Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Slow Death of All Glass Buildings


Over the weekend, I saw this article in the BBC: Could the era of glass skyscrapers be over? Apparently Ken Shuttleworth formerly of Foster and Partners now has regrets over cladding modernist high-tech towers in all glass.
"The Gherkin is a fantastic building," he says. "But we can't have that anymore. We can't have those all-glass buildings. We need to be much more responsible." 
The building at 30 St Mary Axe - nicknamed after a gherkin because of its bulbous silhouette - kick-started a decade of strangely shaped glass towers. The Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie and the Shard loomed up from the pavements of London. The skylines of both Birmingham and Manchester were drastically altered by the addition of towers by property firm Beetham.
One of the best-known glass building mishaps took place last summer, when the Walkie-Talkie at 20 Fenchurch Street in London was accused of melting cars. The 37-storey building reflected light in its glass facade and shone powerful rays at its surroundings. Cars parked underneath were damaged, and passers-by even managed to fry eggs using only sunlight. 
Since leaving Foster and Partners in 2006, Shuttleworth has become a key voice in the fight against glass. Despite his background working on giant glazed buildings, he has founded an architectural practice in which floor-to-ceiling windows are considered an archaic luxury. 
"Everything I've done for the last 40 years I'm rethinking now," he says. "If you were designing [the Gherkin] today... it wouldn't be the same product all the way around the building. We need to be much more responsible in terms of the way we shade our buildings and the way we thermally think about our buildings."
It’s a good roundup of how the glass skyscraper came to be. It even has a shot of the Crystal Palace – the original steel and glass building and a landmark in the history of modern architecture (THE landmark in my opinion).

I think all-glass buildings probably confuse non-architects more than anything else. What’s with all the glass? Well, your walls don’t hold up the building anymore, steel or concrete columns do that. So you’ve got to cover your building in something, and all-glass walls are quick and cheap. That’s pretty much all there is too it. This was caused by the invention of two things - aluminum smelting (which requires electricity), and float glass (which 'floats' molten glass on a bed of tin). Architects justify this with letting in “natural light” and the fact that the building can be rearranged (since you’re always next to a window). But, of course, this is nonsense – windows accomplish this just as well. The adaptive reuse of old buildings in the old industrial areas of all major U.S. cities is a testament to that – these are the most desirable areas of most cities.

Incidentally, as this fascinating program from BBC details, windows used to be an expensive luxury and seen as a sign of status. Buildings included windows as signs of conspicuous consumption. In fact, most Western European countries actually taxed the amount of windows in your home.

Lloyd Alter at has been writing for years about the fact that all-glass buildings in this day and age should not be considered "green," no matter their other qualifications:
…almost every modern condominium building these days is clad in floor to ceiling glass with an R value for the wall of about 4. A wall in Ontario is supposed to have an R value of 20, but there is no restriction on the amount of glass, so the actual R value is far lower. In the winter, that balcony is a radiator fin, radiating the heat from the apartment out into the atmosphere. There essentially is no wall, just window and fin.
What's Wrong with This Picture?
One would think that a façade that works in New York might not work in LA, but this is what every architect is doing now. And while there are high-tech films and glass technologies that can cut down the heat gain or loss, and even vacuum glass coming in the near future that can get up to R-12, most developers don't spend money where the customers can't see it, the mirrored look is definitely not in style these days, and so they continue to shift the problem onto the operating costs through more heating and cooling, or on the homeowners to put up expensive shading or listen to New York designer Jamie Gibbs: "You'd better pick beige interiors, because everything is going to become beige in two years."
Stop With the Glass Façades Already
Glass balcony panels are raining down on the streets of Toronto from the shiny new condominiums, building envelope expert John Straube was interviewed on Ontario Morning to discuss the problem. He didn't say a whole lot about why the panels are falling, but did a great explanation of the problems that come from building condos out of glass. There is a big difference between the glass on office buildings and on condos; the former is usually curtain wall, that runs continuously on the exterior, the latter is window wall, really a modified store-front wall redesigned for condos, supported by each floor and running from slab to slab. It is a lot cheaper. Straube does a good interview; some bon mots:

• Glass and aluminum are great for cookware but not for buildings.

