Oversized and Specialty Glass Helps Give Luxury Retailers Attention-Grabbing Storefronts

By Annie Sherman

From high-end accessories to tech and couture clothing, luxury vendors use glass to illuminate their products and to stand out in the marketplace. Fortunately, this show-stopping trend shows off the myriad benefits of glass, but these transparent walls, which are potentially three-stories high in some cases, are not without their challenges.

Brand Recognition

Luxury retailers comprise the top 5 or 10% of brands worldwide, and their storefronts epitomize their global brand recognition, explains Shari Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing at AGNORA in Collingswood, Ontario. Larger expanses of glass that promote daylighting and in-store visibility are crucial to seeing inside their store, she adds. Since quality remains of the utmost importance for luxury retailers, clients’ demands are exacting.

“I’ve seen the evolution from the plain vanilla tempered-glass storefront into what we’re looking at now, where we’re providing more energy efficient, sustainable, long-lasting facades with enhanced performance, be it optical, thermal, acoustic, security or sometimes all in one,” says Jeff Haber, managing partner of W&W Glass in Nanuet, N.Y. “That has been a noticeable change, especially over the last ten years. And it’s more a function of taking advantage of the technology that the glass and metal industries bring to the marketplace.”

Fabricators collaborate with industry partners to refine the engineering and design load requirements to accomplish these extensive goals. Taking into account the client’s general aesthetic intent, Haber says, they lay out options for finish, such as wood or stone cladding, a painted or anodized element, and performance criteria. They verify if it will be insulating or laminated glass, if it will have a ceramic frit and solar control, and if there will be high-performance coatings or acoustic requirements, he explains.

These effects make the most significant impact on the first-floor podium, which is most visible to customers and bears the brunt of design and structural demands. And while doors and other design elements begin on this level, the aesthetic applications can move skyward, limited only by the imagination and size of machines manufacturing the large lites or the cranes that must lower them into place. “We spend most of our time in the podium, which is where luxury retailers are, and it’s the basis of our business model. Podium work is pretty prominent,” explains Rick Russel, general manager of Blue Water Glass in Port Huron, Mich.

As glass openings get bigger and heavier, and thicker glass is required, a single pane or 1-inch unit will no longer suffice, explains James Cole, senior project manager at AGNORA. The glass fabricator must provide the flattest, clearest glass possible, so optical clarity remains essential. “The glass has to be perfect when it comes out of the oven, and the laminate has to be perfect when it comes out of the autoclave. Distortion has to be highly controlled,” Cole says. “As you go bigger, those defects become bigger, the glass must be thicker to resist deflection, but distortion can also become more evident if not controlled. It goes hand in hand that you need optical quality.”

Beyond Aesthetics

Additional demands for high-performing glass complicate the months- or sometimes years-long process. Of course, security remains paramount for any retailer, so fabricators marry glass thickness with steel, plus complementary door-locking mechanisms and hardware to form a theft-deterring barrier. Layers of shatter-resistant ceramic frit also add permanent protection and visuals to the glass, as well as an anti-reflective layer, with minuscule glass shards, melted and fused into the door and window panels.

“Security has become a bigger issue, so we’re getting glass to resist specific requirements such as forced entry, and there are lock requirements to resist burglary,” says Bryan Hermus, president of Louis Hoffmann Company, a custom metal and glass fabricator and installer in Menomonee Falls, Wis. “Often clients want a specific kind of door, large or tall, and we have to make sure it swings to the code requirements, has appropriate locking and security hardware integrated, and is aesthetically appealing.”

Intricate entrances are another trend, Haber says, including semi-automatic revolving doors, fewer touch requirements, complex hardware on swing doors, including ADA-compliant auto operators, and more transparency using these products.

Stores in different cities and regions may also need glass that meets specific performance requirements. Hermus explains that an exterior storefront in Los Angeles has to consider wind and seismic demands, compared to an interior storefront in Las Vegas, which considers seismic activity. Meanwhile, Miami’s code for hurricanes differs from New York’s code for wind and hurricanes. “(Relative to windows and doors) designers usually specify the height, thickness or shape of the unit, including glass. We determine how these elements are installed relative to other materials, and then it can be integrated with stone or metal as part of the process,” Hermus says.

Additional Criteria

Bird safety and sustainability are also priorities. Cole says they see a growing trend in the Northeast region, where safety mandates foster ways to prevent migratory birds from hitting the glass.

As stores enlarge their glass footprint, the considerations that fabricators and glaziers must keep in mind only expand. But the sky is literally the limit as glass expanses soar upward.

“The myth that you can’t get big, high-quality glass has gone away. In most high-end shopping retail centers, everyone has big glass and is looking for something unique. They have a big window, so how do we make that even more unique? What kind of frit pattern will we put on? How will we differentiate its shape or pattern or its performance?” Cole says. “All those things are the defining thing in retail. Most people know you can get huge glass; it just depends on where you get it from, the quality you can achieve from your fabrication partners and the unique elements that a fabricator can add. It will just keep evolving.”

High Fashion Meets Glass

Blue Water Glass was the exterior wall systems engineer of record, glass fabricator and installer for Chanel’s decade-long project on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. It is the biggest ground-up luxury retail build in North America, entailing 23,000 square feet of polished sintered glass cladding and a 13,000-square-foot custom curtainwall with fixed windows, sliders and pivots with full automation, plus 6,000 square feet of decorative aluminum cladding. Rick Russel, general manager of Blue Water Glass, worked with multiple vendors for the design, manufacturing, automation, electronics and installation, and says it’s those partnerships that make or break a project of this magnitude.

“It was designed from scratch and features some of the first implemented technologies for mitigating earthquakes. So it’s pretty complicated from a structural standpoint, especially when you’re doing that much square footage, and it’s all completely custom,” Russel says. “The amount of movement that you see physically and that is calculated in that size building in a seismic zone is all done to create a building that is a 100-year marker.”

Annie Sherman is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine.

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