Risks and rewards in decorative glass

Tips to working in the growing specialty glass market

Decorative and specialty glass is a growing market, with more designers specifying the products, and more suppliers offering a greater variety of decorative glass types. "As people become more familiar with the products and the options, they become less afraid," said Cathie Saroka, marketing director, Goldray Industries Ltd., Calgary, Alberta, on the GlassBuild America trade show floor. "We have never been busier."

The specialty glass market offers major opportunities for the glass industry. However, those opportunities don't come without risks, according to panelists leading the decorative glass seminar, "Is It About The Product Or The Design Process?," Sept. 16, at GlassBuild America: The Glass, Window & Door Expo, in Las Vegas. Bernard Lax, CEO, Pulp Studios, Los Angeles, led the discussion with panelists representing various ends of the construction industry: Alex Anamos, principal, KAA Design Group, Los Angeles; Ed Trainor, executive vice president/national purchasing director, Trainor Glass Co., Alsip, Ill.; and Reza Safavi, vice president, Taslimi Construction, Los Angeles. The panelists focused on the role and responsibilities of the glazing contractor, discussing challenges and offering tips.

"Decorative glass elements are always the biggest challenge on a project, and they present the biggest amount of risk," Trainor said. When contract glaziers take on those risks, they have the potential to earn larger profits, or to suffer greater losses. "If you don't bid carefully, you could miss by $10-$20 per square foot," Lax said. "You bid enough jobs wrong, you're not going to be there for the duration."

The panelists offered tips for contract glaziers when bidding on a decorative glass project:

  • Ask questions.
    At the time plans are issued for bid, they  might be just 70 percent to 80 percent complete, Safavi said. "There might be some contact for specialty glass, or there might be a name and some detail about what the architect wants. However, it's very hard to get a qualified final price out of a glazing subcontract based just off the information in a bid," he said.

    It's the contract glazier's responsibility to clarify any gray areas in the plan before bidding. "If a bid says clear glass, and it should have low-iron glass, you can get into trouble. Ask questions. The terminology is very critical. Your job is to clarify those points," Lax said.
  • Get educated.
    An architect might specify a specialty glass product without knowing its limitations. The more a glazing contractor can be educated about the available products and suppliers, the more likely they can spot problems and inconsistencies at the bid stage, preventing more serious issues down the road. "As an industry, we need to be more attuned to trends and what's out there, and more able to consult designers," Trainor said.
  • Work with reliable sources.
    Decorative glass is not a commodity product. Glazing contractors can protect themselves by working with reliable, proven sources. "A piece of tempered glass goes through four steps before it's shipped, while a piece of decorative glass might go through 20 steps before it's shipped," Lax said. "Work with someone who performs." Trainor agreed: "Our best approach is to work with a tier of supplier that knows how to execute."
  • Communicate and collaborate.
    The decorative glass business has larger price tags and more variables. The panelists recommended that contract glaziers get involved with the project team as early in the process as possible, and keep up communication, particularly in regards to issues such as deposits. Some decorative glass suppliers require a deposit — sometimes 50 percent — up front for the product. "Specialty glass is a deposit-based business. It's part of the process, and certain general contractors expect it," Lax said. "My recommendation is to bring it up with your [general contractor] early."

The group also provided tips for decorative glass suppliers:

  • Sell online and in person.
    The Internet is a leading source of product information for architects, Anamos said. "The quality of graphics is important, and the more information available online, the better. Pay attention to codes, all design issues. We want that level of detail," he said. However, "nothing can replace face time," he said.
  • Make accurate samples.
    "When we're given a box of samples, it's an implied contract that the supplier can deliver this product," Anamos said. Samples should be an accurate representation of a larger lite, and suppliers should include as much information as possible in the sample box, such as maximum dimensions and other design limitations.
  • Cultivate relationships.
    Decorative glass companies need to make a major investment making samples and sales calls long before their products are specified on a job. To protect themselves, suppliers should develop relationships with trusted contractors and design firms. "We have to spend money to be part of the game, cultivating relationships, and working with designers," Lax said. "To protect ourselves, we need to work with companies that are fair. ... If we make samples, and larger samples, and dedicate time to a project only to have it go to a different supplier who hasn't made the investment, we won't be willing to make that up front investment with those parties again." 

Read about decorative glass product trends on the trade show floor in Las Vegas.