Volume 47, Issue 3 - March 2012


A Look at the Aftermath of 2011’s Spate of Broken Balcony Glass
by Megan Headley

Since the summer 2011, when buildings in Toronto rained broken glass and opened a discussion on safely fabricating and installing glass railings (see October 2011 USGlass, page 32), the city has investigated the source of the breakages and how to prevent similar such occurrences.

As Bernard Ennis, P. E., director of policy and professional affairs for Professional Engineers Ontario in Toronto, explains to USGlass, “The City of Toronto has completed its study of the cause of the falling glass. Four engineering firms investigated the problem and a fifth performed a peer review of their work. All agreed that the cause was spontaneous breakage due to nickel sulphide inclusions.”

The report related to broken railings in three condos operated by Lanterra Developments, as well as Daniel Corp.’s Festival Tower condominium located above the TIFF Bell Lightbox. According to Bruce Hawkins, a press representative for the city, there is no information in the report regarding the manufacturer of the glass.

According to Ennis, the report writers “noted that this type of breakage occurs in all tempered glass installations and that it was the manner in which the glass was used in balcony installations that created the public safety problem. Large spandrel pieces of glass that extend past the balcony on buildings close to roads and sidewalks resulted in a greater frequency of breakage (due to larger volumes of glass) and danger to the public since the breaking glass has nowhere to go except down onto pedestrians and traffic,” he says.

With this knowledge, the Toronto City Council adopted several recommendations from its Planning and Growth Management Committee regarding glass balcony guard safety on November 30. Among the recommendations was the requirement that the City Council direct Ann Borooah, its chief building official/executive director of Toronto Building, a division of the City of Toronto responsible for enforcing the Ontario Building Code, to advise the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing of the results of the city’s review of the use of glass panels in balcony guards and request that they consider an emergency amendment to the Ontario Building Code to better address concerns for public safety when glass paneled balconies may break.

"Toronto’s chief building official would be remiss in not defining a minimum training standard and certification for the architectural glass and metal technician."
—Andrew Sefton,
Ontario Painting Contractors Association

The Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes referred comments to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The Ministry issued a statement on its progress to USGlass, noting:

“Our government takes public safety seriously, and the Ontario Building Code exists to protect their safety. Above all else, we want our solutions to put safety first in all municipalities around Ontario.

“The Ministry has established an expert advisory panel, including staff from the City of Toronto and other stakeholder groups, including engineers, architects, developers and enforcement officials, to advise on possible changes to building code requirements for balcony glass panels.”

Proper Training Needed
The Toronto City Council also directed Toronto Building to advise the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), which bills itself as the voice of the land development, home building and professional renovation industry in the greater Toronto area; Tarion, a private corporation established to protect the rights of new home buyers and regulate new home builders; the Ontario Association of Architects; and Professional Engineers Ontario of the results of the city’s analysis of glass panel safety in balcony guards. The Council also encouraged these organizations to update their practices and professional training regarding the use of glass panels in balcony guards.

Ennis replied on behalf of the Professional Engineers Ontario that “at this point the issue has been turned over to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.” He adds, “Professional bodies will update guidelines and training after the Ministry has decided how to proceed.”

"Toronto’s chief building official would be remiss in not defining a minimum training standard and certification for the architectural glass and metal technician."

For its part, BILD directs visitors to its website to the Toronto-based Ontario Industrial and Finishing Skills Centre (OIFSC), which provides apprenticeship training for glaziers.

“We do the apprenticeship training for the architectural glass and metal technician, formerly known as the glazier program,” says Steve Laird, glazing and health and safety instructor for the OIFSC. As he explains, “The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities oversees the curriculum, training standards as well as the certificate of qualifications exam at the end of their training. This is a Red Seal Trade, which requires certification upon completion of 8,000 hours of in-field and in-school training. We run three levels of training at 240 hours per level. It takes approximately four years to complete the apprenticeship.”

The in-school program consists of about four weeks of classroom and four weeks in shop per session. “We cover things like inclusions, expansion and contraction properties of different material, required material clearances, as well as a great deal of other topics,” Laird says.

Other training organizations agree that, whatever the outcome of the Ministry’s research, training standards should be mandatory.

