Volume 41, Issue 5 - May 2006

The WOW! Factor

Glass Floors and Stairs are on the Rise
by Sarah Batcheler

Stepping on glass used to give you a one-way ticket to the emergency room. Now, you might even be dancing on glass, that is, if you are treading on a glass floor or marching up glass stairs. Glass stairs and floors are unique, customized applications that can turn any place of business or residence into a one-of-a-kind area. Although the look is futuristic, these applications are taking off in popularity right now. Take it from the glaziers, fabricators, consultants, architects and others involved in these high-tech projects: glass floors and stairs are going up.

Everyone seems to agree that the use of glass structures, namely glass floors and stairs, has increased dramatically over the past few years. 

“It is one of the in-products right now, where glass blocks were the in-product in the 1980s and patterned glass was the deal in the 1990s,” says Ian Patlin, vice president of Paragon Architectural Products, a manufacturer of architectural glass in Scottsdale, Ariz. The company provides architectural design assistance, engineering and fabrication of glass and metals for complex structural applications. 

“Glass stairs and flooring are on the leading edge of current designs and as a fabricator we are driven by the market demands,” says Jill Foxworth, sales manager of Dependable Glass in Covington, La. 

Patlin says that on the residential side, homeowners want to let light into the space. 

“It is about the ‘wow factor’. People want to set their house apart from others. They want to throw on a switch and wow people,” he explains.

Some say it is much more common to see these features in the commercial spectrum than in homes.

“Originally most projects were commercial, now we see more high-end residential projects increasing in numbers,” says Foxworth.

“On the residential side, we only see a little bit of it [glass floors and stairs]. When we see it, it is in high-end construction,” says John Bush, director of laminated products at Oldcastle Glass, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif. He adds that it is mostly used in visible areas such as foyers, lobbies and entranceways.

“On the commercial side, glass floors are being used more to spruce up an area. It is used for pizzazz, instead of the traditional granite or marble floors,” says Patlin.

These features are interesting and popular, but sometimes cost-prohibitive. 

“We’re [involved in creating] kind of the sexy side of the industry because it is appealing. Everyone wants to make their project look better than the one before it, so people are doing it ... if they can afford it,” says Jonathan Schuyler, chief estimator at Giroux Glass, a glazing contractor in Las Vegas.

A Starting Point
So, how do companies get started working with glass floors and stairs? Many say that it begins with a request from owners and architects. 

Patlin says he completed his first glass floor project in the late 1990s, and then continued to work on glass floors and stairs at the request of architects.

“You get the first request and you finish it. We didn’t study it and then come up with the idea to start doing glass floors,” says Patlin.

For architects, the interest in these glass structures sometimes emerges from a vision.

“Initially [I was] working on regular structures but through an interest in architecture and advanced/complex structures, I found myself drawn toward glass as a structural material,” say James O’Callahan, a structural engineering consultant at Eckersley O’Callaghan of London.

What’s HOT?
As if the thought of glass stairs alone isn’t interesting enough, new trends within these applications are popping up.
“People want to get more decorative with patterns within the laminated interlayers,” says Schuyler. “People want as much glass with as little metal as possible,” he adds.

And, there are many options for glass stairs.

“Glass stairs have become increasingly popular as the limits and potential of glass design are better understood. Glass stairs tend to at least have glass walking surfaces, some of them also have a glass structure supporting them, the best example of these being the Apple stores which we have designed throughout the United States and the rest of the world,” says O’Callahan. 

And when light is added to the glass feature, it only increases its appeal.

“Some floors are lit with fiber optics, so it is a wow factor,” says Patlin.

“In Las Vegas, you see trendy things such as dance floors with lightening below,” says Schuyler.

For some, glass flooring is all about the texture.

“At the end of the day, the coolest thing is how many options you have. There are so many different textures you can use,” says Schuyler.

Others, like O’Callahan, notice the size. He says that the design of floors tends to be to create large panels and wider stairs, which generally have become easier to achieve through the development of the interlayer technology.

Endless Imagination
One can design a glass floor or staircase to be as unique as the imagination allows; that is so long as the designs stay within the engineering realms.

“The sky is the limit. A lot of these applications have come to us from somebody’s ideas. Then, we’ve had to do the engineering work and testing,” says Patlin, who says his company has worked on an outside shower that is completely glass, as well as a half-moon, all-glass balcony overlooking mountains.

Working Together
Highly-specialized applications require a strong team of professionals for a successful outcome. When everyone recognizes their role, it runs smoothly.

“Absolutely, we work closely with the contractors. It’s important for them to understand what’s involved and the structure and substructure,” says Patlin.

For some, like Foxworth, working as a team is important.

