Architects Dream of the Perfect Glass, but What’s Realistic and how can the Industry Help?

By Ellen Rogers

What the glass industry has been saying for years about architects is true—they want the impossible. David Greusel, an architect in Kansas City, Mo., admits it.

“I want the unicorn glass,” he says, but knows it’s probably not realistic.

Many architects are like Greusel. They see glass as a critical building material and they want to use it. Spoiler alert … they need you, the glass industry, to help them do that.

What do architects want? It’s more than perfect glass they desire. To find out, we spoke with three architects, each with various levels of experience. If you’ve ever wanted to be inside the mind of an architect, here’s your chance.

David Greusel
Convergence Design, Kansas City, Mo.

After more than 40 years practicing architecture, David Greusel, principal with Convergence Design in Kansas City, admits he has some strong and, perhaps somewhat unusual, opinions about glass.

“When I got started, right out of school in 1979, it seemed like every piece of glass anyone specified was dark bronze,” says Greusel, who’s worked in a variety of professional settings, including small, medium and large firms. “Fortunately, we’ve moved past that.”

For the last 10 years, he’s been the owner of a small firm and says most of his work is now in the public sector, such as arenas, convention centers, ballparks, etc.

“It’s been fun to work on large public projects all across North America, both designing and also evaluating existing buildings doing facility analysis,” he says.

While the popularity of dark bronze glass may have waned, Greusel is still not completely on-board with the most in-demand trends; this time it’s the super clear, all-glass aesthetic. “Not every architect wants perfectly clear glass. I’m not a fan of all glass buildings; I’m a fan of glass, but not 100% glass buildings.”

He says part of that is aesthetics, “but glass is invariably the weakest link in the thermal envelope. Some architects think they can just pick a really high-performance glass and it will be fine, but if you focus on sustainability you know that’s not really a sustainable design. You have to find the right balance and I think the challenge for the glazing industry is finding and developing technology that provides better thermal performance over the long haul. Great strides have been made, but the battle is not over.”

While he may not design all-glass buildings, he says glass is still an extremely important building material.

“So much has to do with appearance, but also the user experience,” he says, adding that he’s constantly looking for more out of what’s available today.

“I’m looking for the unicorn glass: 100% VLT and no solar heat gain … it’s always a balancing act to find the glass that performs best in both areas.”

Thermal performance, he says, is definitely the biggest challenge when working with glass.

“There’s not as wide range of product selection as one might wish. I think [architects] would love to have more to pick from; sometimes the options we have are limited.

“I think the glass industry tends to generalize too much about what architects want. I hear all the time that architects want perfectly clear glass. That’s true in some cases, but not all. I like a little color to the glass … the industry seems to be striving for total invisibility, but that’s not everyone’s goal.”

Like his goal, the perfect unicorn.

“Realistically, I think the industry is doing a good job and getting better all the time.”

As far as other glazing technologies, he says he’s interested in electrochromic glass, but there’s a budget constraint on most of his projects.

“Lots of interesting products have been developed, and we try to stay on that, but so often they get nixed. Another is having an insulating glass unit with embedded LEDs so you can make a media wall out of glass itself. It’s a lovely technology, but cost prohibitive— unless you have a project with an unlimited budget.”

Jefferey R. Yost
Raymond Design Associates Inc.
Rockland, Mass.

When it comes to glass and glazing, architect Jeff Yost gives a lot of credit to his suppliers.

“I’m always learning about the different [types] of glass out there, and suppliers are my best sources [of information],” says Yost, who works primarily in the northeast. “Vendors are providing a good service to architects. We’re always looking for someone who can help us navigate the different glazing selections … continuing education [is so important].”

That information is critical right now. As Yost says, architects are busy with work and need to stay informed about all of the products and options available. However, he’s got a complaint.

“Our industry hasn’t slowed down in the Northeast. What has slowed is the number of the reps coming in and giving us classes, information, etc. Glazing is one of them and we really need it because of the way things have evolved with schools, security, etc. That level [of involvement] is something that can improve. We need more education.”

He adds that it hasn’t necessarily been because of COVID-19 that companies haven’t been in to his office. Other industries, he says, have remained in the forefront.

“Glass isn’t as pronounced as it should be. Before my reps, I didn’t have that [information] and was always chasing the performance requirements or the security requirements. I have a group of good reps and they do well for me, but overall, glass [education] is an area that could be improved on,” he says. “The window, storefront or curtainwall companies—those are in all the time.”

It’s the same with the brick reps, he says, a segment not nearly as critical as glass.

“Not every building has brick, but every building has windows. Buildings are all going to use glass, and it would be better if we had more knowledge about it. I always welcome more, especially since all we do here is in commercial.”

