Today any building worth its name has a glass envelope. Architects the world over use glass
envelopes extensively in their projects and try to outdo each other in the race to make their
structure the best in its category and at the same time create a landmark by which they can
be remembered in the years to come.
This has been possible due to the advances made in the field of structural building. The
development of a framed structure has made it possible to replace the traditional external
wall with new forms of building envelopes (Klein 2013).
The most successful system today seems to be structural glazing. As the name suggests it
is an envelope made of glass which acts as a structure by itself. The concept of curtain wall
was the first step in the early nineteenth century which made the envelope almost
independent of the building frame. It not only gave the benefit of greater transparent area but
also gave greater architectural freedom and the ability to work on the interiors independently
of the envelope (Klein 2013).
The inherent weakness of the curtain wall in handling thermal insulation gave rise to
innovative research leading to the development of structural glazing (SG). Though it
performed the same function of protecting the occupants of the building from the elements of
nature, it offered greater transparency and since it was completely delinked from the building
structure, the glass panels were now held together by various types of point fixings.
As long as the curtain wall was integral with the building structure, the governing codes of
construction and the design and decision making processes remained almost the same as
that of the building. But in case of SG the glass envelope had to be treated as a structure by
itself and it brought in a whole new set of rules, codes, analyses which is more complex than
designing a steel or concrete structure since the material of construction here is glass which
is elastic but the failure is sudden and without warning.
So though some of the teams involved in its design and construction remained same like the
architect, the structural designer, the developer and the contractor, there are new players
like the fabricator, the glazier, the sealant manufacturer and the EPDM supplier involved in
SG. Unlike concrete and steel where the suppliers are conversant with the relevant codes
and the requirements at site, these new players are no doubt experts in their respective
fields but are somewhat detached from the ground reality at site and the functioning of the
system as a whole.
Here I make an attempt elaborate this by reviewing the understanding of two different
players from two different backgrounds by interviewing them and see how their individual
perspective affects the outcome in a project using SG.
Structural glazing – The system.
The SG system consists primarily of the components mentioned below (Fig 1) (Klein 2013).
Basically the system is large glass panels (as much as the design can allow) held together
by point fixings called spiders and the intermediate joints sealed using sealant. The glass
panels come in varieties depending on their function while the spiders are manufactured by
the investment casting process. The sealants come in varieties depending on the nature of
sealing and bonding desired. They also come in different colors to suit the needs of the
You will notice that each of these components are industrially manufactured and then
brought to the site and assembled as per the drawings. Unlike concrete which is
manufactured at site and whose quality is controlled at site before it goes into the forms or
unlike steel whose sections are rolled in factories but finally fabricated at site to meet the site
requirements, the components of SG are manufactured in isolation from each other. The
manufacturers of these components are experts in their respective fields and manufacture
and test their products in accordance with the latest codes. But at no point of time are these
components put together and tested as a system except for the results derived from the
computer modeling software. Whatever prototypes are made and tested cannot fully and
accurately replicate the effect of wind, water, heat, snow, natural calamities like earthquake
and storms as the structures created using these systems are literally sky-high (Klein 2013).
Invariably these components and systems are sold using brochures and specifications
available on their respective websites which will answer the architect’s requirements of
hiding the structure, the designer’s requirement of load bearing capacity and so on.
Selection is made by architects and designers based on the data furnished by the
manufacturer’s, their past performance, their own experience with these brands in their
earlier projects and the representative samples handed out with their catalogs.
But in reality this method of arriving at a product is far from correct since these components
are sold as stand-alone items and it is only when they are assembled at site that concerns
are raised by the main contractor and specialist agencies related to fitment, integration with
other services and maintenance.
The knowledge of the different stakeholders and their limitations.
Why SG is so essential one may ask.
After being home to the world’s tallest buildings for almost a century, the US has lost the
race with its tallest building being ranked 17
in the world (Chemi 2013). It is marked red in
the figure (Fig 2) which includes buildings under construction and proposed as per the
Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) data.
The tallest building under construction will be the Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia which is
expected to be finished in 2019 (Fig 3) (Chemi 2013).
With buildings racing to touch the sky and beyond, the primary concern for any designer is to
reduce the self-weight of the structure. Here glass has a distinct advantage over brick
masonry used to cover the building external.
Assume an area of 40,000 square meters to be covered in a building. The weight of glass to
cover this area will be approximately 12,04,800 kgs or 1205 metric tons. The glass density
considered is 2,510 kg/cum and a double walled glass system of two 6mm panels with
12mm air gap has been considered.
