Volume 44, Issue 4 - April 2009

Feature

Design Intervention 
Teaching Architects a Thing or Two About Glass 
by Megan Headley

We’ll admit it, there’s a lot more to a building than just the glass. And while we as an industry are charged with knowing the ins and outs of all the countless types of glass products available—architects are being overwhelmed by the need to know so much more. 

“They need to know 30 or 40 trades,” points out Brian Hale, Sr., president of Hale Glass Inc. in Placentia, Calif.

Alissa Schmidt, architectural design associate at Viracon in Owatonna, Minn., agrees. “Glass is only one of many thousands of products that architectural students must grasp while in school,” she says, adding, “so we often offer basic courses for new architects to help bridge this gap. Even experienced architects need more in-depth information as glass fabrication technology is becoming increasingly complex. New energy requirements, changing codes and aesthetic preferences have given birth to many new glazing options, but such sophistication requires greater knowledge.”

That’s why we give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, whose fault is it if these problems keep reoccurring in the drawings you see? Is it the architect’s for not knowing the intricacies of the glass he’s detailing—or the glass suppliers and installers for not teaching him?

Know Your Products 
Jay Meiries, who handles architectural sales for Vitro America’s location in Farmers Branch, Texas, recalls at least one recent set of specifications that listed a glass product that hadn’t been manufactured in about a decade. 

“These architects are … basically clicking and pasting specifications from companies that aren’t even in business anymore,” he says. 

Hale adds that he sees specifications that don’t coincide with the plans. “Often they’ll go and list four or five different glass colors that don’t even match the drawings in the specification. So they’re buying a spec and they’re not cleaning it up to make it job-specific, they’re just sending it out there and that confuses everybody. The specs say one thing and the plans say something else,” Hale says.

“The confusion not only prolongs the specification process, but it adds to the costs,” Meiries says. He adds, “It’s not their fault, and that’s the bad thing. It’s us as fabricators, it’s us as manufacturers that aren’t getting out there and giving the architects the education they need.”

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much listing outdated products, but listing a limited number of products.

“I wish they knew the disservice they do to their customers when they have a proprietary specification,” says Max Perilstein, vice president of marketing of Arch Aluminum and Glass Co. Inc. in Tamarac, Fla. “By only listing one item, they limit the playing field dramatically and possibly keep out better products that could be acquired more economically. This is especially bothersome on schools where money is tight.”

That’s an area where the glazing contractor may help out, says Phil Delise, vice president of Massey’s Plate Glass & Aluminum Inc., a glazing contractor in Branford, Conn. 

“We have to go by the specifications,” he says, but adds, “If there’s something in there that we feel that we have a better way of doing we can offer, we do a lot of voluntary alternates at the time of the bid.”

Delise says that on public bids he frequently provides this valued engineering service by providing alternates to the specified products that may help save the architect money or enhance the design. In turn, he’s found that it’s a service that provides Massey’s Plate Glass with return customers. 

“If we have another option to save them money we’ll give it to them on our bid,” Delise says. “Because we offer these alternates, they call us in. It intrigues them and they want to know more and we come to a good understanding.”

Guiding this process is a part of the contractor’s job, after all, says Steve Burnett, a director at Seattle location of glazing contractor Walters & Wolf.

“Once we see their specification of the product we help guide that process … And from a cost standpoint we’ll often look at a product they’re specifying and, if we can match that product with a similar product of a lower cost, we’ll offer those options,” Burnett says. “At times they specify a product that we know doesn’t work technically so we deal with that. We’re always the party that decides whether it’s tempered or heat-strengthened. There’s always code issues that we need to deal with.”

Sometimes, too, when architects specify a product that they want—it may not be the product they think they want. The goal, of course, is to discover this before the project is complete … 

Chris Dolan, director of commercial glass products for Guardian Glass Group in Auburn Hills, Mich., explains that when Guardian re-launched its SunGuard architectural glass program two years ago the company did extensive market research and learned “how difficult it is for architects to know how glass is going to look on the façade of the building.”

Dolan explains, “Typically glass samples are viewed indoors in an artificial light setting. The problem is this doesn’t really show you what glass is going to look like outside.” He advises showing off a sample outside to see how it looks in natural light, or otherwise looking at the glass at a slight angle against a dark background.

“It’s quite complicated how light plays off glass and how it looks so different in natural light conditions,” Dolan says. “It’s an educational process that we go through every day.”

Allowing in Light—and Heat
On the bright side, architects are asking questions about glass because it’s a material with which they love to work. “They like to design with glass, they like to bring the light in, it gives them design flexibility,” Dolan says. “And related to that, we do hear things like ‘What’s the highest light transmission product you can give to me?’”

