Understanding the Difference Between Backpainted and Spandrel Glass

By Joshua Huff

Glass has always been a unique choice for architects and designers seeking to add a stylish look to buildings. Glass can be incorporated into a building’s design in various ways, including through the use of backpainted glass and spandrel glass.

Backpainted glass is used primarily as an interior decorative piece. It is a modern alternative to other surfacing materials such as tiles and laminates in the decorative and architectural industries, says Randy Brooks, CEO of Dreamwalls by Gardner Glass, a provider of glass coating technologies headquartered in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

“Any space that could use a splash of color but also benefits from the crisp modern look of glass is a great place to use backpainted glass,” says Brooks. “What we see from designers most often is the use of backpainted in high visibility areas. Think of elevator lobbies, airport concourses and common areas in high-end residential projects. Backpainted glass makes a statement about a project, so think high visibility and high visual impact.”

Spandrel glass is a nontransparent glass used to cover construction elements in non-vision areas, such as hung ceilings or the edges of floor slabs. Unlike vision glass, spandrel glass is used to help hide features between the floors of a building, including vents, wires, slab ends, support structures, columns, mechanical equipment and more, says Casey Anderson, marketing manager at Ridgefield, Wash., -based ICD High-Performance Coatings + Chemistries.

To further understand the differences and considerations between the two types of glass installations, let’s take a detailed look at the two.

Backpainted Glass

Backpainted glass is clear float glass that has been painted on one side so that it is no longer translucent. The glass can be used for a variety of projects in both commercial and residential buildings. The most common use of backpainted glass is as an interior design element for glass wall cladding, markerboards, backsplashes, shower wall lites, countertops, cabinets, furniture and more.

“Backpainted offers the desirable qualities of glass: sleek and modern aesthetics, super easy to clean, very hygienic surface, very durable and long-lasting,” says Brooks. “It’s the only surface that offers all these features along with unlimited color possibilities.”

Many building projects incorporate backpainted glass as it adds a sleek, modern appearance. It also enhances a building’s aesthetic by transforming a lite of glass into a colorful design element that matches any palette.

The glass is also durable enough for family homes to add a sophisticated look. Homeowners can use backpainted glass throughout the house, including the kitchen and bathroom, to add other design elements, such as a pop of color or to neutralize a space.

Backpainted glass is often used in the kitchen because it offers a clean and contemporary look that is easy to care for, says Brooks. Glass can be used as a backsplash and as a countertop. This is because glass is a non-porous material that reduces germs and bacteria from food products.

Backpainted glass is also ideal for bathrooms since it withstands moisture and is easily maintained. Bathroom uses include wall lites, backsplash and shower wall lites.

Commercial buildings often feature backpainted glass lites to break up large, bland walls and fill empty spaces.

Dreamwalls by Gardner Glass recently completed a backpainted glass project in the Ally Charlotte Center in Charlotte, N.C. According to Brooks, the building features several floors of backpainted glass in multiple colors. The walls are both decorative and also function as writing surfaces, he says. The backpainted glass is located in high-traffic areas, conference rooms as well as individual meeting rooms.

Spandrel Glass

Spandrel glass is opaque to obscure spaces between the floors of a building. Its purpose often is to hide commercial equipment. It can be either complementary or contrasting in color to vision glass.

Spandrel glass can be used both indoors and outdoors. When used on the building’s exterior, the glass is usually heat-treated and insulating, ensuring it provides the same properties as an actual wall. Interior spandrel does not need to meet those performance criteria.

Ceramic frit and silicone elastomeric paint are the most common products used to ensure that the glass is opaque and translucent. Much like backpainted, spandrel glass can be color customized as a decorative or contrasting feature or to match the surrounding window wall.

“Spandrel glass historically has been created in a variety of ways, including backpainting and ceramic frit,” says Dan Laporte, director of laminating sciences at McGrory Glass, a flat glass fabricator based in Paulsboro, N.J. “The most common methods still in use come with certain limitations – a restricted color palette or a stock range of patterns – and can be susceptible to abrasion during install and maintenance, deterioration from weather or fading from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.”

Spandrel glass can be applied to a variety of fabricated glass products, such as clear, low-iron, tint, pinhead, acid-etch, reflective tint and heavy plate glass.

Over the past four years, there has been a spandrel glass design shift from monolithic to insulating glass units (IGU), says Anderson. Monolithic glass spandrels consist of an uncoated glass substrate, with an opacifier made from silicone-based paint or ceramic frits applied to the interior surface. IGU spandrels can have coated or uncoated glass as part of the exterior lite.

“It feels like the scales are starting to tip more towards IGU,” says Anderson. “This may be a result of many factors including aesthetic preferences, desired performance requirements and/or code updates. What’s exciting about spandrel IGUs are the number of surfaces available for design and performance considerations. Spandrel glass IGUs are a visionary playground. It’s no wonder designers want to jump into this multidimensional sandbox.”

Joshua Huff is the assistant editor of USGlass magazine. Email him at
jhuff@glass.com and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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