Exploring innovations in glass construction

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From the towering skylines of Dubai to the intricate facades of museums, glass has become a defining element of modern architecture. Yet, the story of glass in construction is far from over. Today, innovative developments are pushing the boundaries of what's possible, ushering in a new era of transparency, sustainability, and functionality, writes John Ridgeway.

The global market for glass in construction is estimated to reach a staggering USD 86.45 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 6.7% from 2022 to 2027 (Zion Market Research). This growth is driven by several factors, including urbanisation, rising demand for energy-efficient buildings and the increasing aesthetic appeal of modern glass facades.

Smart Glass

This growth is being stimulated by some exciting new trends such as smart glass. Although it has been around for some 30 years, it is definitely one of the most exciting innovations in the construction industry, blurring the lines between architecture and technology, with new and more advanced products being developed on a continuous basis. It's fascinating to imagine buildings actively adapting to their surroundings, enhancing not only aesthetics but also comfort, energy efficiency, and functionality.

Electrochromic Glass definitely comes under the smart banner. This technology utilises thin films containing metal oxides that change colour and opacity when exposed to electrical current. The user can control the level of transparency, allowing for dynamic control of daylight and privacy.

Smart glass has numerous uses such as self-tinting windows for homes and offices that adjust for glare and heat gain, privacy screens in conference rooms, even building facades that change colour based on weather conditions.

Suspended Particle Device (SPD) glass is another technology which consists of tiny microencapsulated particles suspended in a liquid medium. Applying an electric field changes the alignment of these particles, affecting the amount of light transmitted.

Similar to electrochromic glass, SPD offers dynamic control of transparency and privacy. However, it also boasts faster switching speeds and can achieve complete opacity.

Then we have Polymer Dispersed Liquid Crystal (PDLC) glass, a technology which utilises liquid crystals dispersed within a polymer film. Applying an electric field changes the orientation of the crystals, altering the light scattering properties and hence the opacity of the glass. This makes it ideal for switchable privacy screens in bathrooms, hospitals, and other sensitive areas. It further offers low power consumption and instant switching.

The potential of smart glass extends far beyond just controlling light and privacy. Imagine integrated displays on building facades for advertising or public information, glass panels that double as solar panels, or even touch-sensitive surfaces that interact with building systems. As the technology matures, we can expect even more innovative applications emerging.

However, while the core concept of smart glass has been around for decades, its widespread adoption and diversification into various applications is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has been accelerating in the past decade.

While the possibilities are vast, it's also important to acknowledge a few existing challenges such as cost. Smart glass is currently more expensive than traditional glass, limiting its widespread adoption. Its long-term performance and longevity need further research and testing and further seamless integration with building systems and control mechanisms requires thoughtful planning and expertise – but there is no doubt, this technology will evolve still further.

Jumbo Glass

Think of building walls with transparent panels spanning several metres. Jumbo glass, with sizes exceeding 6 x 3.2 metres, is becoming increasingly popular for its ability to create unobstructed views and maximise natural light, offering breathtaking architectural possibilities.

Large glass panels were first used for showcases and special architectural features in the 18th century, but production was limited and expensive. In the 19th century, advancements in glass production allowed for larger panels, but they were still primarily used for industrial applications and grand public buildings.

By the mid-20th century, float glass production revolutionised the industry, enabling the efficient and cost-effective production of large, high-quality glass sheets. By the end of the century the term "Jumbo glass" gained traction, typically referring to panels exceeding 6 metres in length or width.

Fast forward to the present day and we can see that continued advancements in production technologies and materials (e.g., stronger, lighter glass) have led to wider adoption of Jumbo glass in various architectural applications.

Jumbo glass is designed to eliminate visual barriers, creating breathtaking panoramas and fostering a connection with the surrounding environment. Forget cramped spaces with dim lighting, jumbo panels maximise daylight penetration, brightening interiors, reducing reliance on artificial light and improving occupant well-being.

This technology enables architects to push boundaries, designing expansive facades, curved structures, and even transparent ceilings, creating truly iconic buildings. This increased natural light translates to reduced energy consumption for lighting, contributing to sustainable building practices. Modern jumbo glass is also incredibly strong, withstanding wind loads and other environmental factors, ensuring safety and durability, which means it has several applications.

Jumbo glass is transforming the design of skyscrapers, offering stunning views and enhancing occupant experience. Retail stores, restaurants, and even airports are utilising jumbo glass to create open, inviting spaces that attract customers and enhance brand image. Luxury homes are embracing jumbo glass for panoramic living rooms, expansive terraces, and even swimming pool enclosures, blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors.

Jumbo glass is currently more expensive than traditional glass panels due to its size, production process, and installation complexity. The immense weight of jumbo panels also requires robust structural support systems, adding to the overall construction cost. Transporting and installing these massive panels requires specialised equipment and expertise, adding logistical challenges.

