Q&A With Structural Glass Engineer James O’Callaghan

James O’Callaghan and his firm Eckersley O’Callaghan have been pushing the (building) envelope with glass for years, and the engineer hopes the growing momentum of structural glass applications continues to drive innovation in the building community.

James O'Callaghan of Eckersley O'Callaghan talks to attendees at GANA's BEC Conference last week about structural glazing.

James O’Callaghan of Eckersley O’Callaghan talks to attendees at GANA’s BEC Conference last week about structural glazing.

O’Callaghan discussed the evolution of structural glazing when he presented at the Glass Association of North America’s Building Envelope Contractors (BEC) Conference last week. He also talked about his work with the glass-happy company Apple and where the concept of using glass as a structural component is being advanced.

He spoke with USGNN.com™ in an exclusive interview, in which the lauded engineer shared his thoughts on the changing perception of glass, Apple’s role in helping glass innovation move forward, and more.

Q: What do you hope attendees took away from your presentation?

The one thing I’d want people to take away is that there’s a point to innovating, thinking and stretching those boundaries. Whatever your boundaries are, stretching them a little bit over time rather than settling for what you already do and what you already have. So whether that’s a fabricator, an installer, an engineer or whatever. That level of curiosity of what happens if you take it and move the dial a little bit … I think that is what generally pushes things forward.

What motivates you personally to continue to “move the dial?”

I think it’s maybe just the innate curiosity of being an engineer. At the end of the day, we’re never really happy with static… We’re an innovative bunch of people, whether it’s myself or all the people I work with. They’re always looking at how they can improve what they’re doing. And I think improving what you do is human nature.

… You can see a lot in the industry that can improve, has improved, and has yet to improve, and maybe that potential is a reason for us to do our part in influencing and encouraging those around us and those we work with—suppliers, fabricators, clients, owners, etc.—as much as possible to be a bit more ambitious and a bit braver.

How does the perception that glass is fragile by nature play into what you do? Will people get more comfortable with glass as a structural component the more it is used that way?

I think there’s clearly, unlike virtually any other structural material I can think of, a perception (of fragility) that you need to get over. So it’s not only the engineering that we have to solve and the safety, which is of course fundamental to the design of anything, but particularly with glass because it’s a very visual material. It’s purely elastic … you cannot predict or know very easily when breakage is going to happen, so there is the engineering and physical challenge, and then there is the perception challenge.

I don’t think that you can rapidly modify human perception of glass and how it’s used. You can only do it iteratively by bringing increased examples of it, whether it’s the Grand Canyon walkway, or the staircases we’ve built for Apple, or many other examples where glass is being used in a structural format. You hope that, increasingly, people start to have fewer concerns about the material and its fragility, and understand that it has a controlled level of strength, but that it can perform when it needs to when put into those situations.

What has Apple’s role been in driving glass innovation?

Apple is an incredible client that is fundamentally focused on innovation throughout its entire organization. So being in that environment where they are supporting the development in the glass industry worldwide, we’re lucky, as that is the fuel that you need to be able to innovate. You’ve got to have the attitude of the client, but you’ve also got to have the money to be able to do it and the willingness to do it.

And we have to applaud [Apple] as an organization, because without that, this really wouldn’t happen. It doesn’t matter how many ideas we or anybody else might have, if there isn’t [someone] to allow those ideas to come to the surface and into the building environment, then things don’t move along.

What’s the next main challenge facing the glass industry?

I’m not quite sure where the next main challenge is. I think we’re quite interested in new materials. We’re always interested in how we can improve the way in which we connect elements of glass. I don’t really think that we’re looking at things getting bigger or grander… I think we’re pretty much at the limit of sensible large-format glass because of shipping restrictions and logistics in general. I don’t think there’s any real likelihood of a significant growth in size. I hope there’s more people, and more contractors and fabricators that take on some of these ideas … as it’s a technology that you can procure in many different places.

Is there a new technology in particular you see a significant interest in?

There’s a lot of energy in thin glass technology. That’s where we’re spending a lot of our energy and research in new projects. [Thin glass is] a very interesting development, in that the industry is not very familiar with it and people are still unsure about how you use it. … You can be very creative with it, and there’s still a lot of work to do in getting examples of it out into the building environment. And I think as soon as that happens and people start to see its potential, there will be a whole new area of construction flowing from that, which will be interesting.

The next thing is energy. We have very challenging energy design parameters ahead of us and ones that are already in place. … There’s a lot of work to be done in those areas, and different technologies (such as selectivity of coatings, dynamic glazings, etc.) are becoming increasingly important to develop, and develop quickly.

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