Volume 40, Issue 11 November 2005
American in Paris
A Global Perspective in Fire Rated Safety Glass
by P. Kirk Ratzel
Having been in the fire-rated safety glass industry for more than 20 years, I can recall my fascination the first time I observed a fire test, just at the beginning of my career in the U.S. glass and glazing industry. The product tested bore little resemblance to polished wired glass; what I witnessed was the historic event of the first clear, non-wired fire and safety-rated glass introduced to North America. That product was the Vetrotech Saint-Gobain product Contraflam®, although at that point my involvement with Saint-Gobain was still several years in the future. It was when I became vice president of engineering for O’Keeffe’s Inc. that I had the valuable opportunity to immerse myself in the subject while this emerging technology struggled to take hold. I had caught the “fire fever,” and took the big leap of pursuing my newfound fascination at the very birthplace of these new technologies—Europe.
A New Product
In 1992, as an expatriated American citizen, I found myself in the unlikely position of market development manager for a closely-held, private Swiss company, then known as Vetrotech AG. This company had been founded on the simple principal that fire-resistant glass should possess two essential properties: clear visual aesthetics combined with accidental human impact safety. It was a revolutionary yet entirely logical idea that had taken the European markets by storm. The national building codes embraced the idea and by the mid-1990s, polished wired glass was largely abandoned in favor of safer and higher performing alternatives. Our U.S. distributors would, for a time, include the familiar names of O’Keeffe’s Inc. and Technical Glass Products.
In 1996, Saint-Gobain Glass acquired Vetrotech and fused its fire protection glass activities under the name Vetrotech Saint-Gobain International. My job then turned toward developing our export business, and we set our sights on North America as well as Asia. Established players such as Pilkington, Glaverbel and Schott would also share the markets with varying technologies, and somewhat different product philosophies. Some newcomers would also emerge as well, as the market potential continued to expand.
In Europe, “multi-function” had become the buzzword. Fire-resistance and impact safety were the accepted norm. Clear optics was a good starting point, but other complimentary aesthetic and performance requirements were increasingly in demand. Architects, and indeed building owners, insurers and occupants, came to expect the same features for fire-resistant glass as they would from other high-performance architectural glass. New technologies that flourished in this environment came into being. The markets had moved light years beyond the functional and aesthetic limits of the original inlaid wired-mesh forerunner.
So, it is with great interest that I have observed the developments in the United States over the past few years. The United States has been slower, comparatively, in embracing the newer technologies than in Europe. Advocates for Safe Glass Inc., a non-profit glass industry outsider based in Oregon, brought key life-safety issues concerning wired glass to the surface and acted as the catalyst to bring about important building-code changes that affected fire-rated glazed assemblies. Whatever you may judge the impact to be on the U.S. glass industry, the world is a safer place, albeit at least one child’s life-altering injury too late.
The chief argument against “new technology” fire-resistant glass types has been economic impact—simply put, that it will add costs to building construction that somehow might outweigh added benefits in terms of human safety and fire-loss control. I can only relate that, in my experience, as markets open, competition increases and prices tumble—but legislation is the driver.
The Final Frontier
North America is among the last domains of polished wired glass. With the exception of Japan and the United Kingdom, other developed markets for fire-resistant glass have yielded to alternative products. Newly-developing markets have bypassed the product altogether in favor of alternative products, which often feature more selective and higher performance fire- resistive qualities.
If you ever have occasion to visit Paris, take a moment to visit the “Museum des Arts et Métiers” where many of the world’s greatest inventions are on display. There you will see a model of a Saint-Gobain glass factory, which produced wired glass circa 1900. Ask yourself how many other building materials still in use today have remained virtually unchanged since the industrial revolution, unaffected by new discoveries in material science, evolution of building codes and manufacturing technologies. In today’s world, buildings require vastly more sophisticated material sciences.
Some 20 years after that first fire test at Warnock Hersey, after having subsequently witnessed many hundreds more, I can say that I have had the privilege to be involved in virtually every worldwide market for fire-resisting glass. One can appreciate a culture, such as the one that exists in America or my adopted home in Europe, in which life safety and property protection have more than economic importance, but also intrinsic social value. May this soon extend to the world at large.
P. Kirk Ratzel is the director of marketing & sales for Vetrotech Saint-Gobain International AG based in Auburn, Wash.
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