While maximising daylight is a benefit, controlling excessive heat gain, particularly in warm climates, needs careful consideration through shading or glazing technologies.

Despite the challenges, the future of jumbo glass looks bright. Advancements in manufacturing techniques and materials are making it more affordable and accessible. Additionally, innovative solutions for installation and heat control are continuously being developed. As sustainability becomes a top priority, the energy-saving benefits of jumbo glass will further drive its adoption.

Energy Efficient Glass

Energy efficient glass was first developed in the 1950s, It was then when we saw low-emissivity (Low-E) coatings arrive, reflecting infrared radiation (heat) back into the building in winter and outwards in summer. Early versions used gold, resulting in a green hue, later replaced by colourless silver coatings.

Multi-pane windows and improved sealing techniques became more common by the 1970’s, further enhancing thermal insulation. By 1980, advancements in Low-E coatings led to better performance and variety, including coatings with different properties for specific needs.

Vacuum insulated glass (VIG) units emerged more recently, offering exceptional insulation but with limitations in size and potential condensation issues.

Understandably, with growing concerns about environmental impact, energy-efficient glass solutions are in high demand. Low-emissivity (Low-E) coatings and vacuum insulated glass (VIG) units are revolutionising energy efficiency by minimising heat transfer and reducing reliance on heating and cooling systems.

Vacuum Insulated Glass (VIG), consists of two or more glass panes with a near-perfect vacuum between them, significantly reducing heat conduction compared to air-filled gaps. This provides exceptional thermal insulation, surpassing even triple-glazed windows, leading to dramatic energy savings, particularly in harsh climates. However, there is a higher cost involved when compared to traditional glazing, there are limited sizes due to manufacturing challenges and potential condensation issues in certain climates.

If we look beyond Low-E and VIG glass we have electrochromic, which has the ability to dynamically adjust its tinting based on sunlight, optimising natural light and heat gain control. Then there is Aerogel-filled glazing, which uses this super-insulating material, for even better performance than VIG.

The Impact of energy-efficient glass offers many potential benefits such as reduced energy consumption, which translates to lower carbon emissions and a smaller environmental footprint for buildings. This can deliver potential cost savings for building owners and occupants through reduced energy bills.

As with all form of new technology, energy-efficient glass solutions are often more expensive than traditional glazing, though the cost gap is narrowing. Greater education and incentives are needed to raise awareness about the benefits of these technologies. Careful planning and integration with building systems are also crucial to maximise the benefits of energy-efficient glass.

Despite these challenges, the future of energy-efficient glass is bright. Ongoing research and development are leading to even more advanced solutions, with lower costs and improved functionalities. As sustainability becomes a top priority, these innovative technologies will play a key role in creating greener and more energy-efficient buildings for the future.

Bio Based Glass

Traditional glass production has its drawbacks. It relies on high-temperature furnaces, consumes significant energy, and leaves behind an environmental footprint. So, it is no surprise to see bio-based glass, a revolutionary approach using renewable resources like agricultural waste to create a more sustainable alternative.

While bio-glass was being discussed back in the 1950’s, the technology is still in its infancy, with ongoing research focused on improving performance, scaling up production, and reducing costs to make it commercially viable.

Bio-based glass isn't a single material, but rather a category encompassing various alternatives utilising organic materials instead of the silica sand and minerals traditionally used.

Key examples include sugarcane-based glass which uses byproducts such as bagasse (fibrous residue) from sugarcane processing. This innovative approach replaces silica sand with a renewable resource.

Research is also exploring and harnessing the natural silica content of algae to create bio-glass with potential applications in insulation and construction. Cellulose-based glass, the main component of plant cell walls, means that researchers are developing bio-glass alternatives with unique properties like biodegradability.

Advantages of Bio-based glass are obvious. By using renewable resources and potentially lowering production temperatures, bio-glass offers a smaller carbon footprint and reduced reliance on non-renewable resources. Utilising agricultural waste streams promotes resource efficiency and contributes to a circular economy by giving waste a new life.

Most bio-based glass solutions are still in the research and development phase, meaning commercial availability and affordability may not be immediate. Matching the strength, durability, and other characteristics of traditional glass also requires further research and refinement of bio-based materials. We would further need to have clear standards and regulations for bio-based glass. This is crucial for wider adoption to ensure quality and safety.

While challenges remain, the potential of bio-based glass is undeniable. With ongoing research, collaboration, and investment, we can expect significant advancements in performance, scalability, and cost reduction. As sustainability becomes a top priority, bio-based glass has the potential to revolutionise the construction industry, ushering in a greener future for our buildings and environment.

3D Printed Glass

Think of buildings with intricate glass facades, impossible curves, and customised textures, all brought to life with the magic of 3D printing. This futuristic technology is no longer science fiction - it's slowly but surely changing the way we think about glass in construction.

While the underlying concept of 3D printing has existed for decades, the application of this technology to glass is a relatively recent development with rapid advancements in the past 10 years. Although challenges remain, the potential for creating intricate, customised, and sustainable glass structures promises to transform various industries in the future.