If the same area were to be covered with brick masonry with approximately 40% of area
used for window openings, then the weight of brick masonry required will be approximately
11,040 metric tons. This is 9 times more than the weight of glass. No wonder there is a
forecast in demand of nearly 9.2 billion square meters of flat glass through 2016 at an
annual rise of 7.1% (Glass Market Intelligence Report 2103).
The other major benefits of using structural glazing are listed below:
1. Permits natural light inside the building which reduces usage of artificial lighting and
hence saves electricity.
2. Reduces or eliminates ingress of water and air.
3. About 150sqm of glass façade can be covered in one day as against 70sqm of brick
4. Aesthetic designs can be created as per the innovativeness of the Architect.
5. The structure can be customized to any shape.
6. Due to the lower thickness, glass saves about 8% of construction area and increases
the carpet area which is a boon in tall buildings (www.glassisgreen.com).
The downsides to this otherwise faultless material of construction is that unlike steel and
concrete the standards and tests governing glass and structures made from it are still not
completely validated. So use of glass in structural glazing involves inputs from many
stakeholders like user, architect, consultant, design team, local building code administrators,
the manufacturer, glass supplier, glazier, structural silicone supplier and contractor. Please
refer the schematic below (Fig 4) which explains the inter-relations between the different
stakeholders in SG projects.
The structure receiving the system also affects the design in terms of the geographical
location, political situation in that region and so on.
The design procedure for structural glass elements have to undergo an iterative process
which is a combination of thumb-rules, analytical methods and prototype testing (Haldimann
et al. 2008). These three methods are used throughout the design process.
Typically the flow of the project involving glass structures looks similar to the one below (Fig
5) (Klein 2013).
So this type of construction requires a methodology to be put in place right at the beginning.
However this methodology addresses only the sequence of design and construction
activities. It does not capture the roles and effects of the decisions of the stakeholders
mentioned earlier on the construction and the innovation itself. So people have
recommended an interview methodology which can address the needs and views of the
different stakeholders (Klein 2013).
I decided to take up the case of structural glazing used for the Headquarters of a reputed
bank located in a state capital.
I decided this building as it was situated in the heart of the city and it had come up in place of
an old building which was razed to the ground. It was close to the Legislative Council and
adjacent to a residential area which created some problems.
This building was designed in such a way that it had a central courtyard that was open to the
I interviewed two persons from different backgrounds.
One was an architect and the other was the client of the architect.
The architect I interviewed is very famous in Asia and has many a landmark buildings and
projects to his credit. He is also known for his extensive use of glazing in his buildings. His
practice ranks in the top 100 of the world and employs more than 150 architects (The world’s
largest architecture practices 2014).
The client belongs to a very reputed bank having interests in consumer/ corporate/
investment banking, financial services, insurance, wealth management and loans. The bank
has offices spread across the country and branches across the globe.
I chose these two persons as they belong to the best in their respective fields of business
and this will help me learn about the requirements of a project by getting insights from two
very distinct perspectives.
We know that architects are hired in the belief that they will come up with ideas which an
investor may not have imagined and create what the investor wants. Architects claim that
they create the atmosphere (Australian Institute of Architects) required for the occupants to
function efficiently design the space inside to maximize output. At the same time they ensure
that the building conserves energy and meets the latest building codes.
So I asked the architect how does he start a project, especially SG, and take it forward. He
said that he sits with his senior architects to study the brief provided by his client and draws
up a list of possible designs and solutions and at the same time makes a list of queries for
clarification from the client. Once they have the first round of meeting with the client he and
his team make the necessary changes and send it back to the client for his go-ahead. As per
him this process iterates twice or thrice till the client is almost in agreement to the final look.
Then his senior architects put the final touches which he oversees and the junior architects
take over the concept to fill in the details.
Basically the architect gives the form to the building and sees that the internal space is
optimized for the end-use. After this his team gathers information from the related specialists
to put into the specifications before preparing the bill of materials (BOM). This compilation of
specification and BOM is then floated as a request for quote (RFQ) based on which offers
So I asked the architect as to how the other stakeholders' considerations taken care of. He
replied that here he faces an issue in the methodology as this is not suitable for work
involving SG. He expressed that since every project using SG is not the same as any, it is
new to every stakeholder, which means past experience, cannot automatically provide a
ready solution to the design at hand.
