Volume 47, Issue 10 - October 2012

Architects Guide to Glass
A special section of USGlass magazine

Rights of Passage
Taking the Next Step Toward Point- Supported Glass Requires Sound Understanding
by Ellen Rogers

Take a close look at most any major street decked out with storefront after storefront. How many do you see that feature some type of structural glazing? Glass canopies? Balustrades and railings? Small-scale point-supported facades are popping up almost everywhere. And according to industry experts many contract glaziers are comfortable taking on these projects—the smaller-scaled projects, that is.

Though many contract glaziers have become increasingly comfortable with this type of work, there is still a segment reserved for the elite—not many glaziers will be comfortable taking on such a scope. There are questions to ask and answers to find; architects, builders and owners to convince; engineering and system selection must be precise. Some contract glaziers are well-versed, knowledgeable and prepared; others are hesitant, for the risks can be significant.

All That Glass
For decades architects have been on a quest for transparency. Point-supported (i.e. point-fixed) glass systems help meet this need. Such systems can be classified into the broader category of structural glazing, and the façades are typically characterized by exposed structural support systems that use tensile elements as a means to dematerialize the structure.

“The development of this building type has been driven by the pursuit of transparency in the building envelope,” says Mic Patterson, director of strategic development for Enclos. “Structural glass façade technology has bloomed and matured over the past four decades yielding a great variety of novel applications. While still emergent, the technology is no longer largely experimental as it was in the early years.”

Patterson says while experimental innovations are still emerging and will continue to do so, it is no longer all about transparency.

“Just as often now it is about the expression of structural innovations. One of the biggest changes in this market niche is the emergence of a robust and mature infrastructure to facilitate the delivery of structural glass façade applications,” he says. “Material suppliers, fabricators and specialty consultants and contractors experienced and familiar with the technology now populate the industry.”

Ed Zaucha, CEO of APG International in Absecon, N.J., says many of the changes in the point-supported market in the past decade involves hardware elements. For example, he says fittings have gone from fixed fittings to articulating fittings.

“We are also seeing the sizes of glass lites becoming larger and larger,” he says. “This is generally a constraint in the United States because of the limitations of our glass fabricators but more and more architects are requesting larger sizes.”

Jeff Haber is a partner with W&W Glass Systems in Nanuet, N.Y., which has two segments: a contract glazing firm and also that of the North American distributor for the Pilkington Planar System. His company works with some of the country’s largest glazing firms and he says he’s seen two distinct markets.

“There is one for architecturally challenging projects, those with complex geometries, loading and glass types and then there is the smaller, everyday point-supported glass--simple geometries, simple loading, etc.,” says Haber. “On the higher end there is still only about a handful of vendors and this is still a hugely popular market.”

He adds, though, that at his company they have seen increasing interest.

“But I think the market is a dual-edge sword: we all complain about eight companies bidding on the same job, but at the same time that interest may also help open doors, because then owners will see it and the architects will design what they thought they could never have done.”

Comfort Zone
Many involved in the field of point-supported glazing agree that they are seeing more and more getting involved.

Zaucha, however, points out that his company only works with union labor “because of the need for safety, training and core competence. They are very comfortable with these applications. However, most contract glaziers are not.”

Haber agrees that while some glaziers are getting more comfortable, others have learned the hard way.

“They bought on price and did not appreciate the intricacies that go into this [type of] building,” he says, adding that from what he has seen, overall there is a high level of sophistication and craftsmanship.

“Quality has come up in the states over the last ten years. [Our company] has aligned itself outside of the New York City area with high-quality glaziers in various cities throughout the United States.” He explains that, for example, they send qualified foremen to the jobsite to explain how to build the system correctly, safely, etc.

Changes All Around
Part of the reason for the growing interest in point-supported glazing still falls back on architects’ increasing desire for transparency. To reach that level of aesthetic, though, products have also had to evolve. As such, the industry has seen advancements in laminates/multi-ply laminates, embedded fittings, silicone adhesives, etc.

“And when all are used appropriately together it can result in more transparency, but, the more transparent the wall the more expensive it becomes,” says Haber, explaining that these advanced components come at a premium.

Patterson agrees.

“Currently there are several systems in which the fixing is laminated between two pieces of glass, leaving an uninterrupted outer glass surface. The Europeans are actually bonding the point fixings to the glass rather than mechanically attaching them, a strategy that eliminates the need for any glass drilling,” he says. “And some designers are making use of new high-performance interlayer materials to fix the glass in place, which eliminates the need for bolts entirely.”

Searching for Answers
Despite the growing popularity, there are still concerns, questions and challenges. The systems are expensive and, according to some experts, some companies offer products not fully tested and warranted. Haber says there are still contract glaziers that take the easy way out, “which hurts the industry in the end. It can’t always be about the lowest prices,” he says. “You have to want a quality, safe project. Saving ourselves from ourselves is the biggest challenge.”

He adds, “Yes, everyone has clamped down on prices these past five years, but glaziers have to take a stand for reasonable prices and a reasonable product.”

Another concern, Haber points out, has been “the advent of the independent consultant willing to design and engineer structural glass. Some [consultants] just do a set of drawings, give them to the glazier and let them go buy glass, etc. It’s increased the jobs, but watered down the quality.”

Open Mindedness
So, if point-supported glazing is expected to continue to increase in popularity, and more companies decide to get involved, how can they ensure they are well-versed in the technology?

“As with any new aspect of our work, it’s all about education, training and work experience,” says Zaucha. “Point-supported glass walls and other structural glass applications aren’t something you simply buy off-the-shelf and read about it in a catalog. It requires proper engineering, design and execution. It isn’t cheap so those who choose to spend the time, effort and money to get into the market are somewhat protected because the barriers-to-entry into the field are much higher than other markets in our industry.”

He adds, though, “Unfortunately, very few U.S. manufacturers and fabricators are investing time and money into research and developments, so leading designs are emanating from Europe and slowly migrating [here].”

Also, companies should seek out others experienced in the field for guidance and support. “They need to work with a qualified company that offers a complete package of engineering, material and supervision and will help them prepare,” says Haber. “It’s in the vendor’s best interest if the glazier makes money because then they will come back.”

Fast Forward
What’s next for point-supported glass? Many will tell you the future is ripe with opportunity—but more changes are expected.

In the end, though, everything about these structures, their popularity, growth and future demands, falls back on one critical component: safety.

“Our fear is that there is a catastrophic failure of the product in use where there are injuries or lives lost and that casts a cloud over the product range,” says Haber. “It’s avoidable and we, as an industry, can step up and do the right thing for all of us.”

Simply put, Zaucha says everything about these projects is a challenge, and that must be factored in on every job.

“There is no use in trying to oversimplify this—it is complicated work and there are no shortcuts,” says Zaucha. “If you’re not willing to do the research and training then find another field; someone can get hurt.”

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

© Copyright 2012 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.