Unlike traditional glass production, which relies on moulds and high temperatures, 3D printing builds glass structures layer by layer using a range of different techniques. This includes fused silica deposition, where melted silica particles are deposited and fused together, creating highly transparent and heat-resistant structures.

Alternatively, glass precursors are inkjet-printed and then sintered or heat-treated for solidification. We also have stereolithography (SLA), light-sensitive resins which are cured layer by layer to form complex shapes, later converted to glass through additional processing.

This kind of technology offers unprecedented architectural possibilities with intricate designs, customised elements, and complex geometries previously unimaginable. There is also the potential for using recycled glass materials and reducing waste generated during traditional production.

The technology is still evolving, with limitations in printing speed, material selection, and achieving perfect transparency. 3D printed glass is significantly more expensive than traditional methods, limiting its widespread adoption. Ensuring the strength and safety of complex 3D printed structures will also need rigorous testing and optimisation.

Despite the challenges, the future of 3D printed glass holds immense promise. With ongoing research and development, we can expect advancements in materials and techniques leading to faster printing speeds, wider material choices, and improved transparency and strength.

As the technology matures, production costs are expected to decrease, making it more accessible for wider applications. Architects and engineers are also exploring innovative ways to integrate 3D printed glass into building designs, pushing the boundaries of form and function.

So we can see that 3D printed glass is not just a technological marvel - it's a gateway to a world of design freedom, sustainability, and architectural innovation. While challenges remain, the potential of this technology to shape the future of our built environment is undeniable. As research progresses and costs decrease, we can expect to see more awe-inspiring examples of 3D printed glass transforming our cities and buildings, blurring the lines between art and architecture.

Structural Glass

While glass often graces our windows and facades, a revolutionary trend is seeing it transformed into a structural element. There could soon be a time when entire buildings clad in shimmering glass or bridges could be constructed, where they appear to be defying gravity with transparent walkways. This is the world of structural glass, pushing the boundaries of design and engineering to create breathtaking and functional structures.

Refinements in tempered glass techniques (heating and rapid cooling for increased strength) expanded the possibilities for structural glass as far back as 1960, but it was not until the 1990s - 2000s, that major structures such as the Lloyd's Building in London and the Hearst Tower in New York showcased innovative uses of structural glass facades, capturing global attention.

Today, advancements in materials, engineering, and fabrication methods have led to wider adoption of structural glass in diverse applications, including bridges, staircases, canopies, and even entire buildings.

Structural glass does not just provide views - it actively supports the weight of a building. Multiple glass layers bonded with interlayers, create exceptional strength and safety.

There is also tempered glass, which is heated and rapidly cooled, making it four times stronger than regular glass. Applications are supported with specialised fittings and support systems, which transfer loads to the glass elements securely and aesthetically.

The applications for structural glass are numerous. Building facades offer unparalleled transparency and light, blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors. Suspended staircases or glass-enclosed walkways add a touch of elegance and light to interior spaces. Skylights and canopies can bring natural light deep into buildings, creating striking architectural features.

Transparent bridges offer breathtaking views and a unique connection to the surrounding environment. Structural columns and beams made of such glass can also now support significant loads, enabling innovative and visually striking building designs.

Structural glass gives designers the opportunity to create light, airy, and transparent spaces, enhancing the beauty and connection to the environment. Such designs maximise natural light penetration, contributing to occupant well-being and reducing energy consumption. This technology enables architects to explore previously unimaginable designs, pushing the boundaries of form and function. environmental factors.

There are of course, challenges. Structural glass projects can be significantly more expensive than traditional materials due to specialised fabrication and installation requirements. Careful engineering and detailing are also crucial to ensure the safety and integrity of the structure. And managing solar heat gain through shading or coatings will be essential for maintaining comfortable indoor temperatures.

Structural glass is no longer a novelty - it's a powerful tool transforming the way we design and build. From creating light-filled spaces to pushing the boundaries of architectural expression, this innovative material offers exciting possibilities for the future of our built environment. As technology evolves and challenges are overcome, we can expect to see even more awe-inspiring examples of structural glass shaping our cities and skylines.

Impact & Potential

The innovations mentioned in this blog hold immense potential to transform the construction industry. From creating more sustainable and energy-efficient buildings to enhancing occupant comfort and well-being, these advancements promise to redefine the role of glass in our architectural landscape. Additionally, the aesthetic appeal of innovative glass solutions allows for the creation of striking and iconic structures, shaping the skylines of future cities.

The future of glass in construction is brimming with possibilities. Continuous research and development are leading to even more exciting innovations, such as self-healing glass that repairs minor cracks automatically and glass integrated with sensors for real-time building monitoring. As sustainability and technological advancements continue to drive innovation, glass is poised to play an even more significant role in shaping the built environment of tomorrow.

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