The problem is every stakeholder wants to know if they will be paid for the iteration and
samplings they make while arriving at the final design. The SG design is an innovation which
requires a fresh approach for every project. This creates a contractual and legal problem in
SG related projects.
So as of now architects approach the investor for a budget counselling session to
understand each other's comfort zone and make the investor aware of architecture's
complex contingencies while trying to achieve a coherent and integrated design (Moe 2008).
The other issue faced by the architect is the quality of glass which gives the final and
everlasting look to the envelope visible from a distance. The glass panels are designed for
acoustics, thermal insulation, light permeability and structural strength. But the
manufacturing guidelines governing manufacture of glass do not meet the requirements of
the architects. The limits of tolerance for bend, bow and warp are specified per linear meter
and given the large panel sizes used in projects, this translates to a bend or warp which is
visible to the naked eye and is more pronounced when light reflects off the panel. This also
affects the installation since the combination of warp with the dimensional tolerance make
the panels unfit to be placed safely within the frame or for the point fixings to align. Any
attempt to force fit the bolts create stress in the holes which ultimately breaks the glass.
One of the ways architects circumvent this problem is by sorting the glass by quality control
procedures which means the rejects increase and the cost is passed on to the investor. As
this increases the cost manifold most investors are not ready to bear this additional cost.
The other way to arrive at a compromise is using the "defective" panels in areas not directly
visible. This is possible due to the modular nature of panels.
This building also faced the above issues and additionally the perceived threat of terrorist
attack which was realized later and made the client have a rethink midway through the
project. The client asked the architect to reduce the scope of structural glazing in the interest
of the occupant's safety.
The architect obliged by restricting the panel size and used the internal faces of the atrium to
use the SG. This move brought in new issues from point of view of maintenance team and
services which were hitherto planned in that space.
Re-routing the services and allied changes had contractual implications which the contract
had provided for to some extent and the cost increase over and above the provisions were
settled amicably thanks to the budget counselling session with the client.
The interview with the contractor revealed that as the main contractor, though he had overall
responsibility of executing the project within time with required quality, he did not have all the
information in hand about SG. This prevented him from forecasting the problems in time
which resulted not only in delay due to rework but contractual/legal issues arising out of such
He stressed the absence of cohesive teamwork amongst the stakeholders of the SG system
and that all acted as standalone units claiming no defect in their respective services.
He also mentioned that the architect had not done enough homework to dovetail the
services rendered by the glazier, fabricator, sealant and fittings supplier leading to many
loose ends and co-ordination issues. The suppliers recommended by the architect were
based on his interaction with them in prior projects but not vetted specifically for the skills
required in this project.
The head of facilities management expressed during his interview that the atrium was closed
at the top but had to be opened up to allow for maintaining the glazing from gondolas which
were suspended from top. Due to this, pigeons had access into the atrium spoiling it with
their droppings and feathers.
The architect had suggested SG as a predominant feature of this building based on the
technological advances marketed by the SG system suppliers. He projected the building
envelope as a dynamic component capable of channelizing energy, air and water between
the interior and exterior of the building. These claims influenced the design of the air-
conditioning and water supply and effluent systems of the building. But the change
requested by the client in view of safety was at the expense of the energy benefit claimed by
the architect. The client had to take a conscious decision and felt that the safety of the
occupants from a perceived yet imminent threat far outweighed the "benefits" of the
unsubstantiated claims of the architect.
The client felt that the belief that architects handle your investment better by designing better
buildings is no longer true (Australian Institute of Architects). He realized that architects are
no longer in sync with latest technology and are no longer in a position to accurately select
appropriate technology especially in SG. He said during the interview that the age-old norm
of pre-qualifying architects and suppliers of SG systems based on past experience, past
projects, value of projects executed etc. did not hold good for SG. He felt that an in-house
team is required to study and verify the claims of the prospective bidders and not leave the
selection of suppliers to the architects who are invariably their cronies who share a long
association over the years and secure projects more out of reference than the merit of their
The operations of the SG industry
The prime movers in this industry are the glaziers who are in constant touch with the
architects to learn about their requirements in their forthcoming projects. But when it comes
to research and harnessing new technology, it is invariably the fabricators who commission
joint ventures with the glaziers so that the system can be presented to architects and end
Fabricators are one of the stakeholders who visit sites on a regular basis and are stationed
at sites when work is in progress unlike architects who visit site to conduct weekly meetings.