“Toronto’s chief building official would be remiss in not defining a minimum training standard and certification for the architectural glass and metal technician,” comments Andrew Sefton, executive director of the Ontario Painting Contractors Association. “It is the technical competency of the installer that is critical to achieve project success.”

Laird agrees, noting that other trades are required licensure in the province.

“Currently the trade is voluntary; it is not required to obtain certification in Canada to work in the trade. We are trying to change this and make it mandatory to obtain a license to work in the trade. As with plumbers and electricians, you must have a license, not a certificate, to practice,” Laird says.

Laird offers some additional insight into the installation of the glass in the projects under scrutiny, and how glazier training, higher standards of installation and general contractors’ willingness to work with well-trained subcontractors could help.

“I have been told a lot of the condo work is piece work; the more you do the more you get paid,” he says. “If the glass is too small (not enough bite), will it fall out with temperature changes? Possibly. If it’s too big, will expansion cause breakage? Possibly. If it’s not installed [properly], will the company get paid? No. If the installation company closes, [is it] still responsible? Only if you can find [the company] and prove [it] negligent.”

More Research Needed
The Toronto City Council also directed that several organizations—Industry Canada, the Canadian Glass Association, the Safety Glazing Certification Council and the Glass Association of North America (GANA)—be advised of the results of the city’s analysis of glass panel safety in balcony guards, and encouraged to communicate and coordinate a comprehensive review of compliance safety standards for the “manufacturing of non-metallic product used to produce architectural glazing materials.”

GANA’s Laminating and Tempering Divisions and its Glazing Industry Code Committee (GICC) currently are looking at updating and creating resources to address the use of glass in balcony railing systems.

According to Urmilla Jokhu-Sowell, GANA technical director, the association’s Tempering Division currently is working on two glass informational bulletins (GIB): Guidelines for the Fabrication of Heat-Treated Architectural Flat Glass and Recommended Applications for Heat-Treated Glass.

“The task group working on the Guidelines for the Fabrication of Heat-Treated Architectural Flat Glass informational bulletin have discussed including sections on personal protection equipment, general product environment, process flow, cutting and washing. The second GIB, Recommended Applications for Heat-Treated Glass, will discuss the different types of heat-treated glass, reasons for heat-treating and guidelines for typical architectural glazing applications. Both of these task groups will meet at the GANA Annual Conference to continue their work,” Jokhu-Sowell says.

The association’s Laminated Division is reviewing its Use of Laminated Glass in Glass Railing Systems GIB to make any necessary updates with current standards and codes.

In addition, the GICC has submitted a proposal to the International Building Code (IBC) for its upcoming code cycle changes for Chapter 24. “The proposal states that glass used in handrails, guardrails or a guard section shall be laminated glass constructed of fully tempered glass or heat strengthened glass and shall comply with Category II of CPSC 16 CFR Part 1201 or Class A of ANSI Z97.1,” Jokhu-Sowell says. “Glazing in railing in-fill panels shall be of an approved safety glazing material that conforms to the provisions of Section 2406.1.1 of the IBC. There is one exception: Single tempered glass complying with Category II of CPSC 16 CFR Part 1201 or Class A of ANSI Z97.1 may be used in handrails and guardrails if there is no walking surface beneath them or the walking surface is permanently protected from the risk of falling glass.”

"Large spandrel pieces of glass that extend past the balcony on buildings close to roads and sidewalks resulted in a greater frequency of breakage (due to larger volumes of glass) and danger to the public ..."
—Bernard Ennis,
Professional Engineers Ontario

Re-Evaluating Standards
Finally, the Toronto City Council requested the chief building official/executive director of Toronto Building to re-evaluate wind tunnel standards and criteria and report to the Planning and Growth Management Committee on changes to improve modeling and application standards. At press time, Borooah had not responded to USGlass’ requests for comment on the status of this item.

“I don’t recall hearing any of the glass was blown out, but any update of standards is good. If it’s determined by engineers they need to be changed, change them,” Laird comments. He adds, “I don’t think the current standards or codes cover what is happening now so, yes, they need to be changed.”

Laird offered another suggestion on the advisements issued by the City Council.

“Consideration of an amendment is like having a meeting to discuss having a meeting. Just do it. Don’t encourage updated practices—demand it,” he says.

Megan Headley is the special projects editor for USGlass. She can be reached at specialprojects@glass.com.

