted of allowing molten glass to cool slowly on a bed of metal – a method that produces float glass. Float glass’ inherent structure and rigidity results in glass that must be held by frames or points in space to hold its weight. Typically, this meant the bigger the glass; the bigger the frame or more points of support necessary. Innovations in glass manufacturing technology have been radically altering the dimensions and physical properties of this age-old material, creating chemically toughened sheets of glass that are lighter, thinner, and optically clear with little to no visual distortion while continuing to provide exceptional surface strength. Architects and designers are now exploring ways to implement this spectacular ancient material.
I was introduced to thin, chemically strengthened glass approximately 10 years ago. I was excited to handle the paper-thin material and know that it was, in fact, chemically strengthened glass – I had never seen anything like it. While I was used to designing with thick, heavy pieces of glass, I was intrigued by the possibilities of extremely thin, transparent, lightweight, strengthened glass and the opportunities it lent to the architecture industry. Since that first chance encounter, my firm has been collaborating with fabricators to explore opportunities to introduce the advanced glass solution to the architectural market.
I must say that it was fortuitous that my introduction to this glass happened the way it did. Architects like me who worked on tall core and shell tower buildings will commonly also design the high-profile elevator and lobbies of these buildings. Core and shell buildings are typically comprised of the building lobby, core infrastructure, including the elevator, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, and the extensive exterior building enclosure that keeps the weather out and temperature controlled inside. It happened that I was able to introduce this material to a contact who dealt solely with elevator finishes. It took some time to figure out the specific uses and assemblies, but, ultimately, it became clear that this material was ideal for the demanding industry of elevator finishes. It made sense that a material that was extremely thin, light, and super durable would be advantageous to a space that was small, weight conscious, and gets a lot of abuse. This niche industry became a very good testing ground for the use of such a product.
BC—OA, we have worked on numerous interior elevator modernizations that required a lightweight, decorative finish materials on the interior due to weight restrictions of an older elevator mechanical hoisting system. Building owners on these projects typically want the added value of contemporary finishes without the need for rebalancing the counterweight mechanisms of their elevators. This is where chemically toughened glass has added significant value to our projects due to its extra thinness and high-strength characteristics. On past projects, standard float glass applications increased the weight of the elevator, which limited the other materials that we could use in a complimentary fashion in the elevator cab. Chemically strengthened glass solves this problem. Weight hasn’t been the only attribute that made chemically strengthened, thin glass the best material for these projects. On most all of the projects, the protective nature of the thin glass has also added value to the aesthetic offering by permitting the use of more vulnerable materials in these high-traffic areas. This was typically achieved by using an antiglare version of the thin glass over the desired aesthetic backing material.
This material benefit extends outside of the elevator cab as well. As designers, we are often advocating for a holistic design approach for the common spaces in a building, which would establish a design connection between a building’s lobby, elevators, and common floor lobbies; thus creating a cohesive design and identity for a building. Often times, however, the extreme design requirements for elevators have prohibited establishing such a link. Now because of the advantages of chemically strengthened glass and with the process of our own iterative design process, we have been able to more successfully establish that material connection between the design of the elevator cab and that of a building lobby, creating a cohesive, sinuous experience of the common spaces of the building.
The architectural industry is now collaborating with new companies that are helping architects explore even more brilliant material combinations for our built environment. It was just a matter of time before realizing the material innovations that had begun in the tech industry could translate to the world of architectural surfaces and help solve some of architects and designers biggest material burdens. This magical quality of strength and invisibility has now been put to a new test.
The materials that designers and architects choose to define the surfaces around us are a statement of an aesthetic and functional purpose. Architects and designers can now explore new glass surfaces that define our spatial surroundings in even more ways than before. With these advanced glass solutions, we are confident that longevity through low maintenance and durability can be achieved while still providing the most brilliant aesthetic surroundings that make our world beautiful.
Article contributed by Luigi Ciaccia, AIA, LEED BD+C, Principal, BC—OA.