Glass Railings Make for High-Rises that Wow

By Ellen Rogers

Whether for exterior or interior settings, glass railing systems continue to be a popular architectural feature. These systems create an eye-catching, high-end aesthetic, and are commonly seen in malls, staircases and balustrades, as well as sporting and stadium facilities. Balconies, particularly those in high-rise buildings such as condos, are also a popular spot.

Just as architectural trends are driving change in façade systems, the market for glass railing systems is also evolving. Some of this can be attributed to the 2015 International Building Code (IBC) requirements, which removed the use of monolithic tempered glass in most railing applications. Other developments, however, were created in response to market needs and conditions. As interest grows, it will become increasingly important for the glazing industry to stay in tune with the impact these changes will have on their operations.

Driving Demand

Architects love unique details, especially as they pertain to aesthetics. A glass railing added to a building’s exterior is one way to achieve that special look.

“Glass railings are considered a high-end product, adding a level of prestige and design sophistication to any project,” says Dan Stachel, vice president of Trex Commercial Products located in Minneapolis.

“Advancements in glass fabrication technology including frits, patterns, and digital printing on glass, are creating unique high-impact aesthetics that make the glass railing itself a focal point of the project’s design.”

Anthony Goodings, director of sales, with the Wagner Companies based in Milwaukee, agrees that the application of glass within the building envelope is trending up within the U.S. marketplace.

“Architects are looking for, depending on the design intent, simple elegance that reflects the client’s vision,” he says.

Ryan Cousineau, account manager, also with Wagner, adds that building designers and architects are incorporating more glass on balcony applications that match the building structure to allow more unobstructed views and lighting to the area.

“With new, modern contemporary designs in mind, designers are trying to match the outside appearance of the buildings to the balcony’s as much as possible to create uniformity. This type of aesthetic includes using similar looking stainless fittings that would be found on the exterior of the building structure and matching them with similar fittings on the balcony’s,” he says. “Given the goal is to create an unobstructed view from the balcony for a resident, glass guards with point supports and surface-mounted posts incorporating spider type fittings are becoming extremely popular as they can meet the building aesthetic and code.”

Jan Hulin, national sales manager for Q-railing in Tustin, Calif., says the residential high-rise market is becoming increasingly important to his company.

Unobstructed View

“What we mainly see in this market is the regulations— engineering, testing requirements, etc.—are more and more strict and there’s more project follow up,” Hulin says. He says while designs increasingly call for glass railings in highrise applications, there’s also more interest in unique shapes.

“We’ve seen more requests for bent or curved railings,” says Hulin. “This can be a challenge sometimes because of the combination of metals that have to be bent.”

Speaking of fabrication details, while increasingly larger glass sizes continue to be popular in building facades, this trend doesn’t necessarily translate to glass railings.

Stachel says they’ve had those requests occasionally, but the span or size of the glass used in the railing is dictated more by the structural requirements of posts, which would have to become much stronger in order to support the added weight of the glass.

Joe Toman, service manager with Wagner, adds, “Bigger means thicker, wider, and higher…as glass sizes get bigger, more structural demand is applied to the base of these systems, while the applied load at the top needs to meet deflection and residual deflection guidelines.”

“The increase in glass size also challenges new product designs to maintain load requirements while keeping view obstruction to a minimum,” says Rebecca Dorschner, senior product manager with Wagner.

Given the changes that were made to the IBC in 2015, Stachel says he’s seen a shift away from using low-cost tempered glass in railings.

“As more municipalities adopt those codes, customers are noticing the difference in the price of glass, and it’s our responsibility to communicate that change and its impact on budgets and project designs,” he says.

He continues, “Typically, the railing budget for any given project is based on much older systems and requirements. These budgets should be reset based on today’s costs and expectations,” says Stachel. “I think the construction community, in general, understands there has been a change, but not everyone has carried it through to their budgets. Their
expectations are gradually shifting to understand and meet the new requirements.”

Installation Matters

There are also unique considerations for contract glaziers. Jerry Moser, director of sales at R. A. Kennedy & Sons, an Aston, Pa.-based contract glazier, has seen various changes in architectural designs and specifications that are impacting railing installations.

“Specifications, similar to the rest of our industry, seem to delegate more design responsibility to the contract glazier,” he says, noting that some of the challenges on highrise construction include safety, material distribution, and guaranteed fabrication sizes, among others.

Hulin sees two key considerations for contract glaziers.

“I think the most import thing is the ease and speed of installation, since time on the jobsite is minimal,” he says. “Secondly, it’s important to have systems that are adjustable because site conditions aren’t always like they’re drawn. The railing installation is usually at the end of the project … so systems need to be easily adapted so the installation doesn’t hold up other work.”

Jessica O’Malley, estimating manager with Wagner says contract glaziers must remember that glass isn’t flexible.

“It’s a one shot product. Unlike wood or even metal, a glazier has only one shot to get the glass right,” she says. “Glass can warp, be wavy and if holes are required placement must happen while the glass is being manufactured. Accurate field dimensions are 100 percent critical with a metal railing system, but even more so where glass is concerned.”

Sam Durand, service manager with Wagner, says another consideration is how the system will be anchored.

“Systems typically are attached to concrete, steel or wood structures. This may require special anchoring hardware that should be designed to meet the required loads, or it could potentially require welding,” he says. “Understanding the requirements up front, and who is responsible for the final design, is critical. Many railing systems do not come with anchors, and it’s the installers who need to provide them.”

The higher cost of laminated glass when compared to tempered glass has also driven some contract glaziers to look for more ways to bring overall costs down on these projects. For example,” Stachel says anything that can be done early on, in terms of coordination, will help.

“Labor can be up to 30 percent of the railing system cost,” he says. “Advanced coordination can reduce these labor requirements and bring meaningful savings.”

“Unintentional customization caused by rigid tolerances in design inflate cost, says Stachel, who adds, “Accommodating a more flexible system can provide meaningful savings without jeopardizing the design intent.”

What’s Next?

Changes to building codes, along with increasingly complex architectural visions, will continue to advance the possibilities of glass railing installations. It will be critical for the industry to work together, pushing forward with new and innovative technologies with an eye toward safety.

Recent Developments in Glass Railings

Architects crave transparency along with a clean, crisp appearance. The use of glass railing systems can bring the means to help them achieve this desired look.

Jan Hulin, national sales manager for Q-railing, says architects strive to create a minimalist look of more glass and less metal.

“Their goal is to not show the railing and by doing that with the glass railing you see more of the building,” he says. “The railing gives that minimalist view. One reason we get requests for glass railings without a cap rail is it doesn’t obstruct the view. This does require testing and engineering, so we have to combine that design intent with the engineering.”

Trex Commercial Products recently introduced a product designed specifically for high windloads.

“More and more high-rise buildings are integrating amenity decks into their designs. Depending on the height of the building…, wind loads can become a necessary consideration,” says Dan Stachel, vice president of Trex Commercial Products. “We identified the need for a specifiable system that tolerates higher wind loads, resulting in the development of our new Ascent glass windscreen. At taller building heights, the performance requirements for guardrails become almost unrealistic and a more costly custom system is needed. Alternatively, the Ascent windscreen can handle up to 80 psf windloads, and it’s specified off the shelf.”

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