Yost has been a practicing architect for 33 years, and since the mid-1990s he has focused mainly on the public sector with projects such as town halls, schools and other educational buildings.

“We specify our glass so that it’s constant through the whole project because we don’t want different colors of glass; everything is sent to the one company that has the window contract. And we like to work with them not only on the glass side but also the finish side. We like to work with someone who can supply the windows, storefront  and curtainwall so finishes are all the same. Right now, at least in my field, we rely on our reps and vendors to help with that.”

With much of that work falling in the educational sector, he says he’s seen a big shift toward increasing the safety and security in schools. He likes the features and opportunities that glass can bring to these projects. For example, his company is starting to use more tinted glass on the outer lite for levels of security in public settings/assembly places, particularly within schools, as it allows them to reduce visibility into the building.

“We’re stepping away from both lites being tempered and one being laminated, [some with the] security of a Miami-Dade level. It’s something that we’re all concerned with; some schools are even using bullet-resistant glass.”

He’s quick to add, though, that natural light is still an essential component in school projects.

“We’re always trying to open up and bring as much natural light into the classrooms,” he says, pointing to the benefits of having daylight in classrooms to create a productive learning environment.

Yost also sees more high-performance, energy-efficient glazing in the future.

“Maybe one day we’ll see glazing as an R-value vs. a U-value as it gets better. They are reciprocals, so some day windows may be talked about as an R-value. I think windows will evolve to become something of an insulted panel—if you can improve what the glass does.”

Sameer Kumar
Director, Enclosure Design
SHoP Architects, New York

Some may think glass isn’t as important as brick or metal used on the façade. Sameer Kumar with SHoP Architects isn’t one of them.

“I am challenging that statement, because I feel it’s the opposite,” he says. “Glass comes with a tremendous advantage as it is highly durable while being fully transparent, which makes it an ideal material for creating a connection to the outdoors … as a façade material a glass wall is the most inexpensive way to clad a building.”

He says increasingly stringent building codes and regulations may seem to be written in a way that could limit the use of glass in a façade. He doesn’t think that will hinder its use in the future, however.

“I don’t think we will ever see a decline in the use of glass. Nothing will replace glass for what it is. The only question is, can there be a better balance? I think we will see fewer all-glass buildings, and instead a better mix of materials and expressions that will enable us to improve the carbon footprint of our buildings. I think that is a good thing. We need more balance in spite of how technically advanced glass is or how many other benefits it provides.”

Kumar has been practicing architecture since 2001 and has worked with facades and glazing most of that time. His career has included both consulting and design responsibilities, and in all cases interaction with the glass industry has been paramount.

“Talking to the glass industry is essential for my education and ability to stay current. My colleagues in the glass industry are a vital asset to what I do.”

Most of the work he does involves fully custom façade systems, generally on large or complex projects.

“We have never employed a glazing product more than once because our projects require highly custom solutions,” he says. In order to design these projects, which often incorporate complex geometries, curved glass or large sizes, “for every project we seek feedback from the industry before making a commitment to the design. We like to have a high level of certainty that what we’re drawing can be achieved,” he says. “We like to know there won’t be any surprises. So we work early on with suppliers and subcontractors to make sure the products we’re selecting would be appropriate per the capabilities, warranties, and cost efficiencies.”

Finding a balance between performance and visual appearance is a key consideration.

“The focus is on solar heat gain as well as U-value, so both high-performance coatings as well as warm edge spacers are very critical,” he says, adding that the intent is to achieve a look and feel that adheres to all the guidelines and still has the desired final appearance.

“We see glass as an important ingredient in the vocabulary of the project, in telling the story of the building, opposed to just a filler for an opening.”

Kumar has drawn one particular concern from having worked extensively and collaboratively on many projects.

“The biggest challenge with the glass industry is getting [product] information in a way that allows for easy comparison from one company to another,” he says. “Glass is a highly technical material, and companies often choose to describe their products with ambiguous branding, which creates hurdles in comparing one product to the next. And that is a discouragement for a young architect trying to get familiar with glass.”

He also praises the glass industry for all the good it’s doing, especially its constant evolution—something he doesn’t see in other industries.

“We have found that the brick industry, for example, can show a tremendous resistance to evolution. That’s not true of the glass industry; the most rapid advances in the architectural industry seem to be happening with glass—that’s everything from appearance to safety to performance to environmental issues. There’s a constant conversation in the industry about what will be the next improvement to make glass [even better],” he says. “That gives us as architects a positive feeling; we often tell owners how glass presents some of the most advanced technologies available for solving certain problems.

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