Architectural glass: beauty or eco-beast?

Should architectural glass be about functionality or aesthetics?

ANALYSIS, Design, Chad Oppenheim, Dxb lab, Glass, James Law, Kareem Negm, Richard Wagner, Thom Bohlen

From an aesthetic point of view, architects and clients specify the interior and external glass for a new building. When it comes to structural integrity, performance and application, engineers rule. If the project requires an inordinate amount of glass, perhaps contractors or value engineers will weigh in with cost-effective alternatives. This is the reality of building in the Middle East, but at the end of the day, who trumps whom?

In the Middle East, does the architect’s opinion reign supreme? Or, are the value engineers the behind-the-scenes budgetary saviours when it comes to making decision on glass? Do building owners or developers really even care what goes where, as long as the building sells?

All of these questions beg one last, fundamental question: Is architectural glass a decision of functionality or aesthetics?

This much we know: architecture is about creating space. Architects design structures to be experienced. To remove the experiential element from a structure is to render it a sculpture rather than a piece of architecture.

Few materials are as directly responsible for influencing the way in which users experience a structure than glass. Whether its intent is form or function, the versatility of glass is unparalleled.

Middle East Architect caught up with building professionals around the world to talk about the importance of using the ‘right’ glass for the right project.

Who’s making the decision?

Richard Wagner, architect at dxb lab describes an ideal scenario. “In an ideal nutshell, the architect specifies the type of glass, the engineer verifies that choice, the contractor builds it, and the developer sells a quality project as desired by the clients.”

It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to know that in Gulf architecture, things don’t often work that way. In a region where quality can quickly be supplanted by quantity, architects often struggle with contractors and value engineers convincing clients that using a less advanced product will have little influence on how the building looks or performs.

Thom Bohlen, chief technical officer at the Middle East Centre for Sustainable Development, understands the importance of consulting with qualified professionals when considering glass.

“Architects normally specify glazing for their buildings, but typically they get input from structural engineers, glazing contractors, glazing suppliers and, of course, from the green building consultant,” says Bohlen. “The appropriateness of the U-values of the system, transmittance factors and shading coefficients can all greatly affect energy consumption in buildings.”

All too often, however, developers or contractors in the Gulf decide on a type of glass or facade system depending on budget or preference of origin. Specialty engineers are consulted only in the most complex scenarios and architects are left voiceless in the great debate about money.

Is the ‘right’ glass important?

Matching the glass system with the style of the building and the context in which it sits is extremely important. The quality of the glass, in terms of structural, physical and thermal properties, is paramount to achieving a building that looks and functions properly.

“Especially in hot regions like the Gulf, the energy performance and comfort levels of a building clothed in glass are totally dominated by the choice of glass,” explains James Law, chairman and founder of Hong Kong-based James Law Cybertecture International (JLCI).

Having designed several projects for the Middle East and India using glass that does what it promises is crucial for JLCI.

Because glass can range from fully transparent to fully opaque or reflective, and can be specified in virtually any tint or colour, aesthetics is less of an initial concern than function. As Kareem Negm, LEED AP and architect at Dar Al-Handasah (Shair and Partners), points out, ‘function’ in the Middle East means more than just energy-efficiency.

Of course, double glazed, low-U glass should be specified externally to reduce solar gain but because of cultural privacy issues, residential projects will almost always opt for fully reflective or dark tints, regardless of efficiency levels of the glass. Internally, however, aesthetics take priority.

Is glass a liability?

In the more moderate climates of Europe, North America and parts of Asia, glass can be an extremely versatile material that can simultaneously address efficiency and design challenges. But, climates in the Gulf are harsher; they require materials that function at higher levels and, therefore, require careful consideration during design and specification.

Chad Oppenheim, founder and principal of Miami-based Oppenheim Architecture + Design, often says: “Building glass refrigerators in the desert doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Oppenheim’s logic is doubly poignant given his experience and the context in which he works. So, the obvious question remains, is glass a liability in the Gulf?

“I think any material can be a ‘liability’ if used improperly or unwisely, or where all considerations in the use of that material are not considered,” says Bohlen.

“Well if you look at it from an environmental point of view then yes. We’re creating glass boxes that are heat magnets. They look nice, but often trap the heat inside and cost a lot of money to cool. This cooling process harms the environment in a tremendous way,” agrees Negm.

Wagner takes the argument a step further to suggest that the ‘liability’ aspect of glass doesn’t rest wholly with the material itself. “There is always an element of liability in glass, no matter where you are located,” he explains.

“The reason that there appears to be a lack of versatility in this market can be largely attributed to the fact that the local manufacturing industry has not developed a diverse and feasible enough repertoire, which in return has hampered construction of avant-garde designs... At the same time we have to consider the environmental aspect of shipping tonnes of products halfway around the globe,” adds Wagner.

The final word

It seems clear that the key to using glass correctly and responsibly lies in the ability of architects, contractors, developers and engineers to be collectively mindful of its climatic challenges and specify the product in conscientious ways.

The challenges include high heat and humidity, blowing sand particulates and plenty of solar gain.

Anytime you can avoid the sun’s rays from directly striking the glass you have gone a long way towards making the facade and interior more efficient.

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