Experts Weigh In: Are Glass Buildings on Their Way Out?
March 12, 2010

Are the days of the all-glass buildings numbered? That was the question posed in a recent article published online in Architect Magazine (CLICK HERE to read the full article). According to the article, “Glazed buildings, including the Gherkin, could become ‘pariahs’ by 2050 because of their inability to cope with climate change and dwindling resources such as power and water.”

The article notes that Alan Short, head of architecture at Cambridge University, says “global warming and other factors including the ageing population would result in a huge program of retrofitting as well as radically different forms of architectural expression.”

Short is also quoted as saying, "There is a huge challenge for the construction industry and designers ... the idea of making buildings out of glass is going to become a historical phenomenon. Buildings that use huge amounts of energy and big glass office buildings, will be pariah buildings. People won't want to rent them. Will the Gherkin still be standing? Well, no names, but I do think that is going to be a big issue."

But experts in the glass industry do not have the same perspective. Glenn Heitmann, president and chief executive officer of Heitmann & Associates, a St. Louis-based curtainwall consultant, says that while in the United States construction of monumental structures—regardless of the building skin—has gone by the wayside since 9/11, and probably will not return, the use of glass is a trend that is here to stay.

“Tremendous strides in the energy efficiency of glass have been made and [manufacturers] continue to improve the glass,” says Heitmann. “Plus, people want light in their homes and buildings, so I do not see that changing.”

In addition, Heitmann points out that in some parts of the world, including Europe, energy costs are much higher than they are in the United States, “and there they use a lot of double-skin designs, which also use a lot of glass.”

Greg Carney, president of C.G. Carney and Associates in Gulfport, Miss., notes that there are curtainwall projects in the United States, such as the Lever House, completed in 1952 and located in New York—which has been dubbed the pioneer curtainwall skyscraper—as well as the Seagram Building, completed in 1958 and also in New York, which have withstood the test of time.

“Though upgraded to some degree, they are still occupied today and are architectural landmarks,” says Carney. “I think we will continue to see interest in natural light; metropolitan facilities may undergo retrofitting to upgrade the glazing infill, but I don’t think this will be demolished.”

Carney also points out that there are a lot of opportunities right now in the glazing retrofit market, but a challenge could be the building’s design and the fact than many were constructed with monolithic glass.

“If the weight of the structure was designed for monolithic glass it may not be able to handle the weight of an insulating glass unit,” says Carney.

Contract glaziers also see glass as an efficient, viable building material.

“Today’s more sophisticated architectural glazing products attempt to balance the demands of aesthetic appearance, energy conservation and building occupants comfort,” says Linda J. Vos-Graham, president of Vos Glass in Grand Rapids, Mich. “There are more options than ever before for those who make decisions regarding glazing design and product selection. These decisions can make a tremendous difference in project cost, energy efficiency and environmental impact.”

And it’s not just those in the United States who agree that glass structures are here to stay. So, too, does Roy Offland with Float Glass Industries Ltd. in Manchester, England. Offland shared his personal opinion with USGNN.com™. He says that while some may think the worst and single out glass buildings as being totally out of favor by 2050, they are not taking into consideration all of the progress made by the glass industry to meet the demands for more efficient windows.

“Look at the gains in the last ten years alone, and with energy-producing windows already in prospect, the story could prove to be quite the opposite to Short’s view,” says Offland. “Is it not curious that just a few weeks after the tallest building in the world was finished in glass in Dubai, with its obvious testament to human nature, that some experts are prepared to think we are ever going to change - I don't think so.”

Offland adds, “When you read about all the new renewable energies being developed around the world and you’re also told that 400 billion barrels of oil are waiting to be extracted from old wells in the United States alone, I find it very hard to believe that 'Armageddon' is truly in sight but, for sure, the glass industry will not back off the challenges anyway. The days of glass just keeping out the wind and rain are ancient history--that is a fact.”

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