• With floor to ceiling glass, you have nowhere to hang a picture, place your furniture or change your underwear.

• Energy efficiency is five times lower than a conventional wood framed house.

• The glass area is so large that it is difficult to control temperature, it's too hot or too cold.

• If we care about the long term, we should go for a balance, no more than 30 or 40 percent glass.

Straube noted that while aluminum and glass are easy to clean and durable, the sealants and gaskets are not, and will need maintenance and replacement down the road. This is not cheap or easy, and the burden falls on the condominium association and the owners. (Glass and aluminum have very different coefficients of expansion, and the sealants are exposed to sun, wind and rain for years.)
Why Architects Shouldn't Build Condos out of Glass And People Shouldn't Buy Them
One hundred years ago, buildings heated by wood or coal faced cold indoor temperatures if fuel ran out. But they did not depend on electricity to run their heating systems and would not suddenly lose heat all at once. Similarly, buildings with natural ventilation didn’t depend on air conditioning and fans. Today’s buildings are different, and we face the risk of a power outage causing a widespread, immediate loss of heating or cooling capabilities citywide.
All-glass buildings could be deadly in a blackout
For decades, modern office buildings have been pretty much covered in glass curtain walls. Some are high performance and very expensive, like the super-green LEED Platinum Bank of America Building at 1 Bryant Park in New York, or they can be the standard crappy suburban office building thrown up across North America, looking the same in California or Calgary.

But as Steve Mouzon points out, even the very best glazing has an R-value that is equivalent to a 2x4 wall with fiberglass insulation, something that nobody has built for years. Most office buildings don't even approach a third of that. So why do architects design buildings this way?

I think the reasons are simpler: laziness. In most cases, the architect is no longer really designing the exterior of a building, worrying about proportion and detailing and materiality, he or she is simply outsourcing the design to a curtainwall supplier. It looks really good on a rendering, and makes it easier to get approvals; the simple, reflective skin disappears against the sky. It is easier to administer; one trade is providing the entire skin of the building. It's thinner; the client gets more rentable square feet.
Can an All-Glass Office Building Really Be Considered Green?

Telus sky is going for LEED Platinum, and projects energy savings of 35% compared to similar size developments, but look what is going on here: every single residential unit is projecting a corner out that has a deck on top and a soffit below, three additional surfaces exposed to the weather. The architects have gone out of their way to increase the surface area of the building, including the toughest condition any architect and builder has to deal with: terraces on top of occupied space, for every unit yet. It's ingenious, and gorgeous, but it is a thermal nightmare.
A closer look at Telus Sky: Can an all-glass tower really be considered green?

Are these all-glass buildings really built for a more energy-constrained world? No, and they don’t have to be because they are built for the global one percent who will be able to afford all the energy they want, since the rest of us won’t be using it. After all, we won’t have cars or houses anymore, the permanent financial crisis has seen to that. Meanwhile, Detroit is urged to tear down 40,000 buildings (!!!) and Milwaukee is plagued with hundreds of  ‘zombie houses’ even as we continue to build condos for the wealthy downtown.

In other very sad architectural news, the iconic library of the Glasgow School of Art burned down. C.R. Mackintosh is one of my favorite “forgotten” designers who invented new and innovative designs in the twentieth century without throwing out 2,000 years of Western building traditions. Meanwhile, they're still trying to tear down Paul Rudolph's buildings.

Finally, I picked up and read this book last month: Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture. This entire book makes a lot of the same arguments I've made about the state of architecture and the profession today. I'm hoping to write a full review in the future. If you're an outsider who wants to know why modern architecture is the way it is, glass facades and all, I highly recommend the book - very readable and an excellent historical survey.


  1. We *are* reading this, probably thousands of us, you're doing both a lot of work, and very good work. The thing is that the Internet is becoming mostly read-only, it's very hard to comment on pages. I'm not even sure if this will get through. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks, man. You reminded me that I meant to open up the comments to non-registered users. I still get a surprising amount of spam/bot comments, though. Hopefully it won't get out of hand.

    Given that so much of the Web is retreating behind paywalls, and there is so much software bloat and spyware loaded on your machine that you can barely even access many popular Web sites at all (e.g. Business Insider), I wonder how much longer I can do this. At least I'll always be able to publish original stuff.


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