Share responsibility for innovation

Advance the future of sustainable construction materials such as glass and aluminum
By Bob Leyland
September 1, 2006

The 20th century has been among the most significant 100 years in human history. Our world has been remade—several times—and architecture has been a key part of this evolution. This is a shared history among manufacturers of glass, paint, hardware, windows, doors and curtain walls, as well as architects and contractors.

But we have more than just a shared history. We also have a shared responsibility to the present and the future. Its a responsibility that compels us to create safer products for end users and installers; a duty that obliges us to design innovative solutions that help ensure end-user success while at the same time helping to shape the face of architecture. Most important, its a commitment that inspires us to leave our world better than we found it. One way: through the use of sustainable, plentiful, recyclable materials such as glass and aluminum. Another earth-friendly building strategy is energy efficiency, seen in such developments as aluminum framing systems with enhanced thermal performance and high resistance to air and water infiltration, as well as innovative ideas such as photovoltaic modules, low-emissivity and self-cleaning glass.

Early pioneers
Did the architectural pioneers of the early 1900s foresee the commercial building trends of the future? In 1929, Le Corbusier is said to have claimed, "The history of architecture is the history of the struggle for the window." For an industry dedicated to perfecting our light sources, we are asked every day to find innovative solutions to the challenges posed by the architect and the end user. It might sometimes be a struggle, but the result has produced magnificent commercial buildings that represent models of innovation.

A former curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., asked, "What should a window look like?" Our industry has responded with a broad spectrum of products that has changed the face of commercial architecture. Yet the Construction Innovation Forum of Canton, Mich., reports that it takes 26 years to bring a construction innovation into common use. Several visionary architects and builders have accelerated that timetable.

In the early 1900s, Frank Lloyd Wright designed what is considered to be the nations first truly modern office building—the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, N.Y. In 1906, architect, inventor and entrepreneur Francis Plym was awarded his first patent for a way to support window glass in construction. Thanks in large part to Plym, the founder of Kawneer, aluminum and glass were forever united, changing the face of storefronts throughout the United States. More than 400 patents would follow in the decades to come.

Innovations were often developed as needs arose. In response to Chicagos Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, hardware salesman Carl Prinzler and architectural engineer Henry DuPont invented the first “panic release bar” to protect lives while providing security. We still use variations of this product.

By the 1910s, building product manufacturers were responding quickly to a fast-changing world. Steel-mullion-strip windows were developed, allowing for the first uninterrupted steel façade. The Boley Building in Kansas City, Mo., was the first U.S. glass and metal curtain-wall building. It continues to influence the way high-rise and office buildings are built. This era also produced such breakthroughs as the first commercial production of sheet glass, the commonplace use of previously rare aluminum, and the subsequent advance in aluminum extrusion technology.

Boom, bust and war
The 1920s was a decade of boom, bust and war. In 1922, Willis Carrier introduced a centrifugal refrigerating machine. This innovation enabled the cooling of public places and changed the face of urban architecture. Forms of applied architecture emerged—motion picture theatres were the first buildings to be redesigned as a result of this technology. With air conditioning, block-office buildings became a possibility. This led to the virtual elimination of operable windows, leading to total reliance on the dependability of a modern office buildings’ mechanical systems. Approximately a decade after the end of World War II, New York City had 71 large air-conditioned buildings built with 23 million square feet of space.
Glass-fronted office buildings of the 1920s and 30s become symbols of modernity; the Empire State Building in New York City numbers among them.
During the 1920s, anodized aluminum was introduced, and proving the CIF prediction, it was a widespread component of architectural elements by the 1950s. In 1927, aluminum was being used in architectural building products and mass produced for affordability. It was at this time that several landmark buildings reached toward the skies. The Empire State Buildings popular glass-fronted office building became a symbol of modernity. The 1932 Philadelphia Saving Funds Society Building was another trendsetter. The 1932 U.S. Post Office in St. Paul, Minn., was the first building with curtain-wall products based on solid aluminum frames and monolithic glazing.

World War II predictably shifted the focus of aluminum products to military and war-related purposes. During this time, progressive architects migrated to the United States, influencing their younger American counterparts. Among those was Pietro Belluschi, a renowned architect based in Portland, Ore. Belluschi had a vision for utilizing the aluminum capacity after the war, a dream realized in the Equitable Building in Portland. It was the first building of such size to be totally sheathed in aluminum. It was also completely sealed and air conditioned, and employed double-glazed windows.

By 1943, sealant technology evolved as a joint venture between Corning Glass Works—now Corning Inc. of Corning, N.Y.—and the Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich. Silicon sealants, as well as butyl sealants, are made for air-tight and water-tight buildings and allow the seamless integration of glass, ceramics and metal. 

