Glass is top of the class when it comes to building materials. It has a long history and important role in architecture. The first large-scale glass construction was The Crystal Palace in 1850 in Hyde Park, England. This structure was built to house The Great Exhibition of 1851 and was a massive 992,000-square-feet. It was truly innovative for its time using over 300,000 pieces of glass and incorporating modular sections.

Now almost two centuries later, glass is the featured material for many of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. Glass facades have long been synonymous with a clean look that immediately suggests high-end. Glass dominated the majority of commercial office buildings in the 20th century, as architects and designers pushed the boundaries of what’s possible. But what’s the future of glass?

New Technology Makes Glass More Adaptable

One of the most important developments for glass in architecture has been the point-supported structural glazing system, offering a much more minimal barrier between interior and exterior, while not impacting structural integrity.

Structural glazing has allowed glass to diversify. It is now used in a variety of applications from sports arenas to retail to hospitality. It serves a practical function of letting natural light while also offering a beautiful view from the inside.

Another technological advancement in the lifespan of glass was the Pilkington Planar™ System. It was the first point-fixed structural glass system, transforming the way in which glass could be inserted into a building’s envelope by eliminating the need to connect glass panels continuously to either aluminum or steel framing.

Further, the rapid innovation in glazing technology have enabled builders to do even more with glass. Glass technology now has the ability to help with a building’s energy efficiency. New high-performance glass has Low-E (Emissivity), which blocks harmful UV rays. Gases, usually argon, are also inserted between layers of glass to help with energy-efficiency. Those inside the structures can enjoy the natural light while the interior space is not impacted by the heat.

Modern glass used in today’s buildings has a broad spectrum of positive traits. It’s glazed and is electric- and chemical-resistant, flexible, and mostly remains unaffected to changes in climate.

Architects Consider Glass Alternatives

In recent years, some architects have come to question the sustainability of glass even with new technology. The glass used in all those buildings in the 1900s was a direct result of these technologies. Huge panes of glass could be produced quickly and consistently. However, now experts are looking at the long-term cost of operating glass buildings. If the glass isn’t treated, then there is more of a challenge to keep spaces cool and reduce the environmental impact.

According to the International Energy Agency, buildings are responsible for 40 percent of total direct and indirect CO2 emissions. Thus, there is immense pressure to construct future buildings that are more efficient and sustainable.

That means glass may be out.

While thermal performance has been improved, glass still lacks some of the insulating attributes of other materials now available such as transparent wood, polycarbonate, metals, stone, and acrylic. These alternatives are durable, and some are more low-cost than glass.

While architects are certainly considering these alternatives, they are not abandoning glass. The new trend seems to be to create a healthy mix of materials. Being able to have a view and shimmer of natural light from glass will always make it attractive and vital in the continued evolution of the building industry.

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