The W’s Replacement in Progress
The Toronto glass railing breakage incidents, which happened city-wide, sparked a great deal of debate in the consumer press, while a high-profile project further south helped ignite the discussion about proper glass railing fabrication and installation.

Following the breakage of five glass railings last June, the W Hotel in Austin, Texas, has begun repair work on its condominiums. The property soon will start replacing all existing balcony and stair railings in the condo balconies with approximately 1,000 lites laminated with DuPont’s SentryGlas Plus interlayer. Hotel owner Stratus Properties Inc. has opted to use glass in a new railing design, although a representative of Stratus confirmed to USGlass that the glass would use a different hardware design than the previous railing.

The original railing was designed, fabricated and installed by U.S. Railing in Tampa, Fla., a subsidiary of Custom Components (now a subsidiary of Grey Mountain Partners, see February 2012 USGlass, page 10).

“Custom Components Co. has continued to provide design and technical assistance to its customer, [general contractor] Austin Building Co.,” David Janosz, Custom Components’ marketing manager, tells USGlass. “We have recently released for production new stainless steel component parts that will be used to modify the railing framework. The design of the system will change from a front located point mount glass panel to a channel captured glass located at the centerline of the railing system,” he says.

Janosz says that the new railing will make use of 9/16-inch laminated glass. Product began arriving onsite in early February.

“The fabrication and installation will be a joint effort among employees of Austin Building Co., Custom Components Co., Austin Outdoor Studio and Austin Glass and Mirror. Work is underway, with completion set for late April,” Janosz concludes.

Representatives of Stratus Properties refused to confirm to USGlass a point published in a January 20 article in Austin’s local American-Statesman; in the article, Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong commented that the contractors, not Stratus, will pay for the $2.5 million project.

According to Janosz, “The cost burden and assignment of such is still being reviewed between all parties involved, insurance policies, etc. There still has been no conclusive evidence as to the reason for the glass breakage. Right now Austin Building Co. will be paying all costs associated with this rework.”

Is There More Falling Glass Today?
One question that remains is whether the year ahead will bring a fresh batch of reports of falling glass.

“I believe there is a lot more glass being used in balcony installations now than ever before, especially with condos as it is a selling point. Everyone likes the unobstructed view as opposed to the steel panels or bars as in the past. I believe Toronto is [leading] new condo construction in North America,” says Steve Laird, glazing and health and safety instructor for the Toronto-based Ontario Industrial and Finishing Skills Centre (OIFSC). “As more glass is installed it only makes sense more will break. For so many pieces to break in so few buildings over such a short timeframe to me is unusual.”

Laird points out that the best way to prevent future such problems is to reveal the causes of broken glass in these instances, so that others can learn from these mistakes.

“I have read a lot of articles on the breakage in Toronto and other cities. Most times the cause is not made public,” he points out. “Is the glass from North America? If so, it will have met standards and gone through testing. If not …?”

Lyle Hill, managing director of Keytech North America, offers another opinion on the matter. “Glass is not breaking more often than in the past,” he suggests, “but the type of glass being installed is inclined to fall out (and off) of buildings at a higher rate than in the past.”

As Hill explains, “In the past (and by the past I am going back a few decades), the typical high-rise glass installation used annealed glass. When that glass would break, it would tend to stay in the opening for a period of time. In an occupied building, it would either get boarded up or replaced in pretty short order. I can tell you firsthand that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, I regularly saw glass with cracks, breaks and even BB (and occasionally bullet) holes that did not get replaced for extended periods of time.

“These pieces of glass rarely fell out of buildings,” Hill says. He adds, “But when they did, sometimes there were some very bad consequences. As safety regulations and codes came into being, and higher-performance coated glass began to be used, the glass being installed in high-rise buildings was commonly heat-treated (strengthened or tempered). So when a piece of tempered gets broken or shot by a BB or bullet, it does not stay in the opening until a board-up or replacement glazing team arrives. No … it is going to fall out—rain down, if you will—into what we hope is relatively harmless, yet annoying and sometimes frightening, little pieces.

“Other than the sometimes improperly installed or undersized piece of glass that may ‘fall from the sky’ so to speak, I am convinced that more glass is not breaking; it just rains on us more often when it does,” Hill says.

If city officials in Toronto and Austin have their way, any such instance of broken glass will be rarer in the future.


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