Tall building revolution
During the 1950s, a tall building revolution was influenced by structural engineers such as Fazlur Kahn. He and his co-workers produced efficient designs utilizing stacked rigid frames. The result was monumental metal and glass curtain-wall structures, including the United Nations Plaza and Seagram Building in New York City, the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh, and the John Hancock Center in Chicago. This was a time of practical ideas, driven by a baby boom that created the need for more modern suburban buildings, from schools to hospitals to office building complexes.

It was also a time when the float-glass process revolutionized the flat-glass industry. According to the Glass Association of North America of Topeka, Kan., today’s float glass accounts for almost all of the flat glass presently produced in the United States. Tinted glass, powder-coat paint—an environmentally friendly coating method—and fluoropolymer paint enhanced the architects design palette. These technologies redefined the look of buildings and created a continuing aesthetic revolution.

Manufacturers recognized the need for standard systems. To address the tall building revolution, Kawneer and others manufacture unitized curtain-wall systems. Similarly, entrances and framing were modernized to conceal hardware, welded doors and narrow site lines.

Innovation moves at accelerated speed
The 1970s and 1980s brought computerization, 3D CAD systems and AutoCAD software. The energy crisis of the 1970s became the mother of invention. It’s a tribute to our industry that many manufacturers anticipated this need, and in the 1950s began developing products that were less conductive to energy flow and condensation. By the 1980s, reflective glass and insulating glass units, as well as thermal barriers for aluminum frames, were quickly embraced. Thermal barriers in particular, evolved: from poured-and-debridged aluminum extrusions; to polyurethane-poured-and-debridged barriers; to the current state-of-the-art, polyamide-strip systems. The ultimate in efficiency was demonstrated by ultra-thermal curtain walls designed for extreme weather climates, with triple-glazing, thermal-barrier and back-pan design options.

Meanwhile, architects designed newer, taller glass buildings that stretched ever higher. From the Sears Tower of Chicago and the World Trade Center in New York City, later demolished by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to other great buildings worldwide, high-rise construction required curtain-wall systems that included ease of fabrication, low installation costs, multiple inside or pre-installed glazing options, high thermal and structural performances and, of course, spectacular aesthetics.

New benchmarks for the future
Whether its low- or high-rise construction, from the 1990s to the present, we have been challenged to meet the requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as to design buildings to withstand weather extremes and, now, terrorist threats—all while using environmentally friendly green building products. Several architectural solutions have come forward. New entrance designs, for example, improve accessibility, while protective glazings have supported blast-resistant glass, curtain-wall systems and entrances. Of course, the industry continues to respond with ongoing development of hurricane-impact products.
The 1970s yield energy saving innovations like reflective coated glass and insulating-glass units with thermal breaks such as those in the Sears Tower in Chicago. Here, a thermal barrier cutaway.
Energy consumption continues to be a product driver. According to the U.S. Green Building Council of Washington, D.C., commercial buildings account for 65.2 percent of total electricity consumption. The industry has been responding with a generation of so-called “smart” and renewable building materials. For some architects, that leads to sustainable environmental design solutions recognized by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green-building rating system. Today, more architects design high-performance, sustainable buildings that comply with integrated whole-building design practices.

For the North American glass industry, innovations on the horizon will most certainly include very low-heat-loss glazing. Insulation-filled glazing will result in highly insulating windows with novel transparent materials such as aerogel, honeycombs and capillary tubes. The drive for innovation also takes place in Europe, where passive solar applications incorporate such new products. Researchers experiment with switchable glass and shading systems to respond to an environmental signal. In the future, double-envelope window-wall systems will include variable optical and thermal properties. This technology has the potential to reduce peak electric loads in commercial buildings by 20-to-30 percent.

A need for speed
In this age of instant messaging, customers seek faster, better product and building designs, delivery systems and installation. Its a balancing act between the surge of information technology and our customers’ needs for education in a 24-7 environment. Today, our industry is increasingly utilizing e-commerce to market products via online catalogs and Internet sites, yet customer education has become paramount. With paperless design, geographic-information-systems, performance tracking, and 3D image processing, customers continue to accelerate the process. The key is not whether we use these communication tools, but how we best deploy them.

Lessons learned
Reflecting back on 100 years since Kawneer’s founding creates an opportunity to better understand three historical lessons: One, change and innovation have become constants. Two, the imagination of designers, inventors and architects turns innovation into solutions. Three, what we do has lasting impact. The individuals who built this century of great buildings left us a legacy based on promising technology with revolutionary impacts on our environment, the energy we use, and the work we do.  

So, what should a window look like in the future? Whatever you can imagine—as long as it is safe, innovative and sustainable—as long as it is built for life.



The author is vice president of sales for Kawneer North America in Norcross, Ga., 770/449-5555, The essay was adapted from a speech at the Glass Association of North America’s Building Envelope Conference in Las Vegas, Feb. 20-22.