Volume 26, Issue 2 - March/April 2012


A New View

Product Advances Give Architects New Opportunities with Moveable Glass Wall Systems
by Ellen Rogers


Flip your remote to any home improvement TV channel and you’ll soon enough hear a certain catch phrase: outdoor living. It’s been a trend for years. Consumers have certainly embraced the available resources to enhance the outdoor area of their homes, and one way they are doing this is by incorporating operable glass wall systems. While these products, such as lift-and-slides and folding doors, were once deemed solely for the high-end, this is changing, thanks in part to product innovations and advances—giving architects even more possibilities and opportunities.

Creating Awareness
Moveable glass wall systems historically have been used most often in high-end, luxury homes, as well as some high-rise condos and some commercial applications.

“Most of the projects are the $3 million-plus custom homes, but we also do high-rise condos,” says Cooper Buranen with Las Vegas-based Panda Windows and Doors.

Lee Maughan, general manager of LaCantina Doors in Vista, Calif., says historically his company’s customer base has been high-end clientele, but they are starting to see that going more toward the mass market.

“But awareness is the first thing. Many still do not know what folding doors are. As the awareness grows the products will become more competitive and the prices will start to come down,” he says “I can see it veering away from just the high-end customer, as we want to see [it possible] for everyone to [have such a system]. It’s a fun product, a lifestyle product … it opens spaces and changes lives.”

Educational facilities, though, are yet another place where architects say they have been using these systems.

“We are school designers (K-12) and the current education model encourages interaction between classrooms and the shared learning area,” says Yinsze Lam, an architect with Seattle-based Integrus Architecture. “Operable glass partitions provide the opportunity for visual and physical connection between these spaces.”

Lam says there are also plenty of other reasons for using these products. For example, glass walls allow architects to maximize the size of the opening.

“As the awareness grows the products will become more competitive and the prices will start to come down.”
—Lee Maughan,
general manager of LaCantina Doors

“A double swing patio door is limited by the width of the door leaves and a sliding door has stacked width and sound transmission limits,” says Lam. “Operable glass doors allow us to fully open up the wall if desired. Also, it is coplanar when closed so it is not so limited by the depth of the wall type, whereas sliding doors need multiple tracks to achieve a large opening. Most of the folding glass doors have a much better sill/threshold detail for sound blocking and thermal separation.”

Lam adds, “I have a pair of patio doors installed in my house addition project and they are fantastic in terms of connecting my family room to the deck beyond. Not only does it provide a visual connection, but also a true physical connection. In the summer, my family room literally doubles in size.”

Michael Kollin, with Kollin Altomare Architects in Long Beach, Calif., adds, “The most important reason we use these types of products is to create a visual large opening and remove physical barriers such as columns and solid walls. Regular windows and patio doors only offer small scale openings and fixed vision, and do not create that feeling of inside/outside barrier free.”

Evolutionary Measures
And these systems have likewise seen a lot of changes over the past few decades. Not surprising, many of these changes tie into the increasingly stringent demands for energy performance.

As Buranen points out, much of these technology/engineering advances are in the door assembly/aluminum extrusions.

“We use thermally broken frames, which offer a good thermal barrier,” Buranen says. “A lot has been done in the last few years and has helped grow [the market] in colder climates.” He adds that there has also been a tremendous amount of advancement on the glass side.

According to Matt Thomas, marketing manager for Nanawall in Mill Valley, Calif., much of the growth around the product segment ties into performance and creating a greater range of usage. This includes weather resistance, energy, and durability. He says, in fact, these products can reach R-values of triple-glazed products, even in the upper territories of Canada.

Derek Lukala, senior technical sales with Tiltco, in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, points out, “We’re seeing the consumers becoming more educated and aware of the energy efficiency of windows. That’s pushing us to stay up-to-date on glass technologies.”

Regional Expansion
Energy advances aside, potential customers in, let’s say, the upper Midwest or the Northern territories of Canada, may still be leery of such a product. After all, they may think that massive glass walls just aren’t conducive to cold climates.

“In colder climates it is more difficult to ‘sell’ this opening because of the climate. Typically, though, these would be used for the warmer months in those climates and stay closed during the cold in my experience.”

However, thanks to technological advances, such as thermal breaks and high-performance glass, these systems can and are being used in every climate range, from the most temperate to the coldest.

LaCantina is a manufacturer of folding doors that started in Australia about 15 years ago and in the United States for about eight years. Maughan says they do much of their work in Southern California, and are starting to expand into other regions.

“[You see these systems on] every corner in Australia. There are no geographic constraints,” he says pointing out how common they are, even in typically cold areas, such as Melbourne, Victoria, in the southern part of the country. “I think we could see the same here one day.”

Into the Mainstream
But the high price tag that typically comes with these systems can be a challenge when it comes to working with these systems.

“In renovation projects one needs to typically remove bearing walls or posts and re-engineer large openings with new columns and headers, then [comes] the added costs of a nice [system],” says Kollin.

While operable glass wall systems may never be sold at a price on par with the traditional French doors, manufacturers say they are starting to see a shift in the market. These products gradually are making their way into more moderately priced homes—at least moderately priced compared to the multi-million dollar homes in which they started.

Tiltco, for example, recently added a sliding door system that’s at a mid-range price point. “It has movable panels, up to five on each slide,” says Lukala. “So it’s an evolution of the operable wall system and gives a mid-price point option.”

He explains,“Our focus was not to take away from the high end, but provide another choice … [the new product] is coherent with our current product line so we’re here to give the full package,” says Lukala. “We’re not looking to re-define our product line [saw a need for a mid-range product] … if you want to provide everything in house you have to have products to meet all price ranges—no matter the budget.”

What’s in Store?
Manufacturers agree there are definitely future opportunities. And energy awareness is leading much of what will go into new designs.

Maughan says he sees the market evolving more in terms of performance. “Everything is performance based,” he says.

And Buranen says energy codes will continue to be important.

“Also, the development of thermally broken systems will have to continue to [improve and develop new products]. It can be a huge challenge to reach the numbers [codes will require], given the overall size of the systems, [so as codes become more and more stringent] meeting those may be a challenge.”

Though the future may indeed hold both opportunities and challenges, architects are excited for what the future may offer. Admitting that in the past cost has been a deterrent for some of the more budget-conscious clients, Lam expects that will change in the future.

“I’m sure [these systems] will become more cost effective in the future if demand increases. A lot of low/mid income housings in Europe, Asia and Australia use these as patio doors or room dividers. I see no reason why this cannot happen in the United States and Canada.”

And Kollin agrees, “I am definitely seeing the price come down as more and more manufacturers are providing large opening solutions, especially in the residential market. In the commercial market the quality can’t be compromised but finishes and hardware options are making these more affordable.”

Ellen Rogers is the editor of the Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine. She can be reached at or follow her on Twitter @AGGmagazine and like AGG magazine on Facebook to receive updates.

Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
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