Which, ironically enough, leads to occasions where too much glass proves to be a problem. 

“I wish architects knew that less light transmission may be better than more light transmission,” Dolan says. “Some architects have the opinion that the higher the light transmission the better the glazing. In some cases that’s true … but the higher light transmission brings heat with it, it also brings glare” (turn to Above and Beyond on page 48 to read about just one such example). 

It’s a great plan to use natural daylighting over artificial lighting to reduce the costs of electricity. But what happens when the room is too bright? Dolan points to studies that have shown that once the blinds are closed, they’re more likely than not going to stay that way. So much for all of that glass.

Sometimes it’s a good thing to have that high light transmission, Dolan admits, but quickly adds, “Really 40-50 percent light transmission is plenty of light to fill up a room.”

In addition, because these architects like designing with glass, they wants lots of it. Among the most common questions Dolan hears from the architects with whom he works is: “‘What’s the biggest piece of glass that you can make?’”

“I wish they had a better feel for sizes, especially when it comes to oversize lites,” Perilstein says of the architects with whom he works. ”The oversize can be done, but it’s not simple and easy and can’t be treated like the rest of the job.”

In some cases, an architect’s all-glass vision may ignore ways for supporting that big piece. 

“A lot of time architects love to see 20-, 26-foot curtainwalls at their main entrances but they expect them to just sit there and not have any mid-span anchors,” Delise says. “So we tell them, ‘look, you’re going to have to add a horizontal piece of steel or you’re going to need to go with this deeper member.’ We’ll work on these details prior to them submitting it and finding out that they have to add the steel—because by then, usually, the owner has seen the drawings and they expect, for example, a lobby with no horizontal steel. Then the architect looks bad and it becomes a problem.” 

Delise recalls one job in particular. “We had a project two years ago,” he says, “where they drew these big, huge lites of glass for a courthouse and the drawings comes out to bid and we had to say you can’t get the glass this big—they can’t coat it.”

Delise found himself explaining to the architect the limitations of the low-E coating in that it simply couldn’t be provided on lites as big as the client was looking for. 

“Now you’re changing the whole design of the building because you have to add vertical mullions or you have to have something different. A lot of that can be worked out right while the job is being drawn by the architect. And that happens more than it doesn’t believe it or not,” Delise says.And speaking of coatings, that’s another misconception that Dolan often sees. 

“All low-E is not created equal,” he says. “There are huge differences in performance in low-E glass and yet the cost difference between different options are very slight.” Architects are embracing low-E, but aren’t necessarily up to speed on the differences among the high-performance coatings in this group.

Allowing for the Codes
Now if the glass is properly being used to provide that greater dependence on natural daylighting over artificial lighting—how does that meet the local codes? 

“I think there’s a gross misconception of what glass needs to be specified where based on codes,” Meiries says, pointing specifically to energy requirements. “Right now I think the big concern is definitely what’s going to happen once all the states are up-to-date with the energy codes.” 

He adds, “There’s going to be a tremendous learning curve and that’s one of the things we’re trying to educate the architects about.”

Burnett has heard that concern echoed by the architects he advises. “I think the energy standards is the biggest question that we get,” he says. “They have a project where they want to use a large percentage of glass, and the amount of glass then drives the overall energy standards for that building. And this is a whole building analysis, the vision glass is a part of the problem and the spandrel product, and the combination of all of those products will then define the energy ratings for that glass.”

Burnett adds, This is primarily an issue in the northern climates; I think it’s a less of a problem in some markets. In Seattle energy standards are a large driving factor.” 

It’s also a California thing, as Hale says that with the state’s Title 24 code requirements, energy is a recurring concern. “The repeated question is ‘What is the performance characteristics of the low-E glass?’” he says. Hale typically points the architects with those questions to a manufacturer “so they can get a better feel for the two things that are important for Title 24 … the solar heat gain coefficient and U-value.” 

Ok, maybe it’s an all-over thing. As Meiries, who lives in Oklahoma, notes, “Where I live there are no [energy] codes, and that’s been the big hot topic the last couple of years.” He says that area architects are paying attention to the push for energy efficiency and codes in other states and as a result, “There are a tremendous amount of questions about what’s driving the glass coatings and where’s it going to go in the future.”

As energy codes are instituted in more localities, it will become a concern for architects all over, and a point on which glaziers will need to be ready to inform their clients.

“The codes change from one municipality to the next so we often have to assist,” Burnett says, “ so if there’s a specific energy factor on their project then we need to support that with a product that will meet that performance—and often that may be in conflict with what their preferred aesthetic might be.”

