The Role of Glass in a Post-COVID World

By Scott Sowers

More than a year into the pandemic, we are now looking back and forward to determine how the world has changed and what to expect next. The virus has impacted all aspects of the glass industry, from the float line workers in the plants to the contract glaziers in the field. So what’s next? The long term effects and the future may depend on a firm’s position in the supply chain and how quickly it has been able to adapt.

Current Situation

For some manufacturers, not much has changed. “Overall, the construction industry has done pretty well,” says Nathan McKenna, marketing and innovation manager for Vitro Architectural Glass based in Pittsburgh. “Things are still moving,” he says, “and the good news is that the government restrictions tend to work inside. In the construction industry, most of the jobs are outside.”

From a design point of view, the future also seems bright for the glass industry as a whole. “Glass is a fundamental material in our industry and will always be a critical element,” says Nicholas Leahy, co-CEO and executive director for Perkins Eastman based in New York City. “As glass technology, coatings, adhesives and laminates develop, I think glass will remain as prominent.”

Labor has been the ongoing challenge facing glass fabricators as shifting safety protocols affects sales staff, drivers and production personnel. “We have had to adjust and manage through an exceedingly difficult labor market,” says Clint Blair, vice president operations at American Insulated Glass, near Atlanta. “I think in some ways we have become a better company because of this experience.”

Nimble contractors reacted to business falling off a cliff as the nation shuttered and plans shifted. “Overall, we lost 20% of our business in 2020 due to cancellations,” says Ron Kudla, president of Advanced Glass & Metal based in Colmar, Pa. “We had three large projects not just pause, but stop construction completely.”

Staying on the Job

In addition to scuttled construction projects, an army of office staff checked out last March and began Zooming from home. The businesses required to keep staff on site were forced into mitigation strategies that continue to affect how and where we work. Companies that specialize in building interior glass enclosures saw opportunity rise.

“I don’t want to say the pandemic was a positive, but it has been for us,” says Heather Lutzker, who, along with Kudla’s wife, Elizabeth, runs Elite Glass Interiors, also based in Colmar.

Elite has now added glassed-in huddle rooms and oversized phone booths to their product mix. Rather than being a direct result of the virus, they see the new products as a continuation of a trend. “We’ve been watching this for many years,” says Lutzker. “We talked about partitions and screens years ago. Part of the design criteria is sound attenuation. The open office space seems to be going out. The way design professionals are now looking at office space, institutions, K-12 and higher-ed, we already saw a different trend coming.”

Brad Thurman, vice president of the fabrication division for GGI, based in Secaucus, N.J., also witnessed a quick shift as corporations looked for bandages that could help keep things open. “When we first entered the pandemic there was a high demand for tempered glass being used for sneeze guards and partitions, including complete sneeze guard kits which we added to our product offering,” says Thurman.

The Design Element

Designers already in love with glass are anticipating a deepening of their affection and increased use. “The inherent properties of glass as a material make it suitable for buildings post pandemic—its impervious surfaces are easy to sanitize and its transparency provides views to the outside as well as natural light to interior spaces,” says Tony Okoye, senior associate architect at Gensler, based in Washington, D.C. “As we find new appreciation for health and wellness, the resilience of glass as a material is becoming more apparent.”

Health is on everybody’s minds and design innovations are also transforming how facilities are being set up. “I think that trend will continue, particularly in the healthcare market where our glass helps to curtail the spread of bacteria and viruses that come from basic hospital curtains in intensive care units and [other spaces],” says Steve Abadi, chairman and CEO of Innovative Glass Corp. based in Plainview, N.Y.

Innovations surrounding what glass can do in the near future are also starting to affect the market. “People are working on anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-viral coatings,” says McKenna. “The industry isn’t there yet, and we don’t know what the cost is, but I’d be shocked if the virus didn’t change our lives on the whole, including our business lives. How that will affect glass specifically is still a little bit unknown.”

Tearing Down the Partitions

What happens, though, if herd immunity is achieved and the virus falls off the front page? We still don’t know, but returning to a normal workday raises questions about the future of glass screens, partitions and dividers. “I’d say anything that’s already installed will not come down,” says McKenna. “Like everything, time heals all wounds and I think five years from now they’ll stop putting those in.”

Others believe the glass screen genie is out of the bottle and will not return. “I think glass wall systems and dividers, or some version of them, are here to stay,” says Blair. “The pandemic has lasted too long and been too impactful to be forgotten anytime soon—if ever.”

Thurman believes they will remain in place, but the design and installation will migrate to a whole new business. “I believe it will become a small niche product. Glass walls and partitions were popular before COVID-19, and we do not see this changing. Architects and interior designers like the open space and the flex space concept which allows the sharing of light between spaces,” he says. “The desire for daylighting and easy-to-clean, more hygienic solid surfaces is here to stay.”

Adapting to Survive

The glass industry has had to adapt to a market shake-out that may lead to a constricted supply of contractors and fabricators in the future.

Ron Kudla and company shifted gears from the outdoors to the indoors to try and capitalize on where the market is heading. “We changed our philosophy and our facility is moving into fabricating screens, which is a new business [for us],” he says.

And while things are still tight relative to starting major construction projects, Kudla has data predicting an eventual uptick. “Looking at market research, I’ve noticed that in 2021 we’re showing about an 8% drop in new construction of commercial office space and financial institutions,” he says. “In 2022 it’s showing similar numbers, but in 2023 we’re expecting a rise of 5 to 6% in institutional, colleges, and medical office space.”

The Human Touch

Working in a post-pandemic glass world will be driven by how we choose to live and work. A lack of human contact while dealing with a transparent product is not lost on its industry leaders.

“We used to call on people every day, have business meetings, get together, shake hands,” says McKenna. “Now it’s all remote. I’m not saying deals aren’t done. When you’re describing a product and benefits, the touch and feel of a sample, those things actually do promote what we’re doing. I worked on the road for four years and got sick of it. Working from home isn’t the greatest thing ever. It’s not the same and I really do believe human nature is going to pull us back together.”

Thurman sees a future that is clear and bright. “I believe the heightened sensitivity to the spread of the virus, or now simply germs in general, will result in greater demand for glass of all types,” he says. “It’s a solid surface, easy to clean, durable and easy to disinfect combined with the ability to create physical protective barriers without blocking visibility into spaces. This gives glass a tremendous advantage.”

Scott Sowers is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine.

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