“We assist architects and design professionals daily with these types of projects. Most often the glazing contractors refer the architects [to us]. We work out the details with the designers and price the material required to the glazing contractors,” says Foxworth.

Schuyler’s role is different, but he says he solicits the consultation of professionals, like Patlin.

“I’m more or less the middle man because we sit down with the architect and then, after he says what he wants, I usually sit down with Patlin or another person like him,” says Schuyler. “We rely on suppliers who have a wealth of knowledge,” he adds.

“Glaziers and manufacturers who actively work with architects are most often the people who contact me. Many times it is after the project has come out for pricing and that is often too late. This can lead to disappointing results,” says Bill Coddington, a consultant and a retired director for Falconer Glass, Tempglass and Oldcastle Glass. 

Communication is important, adds Schuyler, who also emphasizes the importance of a team’s flexibility.

“Sometimes we have to go back to the architect. The owner and builder have budgets, so a lot of times, during development, these things [glass floors and stairs] get value-engineered out of projects unless the owner really wants it and is willing to pay for it,” he says.

“The most successful glass projects require the closest and most proactive type of collaboration between the specialist glass contractors and the design team. Innovative solutions require as much effort in the research and development of materials and fabrication techniques as it does in the design and calculations of the elements,” says O’Callaghan. “This cross pollination of ideas between designer and fabricator is what provides results,” he adds.

A system of checks-and-balances can also be helpful.

“We also make sure that the architects are using the correct engineering consultants, because there are engineering requirements unique to glass,” says Bush. “Engineer consultants need to be familiar with this type of work.”

Overcoming Challenges
There are challenges that have to be overcome to complete a project of this magnitude. 

“Architects and designers want a specific look, and do not understand the cost of total project,” says Foxworth. “Many times during the value-engineering stages, the glass flooring is one of the first items to be eliminated or redesigned,” she adds.

Patlin says they run into problems when they are trying to maximize the panel amount. “Some things are a bit too extreme. Logic dictates that,” says Patlin. “A floor doesn’t have much flexibility. Common sense steps in and says ‘you don’t want to go there,” he adds.

O’Callahan says that engineering of glass floors and staircases requires a particular focus on the capacity of any load bearing element to have layers of redundancy in the event of failure. 

“Creating glass terraces with insulating glass configurations are probably the most challenging,” says Foxworth. “Glass flooring and stair treads are usually the last thing installed on a project creating extreme pressure on deadlines. Final measurement must be accurate, and a clear understanding of production time understood by all parties, including the property owner,” she adds.

“It is widely known that glass, as a material, behaves in a brittle manner and there is no warning of impending failure, as there may be with the yielding of steel. This being the case, as a designer we must always design into the system of such structures the capacity of the structure to safely maintain load-bearing capacity in the event glass fails,” says O’Callahan. This is generally done by a combination of laminations in the glass, the type of interlayers used, consideration of the glass type and the manner in which the glass is supported to its base structure,” he adds.

The Code Factor
“Building codes do not contain design criteria for glass in floors or many other structural applications. Each application must be designed and often tested in order to satisfy the building official or authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Provide calculations to the AHJ and often back it up with physical testing,” says Coddington. 

Valerie Block, a senior marketing representative at DuPont Glass Laminating Solutions is the chairperson for an ASTM committee working on writing a standard on glass flooring called the Standard Practice for the Design and Performance for Supported Glass Walkways. 

“With growing interest [in glass walkways, floors and stairs] comes the need for technical guidelines, which prompted the development of this standard,” says Block.

“Glass technical experts must start working with the architect early in the project so that the aesthetic concept can be obtained without compromising safety. Often the architect will want something that is difficult to provide the engineering design data, to prove it is safe to the satisfaction of the AHJ. This may cause the glass floor or stair to be changed to more conventional non-glass materials,” adds Coddington.

Looking Ahead
Although no one knows for sure, some say that this trend has a lot of room to grow, while others think its popularity will die out in time.

“Architects’ interest will increase with time,” predicts Coddington.

“It [the use of glass floors and stairs] will absolutely increase over time because of the aesthetic appeal of them,” says Schuyler.

Others like Patlin and Bush are not so sure glass floors and stairs will continue to be so appealing.

“It [the growing popularity] will probably last another four to five years. It will become a staple but the “wow” will be out,” says Patlin.

“When the construction market busts in a few years, these could be the features that might be value-engineered out, because they are really just features,” adds Bush.

One thing is more certain: cool features with glass applications are still growing.

“As long as we can find new ways in which to apply glass and develop ways in which glass can span further, take more load or become easier to connect, there will always be an increase in demand for its usage,” says O’Callaghan. 

Sarah Batcheler is an assistant editor for USGlass magazine.

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