Know Your Costs
There are some common misconceptions that architects can be better briefed on to keep the bid process low. Delise points to misunderstandings with square-foot minimums as another costly hold-up in the spec process. 

“A lot of times architects will draw little lites of glass and they don’t realize that there’s, say, a 7- or 10-square-foot minimum. That adds extra costs to the job,” Delise says. Actually, by assisting in the design process upfront, glazing contractors can help reduce the number of revisions to drawings, helping to lower costs in the end. 

“Once the architects put the drawings out if there’s stuff that’s missed it adds up to change orders and that’s where it gets expensive,” Delise says. 

To limit such surprise costs, Massey’s Plate Glass is one of countless glazing contractors that becomes involved early on in the schematics work. “We’ll be paid a fee to go in with the construction manager … and work out all the details right then and there so the architect doesn’t have to put out six sets of drawings before he gets to construction drawings,” Delise says. He adds, “We come out with ways that we feel can save money and help the architect meet his intent. And then we’re more of a team; it’s really a working relationship. It’s really the way to go.” 

Vic Cornellier, president of TSI Exterior Wall Systems, a glazing contractor in Landover, Md., also does a lot of design-assist work. According to Cornellier, that demands not only guiding the client through the product choices but also the budget. 

“Part of that budget that they’ve established helps keep the architect in line with the project so they can’t be going off and detailing and drawing something that’s outrageously expensive because it won’t keep the budget whole,” he says. “There’s an obligation there. When you do design-assist it means that the architect and the subcontractor agree on establishing the budget and keeping the design within the budget. So the owner benefits and then the owner’s not paying the architect to draw something twice, they do it once.”

Design Assistance and Product Education
Requesting design assist services is something that Delise wishes more architects would do. Not only does it prevent changes and problems down the road, but it also helps the contractor and supplier build a relationship with that architect and in some cases help secure jobs early on in the process (however, this isn’t always the case—see Millions Spent, Nothing Gained on page 30).

Another way to help prevent such problems is to help educate architects about the glass products available. Sure they are responsible for knowing a little bit about every part of the building, but it can only help to let them know that more information is readily available. In some cases, the biggest help glazing contractor can provide is to help the architect know where to find more information. 

“Glazing contractors are already beyond swamped with responsibilities that are not supposed to belong to them, so asking them to do even more is a tough call,” Perilstein points out. “I think the glazing contractor, if he notices the architect needs help, should push his suppliers to contact said architect and do some training on his behalf.”

Most manufacturers offer some type of educational program or tool for architects. Hale says he points architects with questions to Oldcastle’s online GlasSelect® tool, which offers product performance charts.

Likewise, Viracon will be launching online training programs and webinars in the second quarter, according to Schmidt. In addition, she adds, “We have architectural designers on staff at Viracon who are highly effective at relating to the challenges practicing architects face. Together with our technical staff, our team is trained to listen carefully to an architect’s challenges.”

Like many suppliers, “Arch is very active in doing ‘lunch-and-learns’ at architectural firms and we really try and make it an intense educational piece first and foremost,” Perilstein says. In addition, “Our ‘architectural hotline’ has become very popular with architects looking to ask quick questions and get pointed in the right direction.”

Arch also is in the process of working on an online tutorial geared toward architects. 

“We’re big into the AIA educational program,” Dolan says of Guardian’s educational efforts. “We have several accredited programs that we make available and we find that’s a good opportunity for us honestly to become more connected and become a resource for the architectural firm.” 

With all of these resources available, and more coming down the pipeline it’s clear that improving education for that start of the project chain is becoming more important—maybe more so now than ever before.“

The last 5-7 years we’ve had all the business in the world just handed to us,” Meiries points out. So long as products were moving, installers and suppliers have rolled with the change orders. Now, with slow times being forecasted across the board, finding ways to help the architect early in the game—and reduce their spending—can help build valuable relationships. “Relationships are key right now,” Meiries adds. “You’ve got to pull out all the relationships you’ve got … to secure some backlog for the rest of 2009 and 2010.

That makes now the perfect time to firm up those relationships with architects, as well as those general contractors who will be looking for subs down the road. 

“Even in this market, we’re still doing and attending a lot of the design-assist meetings,” Cornellier says. “You find the developers in the private sector are still trying to get projects ready so that when this economic freeze that we’re in thaws out they’re ready with product to put online rather than waiting until everything frees up and then start the design. And that’s keeping architects busy right now.”

And as Meiries notes, “The better information and knowledge [the architects] have, it just means the cleaner the specification is going to be when it comes out and hits the glazing contractor.”

Megan Headley is editor of USGlass.

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