Fabricators implement their past experience in their ongoing projects and share it with the
end users while discussing the project in the initial stages. A similar attempt with the
architects does not get the same response and architects lose their chance to be proactive.
As seen from Fig 5 above, it is seen that the façade builder comes into the picture at the
fabrication stage followed by the facilities team at the fag end of the project whereas the
material supplier, the system supplier, the consultants and the architects have concluded
their design without any input from the façade builder.
It is also seen from Fig 5 that except for the user and facilities team, the architects and
consultants and the investor to some extent are away from the end of life scenarios of the
building and the SG deployed there (Klein 2013). This is a crucial phase in the project's
development where even though the building has been handed over to the user, its
performance and suitability with respect to its intended use has to be reviewed so that the
problems and issues faced during the project's design and execution are put back into the
system which should be available for review by all stakeholders in future projects.
Though there is a consensus in sharing the feedback on a common platform, the confidential
nature of technology and prevalent patent regimes discourage sharing of critical data and
To make SG fulfill its various roles like structurally safe building envelope, energy efficient
barrier, protection of occupants from the natural elements, resistant to earthquake,
renewable source of energy, as a greenhouse amongst others, and at the same time to be
maintained thoroughly at great heights, the roles of the architects, consultants and investor
should extend to the "use" period of Fig 5 while the role of the façade builder, user and
facility manager should start from the design stage.
Considering that glass and SG are still under development and pose threat to safety of the
occupants and the structure, sharing of technology should be allowed and kept out of the
purview of patent's so that all the stakeholders are benefited by this technology.
Governments should consider the fact that sand being a non-renewable resource,
companies in the SG industry should share their information across the globe so that this
resource is used judiciously.
I start by interviewing the architect. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
I shall refer myself as “M” and the architect as “A” in the interview I reproduce below.
M: Good day sir. Thank you for sparing time from your busy schedule.
A: It is my pleasure.
M: As I had mentioned to your secretary that I am here to get a glimpse of your style of working and
the challenges you face in your projects when it comes to deciding to support your ideas or support
the interests of your client or other stakeholders.
M: How do you approach your projects?
A: My approach to a project is on its own merit. I never approach a project with pre-conceived ideas. I
listen to the owner to understand his/ her requirements and then start working on the project.
M: What are the factors that affect your design and decisions?
A: There are many factors that decide the final outcome. Some are known at the outset while some
creep up in the middle of the project. It could be the statutory laws of the region, it could be user-
related issues, it could be budget related or some such issue which changes the outcome.
M: What makes you promote glazing in a big way in your projects?
A: I always believe that one should move with the times and make use of the best technology which
will benefit the user and mankind in the long run.
Glazing is one such material which has greatly benefitted by technology. Today you can see 100-
storey towers and most airports have glazing as a major part of their structure.
Conventional buildings in brick and plaster are very difficult to maintain in the present atmosphere
which is loaded with air pollutants like chlorine and sulphur. Weathering also takes a toll on these
finishes and it becomes prohibitively costly to maintain them and redo them when the building is in
operation and at such great heights.
Glass has a solution to all these issues. Glass has a superior edge over brick and mortar exteriors
when it comes to heat management, maintenance and overall cost of the building in the long term.
Renewable energy sources using glass and reduced build time of the building ensure payback and
quick turnaround of money respectively.
M: There was a project that you concluded recently for a major bank which faced issues with
structural glazing. Could you please share your views on that?
A: This building was replacing an existing one which was razed to the ground. The project was in very
close proximity to the Legislature Council building which was constructed more than a quarter of a
century ago. Since my design used glass as the skin, my client was apprehensive about the safety
aspect with regards to a bomb attack. Though glass technology has advanced to resist this
damage, the cost is very prohibitive. So we could not do complete justice to the client’s
M: How did you resolve the problem?
A: I had to reduce the size of the glass panels so that in the unfortunate event of a bomb attack the
glass pieces will be smaller and inflict less damage to the occupants.
M: What were the other issues you faced?
A: The decision to change the envelope to take care of the client’s apprehension was taken after work
on the building had started. So we had to make changes in the floor plates to accommodate
smaller glass panels. This meant that the specifications and the drawings were revised which
affected the contracts which had been awarded to various contractors.
M: How did you handle the legal aspects of the Contracts?
