Volume 50, Issue 10 - October 2015

Flipping the Switch
The Privacy Glass Market Could be Ripe as Ever
by Nick St. Denis

Kai-Uwe Bergmann with the architectural firm BIG opened GPD 2015 with a keynote session titled, “From Hot
to Cold.”

Switchable privacy glass is the “veteran” of the dynamic glass world. But it could be argued that it is still in its rookie season.

The early versions of the product were highly innovative yet relatively mundane from an application standpoint. Conference rooms and office spaces were the biggest users of the technology and still are. However, as awareness of the product continues to increase, so has its growth—not only in how much it is used, but also the ways in which it is used.

What has Changed?

For years, the architect community drove the demand for switchable glass, with designers suggesting and exposing the product to the end user as a solution for their various privacy needs.

That element is still there, but now the product is also consumer-driven.

Anthony Branscum, vice president of architectural sales at Plainview, N.Y.-based Innovative Glass Corp., says that transition has been made simply because “more people are seeing it.”

For example, high-end office settings such as banking institutions and hedge funds are common places for the use of switchable glass, and when clients or business partners visit one another, they’re taking notice of the growing use of privacy glass.

“So now, when it comes time for them to do their own office renovation, they’re demanding their architect investigate the use of privacy glass,” he says.

In a way, it’s a game of keep-up, something Glass Apps CEO Thomas Lee, based in Los Angeles, says he’s seen in the commercial/retail sector.

One automobile company, for instance, will utilize the switchable glass for a product reveal event, and he’ll soon get calls from another company that wants to do the same thing.

The application of switchable glazing continues to grow in the healthcare sector as the product’s benefits regarding cleanliness are realized.

Putting up a Front

Glass Apps has caught on at the commercial retail level, with its switchable film being applied to storefronts.
With the technology, businesses are now able to bolster the “awe” factor of their displays, drawing more attention.

One such project was the Cartier boutique in Tokyo, where the company’s switchable product was applied.

During the day, the business’ regular inventory is on display through large, clear windows.

But in the evening, the windows go opaque, and video is projected onto the façade.

“Instead of having a mannequin in the window, they now have a runway show in their window,” says Lee. “They’re able to show way more in a dramatic fashion.”

Sang Lam of Polytronix, in Richardson, Texas, says there is also potential at the retail level with privacy glass via the incorporation of patterns and logos.

Ideas, Ideas

Branscum says that while those in the industry have a good sense of the “practical” applications of switchable glazing through their years of experience, more awareness from the end user has created fresh ideas.

“People always amaze you,” says Branscum. “They always find a new way to use the product. Because of that, I think it will be a continued evolution.”

He adds, “I can tell you, people call here frequently with just a twisted, different way of using the product … It is glass, but it is also technology. You can’t pigeonhole it as just a piece of glass.”

In one project, Innovative’s client had glass doors leading into a wine room. They combined switchable glass with printed glass by having the pattern in the glass align with the wine rack in the room, and when the switch is flipped, the pattern goes away and provides full vision into the room.

Lam says Polytronix has also seen a rise in end-user inquiries of late.

“They’ll come up with all of these nifty scenarios,” he says. “They’re very creative.”

Residential on the Move

“It’s going to happen,” says Lee regarding the potential in the residential market. “It’s just a matter of affordability.”

“If you give someone the option of switchable glass, then say, ‘for the same price, you can have curtains if you want,’” he says, “I’d say 90 percent of the folks would want switchable.”

For those who can afford it now, switchable glazing has already proven very useful for applications, both practical and creative.

Skylights are one area of potential, as switchable can be applied either as a film or fabricated in the glass units. Glass Apps has done both kinds of projects.

Branscum says he’s also worked on such projects. In one case, the client had a skylight in his roof that exposed artwork inside his apartment, as the roof was accessible and could allow others to see in. Switchable glass solved the problem.

On the more “creative” end, another homeowner had a fish tank separating one area of their home to a mud room. So they mounted privacy glazing on one side of the aquarium and are now able to switch it on and off for privacy between the spaces.

Office and corporate settings are still the biggest utilizers of switchable glazing. In addition to providing privacy, the technology helps preserve daylight and views to the outside when conference rooms aren’t in use.

Shedding the Light

Even with the most run-of-the-mill uses of privacy glass, the public is becoming more aware of the multiple benefits the product can provide.

Oftentimes, the purpose of glass is to bring the outside in. A wall, meanwhile, is utilized to keep the outside out. With switchable glass, the occupant can have both.

That’s become especially important in metropolitan office spaces, where companies are forking out big money to be located in the heart of New York, Chicago and other big cities.

“They’re paying for these views, overlooking parks, harbors and whatever else,” says Branscum. “[With switchable glass], if I’m at the innermost part of the office, I can now still see straight across out the window and to the city.”

That comes in handy when a conference room is located between the main office space and the exterior. The glass can be flipped to its opaque state in order to provide privacy during meetings, but the rest of the time, the clear glass preserves the view to the outside.

Additionally, in the opaque state, privacy glass still allows ambient light—again, something a simple wall doesn’t offer.

“Even in the cloudy state, there is still natural light going through,” says Lam. “So you still get the natural daylight environment without sacrificing the privacy.”

Even in the most traditional uses of privacy glass, the potential is being realized. Because of that, the market may just be heating up for the long term.

the author
Nick St. Denis is an assistant editor for USGlass magazine. He can be reached at nstdenis@glass.com.

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