A: The task of changing the look after awarding the contracts was a challenging one. Fortunately all
the contracts were unit based and we did have clauses in the contract which considered changes
in specifications and quantities to some extent. We had a meeting with each contractor and
assured them that they will be suitably compensated for the effects over and above the provisions
in their respective contracts. We were supported by the client who agreed to the increased budget
since the changes meant appointing more agencies and compensating those who had their
contract values almost halved.
However the client was not willing to change the deadline for this project as they had planned and
finalized their annual Board meeting in this building. This meant that the contractors had to
mobilize extra resources even though their scope may have reduced.
Since the client and our firm did not anticipate this event, they agreed to go the extra mile to
compensate the affected parties but with the explicit understanding that there will be no
compromise on the end date of this project at any cost.
Once this was agreed, our firm immediately went back to the drawing boards and worked at a
feverish pitch to put a plan in place which not only met the requirements but also which could be
executed within the limited time frame.
M: In what way was the final outcome different from your initial design?
A: I had to sacrifice an almost seamless look of glass with smaller panels. The unobstructed view by
the occupants was no longer there.
M: What more do you expect from glass technology?
A: Glass by nature fails suddenly. There are number of reasons for this to happen. It could be stress
induced, presence of impurities, impact etc. This puts the occupants at risk. At the same time I
want my panels to be as large as possible. The available technology addresses these issues in
different ways and at a cost which is seldom affordable by the client.
So I am waiting for a solution to these problems which can transform my ideas to reality.
M: What is your experience working with glass?
A: Glass as a material of construction gives us Architects a wide choice of options to play with. Each
project is an innovation as we would like to use glass differently in different projects. Innovation
itself means something original which is a change from the existing. So something which has not
been conceived is difficult to capture in terms of technology, time, resource and cost. The change
in its application makes the business model a dynamic one where everything from the
quantification, design, application, costing and fabrication is always changing.
M: Are there special contractual needs for glass?
A: When the basic parameters to form a Contract itself are fluid and whose outcome is dictated by
every stakeholder including the structural designer, component manufacturer, glass manufacturer,
glazier, fabricator, sealant manufacturer, and the contractor who is managing the entire project, it
is almost impossible to arrive at a price. If at all a price is arrived it is difficult to justify the cost to
The interview concluded with the Architect confirming that the project was executed as per
the requirements of the user in terms of design and budget but not as per his original design.
I interviewed the user who is heading the bank to learn his point of view and experience in
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
I shall refer myself as “M” and the client as “C” in the interview I reproduce below.
M: Sir, I am interviewing the various stakeholders involved in the building project where you are
C: Why did you choose this building?
M: I read a lot about this project and the challenges it posed to the whole team. Could you share your
experiences about this project?
C: Sure, go ahead.
M: Did you agree to the design submitted by the Architect right away?
C: Not exactly. We had to review it and it involved the people who actually would sit here, the
maintenance team and the security. It underwent much iteration before it was finalized.
M: How did the perception of bomb threat come later in the project?
C: We had the approvals for the structure in place based on which the work started. But when we ran
the drawings through the fire department and security agencies involved in protecting the
Legislative Council, they pointed out the threat and its effect on glass of this size.
M: How comfortable were you making the changes?
C: Initially the design shown by the Architect was very attractive and we accepted it immediately. It
went with our business philosophy and stood out in a unique way as a signature tower. But the
changes did not alter this drastically and in fact we had some positives from the change.
M: In what way?
C: The reduction in glass size meant that the area of transparency was reduced. This reduced the
energy consumption of our building. Reduced size of glass brought down the cost of glass and the
cost of its maintenance.
M: What was it you would have done differently if you had the required technology at hand?
C: I would definitely continue with larger glass panels. The deficiency in technology is that the larger
the glass the greater is the risk of breakage and greater are the associated costs of manufacturing,
rejection and breakage which are passed on to the user.
Larger glass means more surface area exposed to the heat of the sun which puts a load on the air-
conditioning. There are low e-coatings available on glasses which take care of this but again they
differ from project to project based on its location in the area and its geographical location.
M: What were your other concerns in this project?
C: At each stage of design involving the glass envelope, every decision had to go through a cycle of
approval. The structural guy, the glass manufacturer, the fabricator, the sealant manufacturer, the
glazier and the installer had to agree to move to the next step.
Here we found that each area has not evolved on par with the others and they are in various
stages of trial. So the design undergoes many iteration and even prototype analyses and all this
costs money which is never arrived until after the work is done.
Apart from the design we have to look at the building codes and local bye-laws which have to be
satisfied before approving the final design.
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