Advocating for High-Performance Glass

You probably caught the eyebrow-raising comments New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio made at the end of April. Among a number of choice quotes, De Blasio said this: “We are going to introduce legislation to ban the glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming … They have no place in our city or on our Earth anymore.”

The statement ruffled the feathers of many big NYC architects and developers, but it became clear that Mayor De Blasio slightly overplayed his hand. Glass and steel aren’t actually being banned, but it’s certainly true that NYC clearly wants to hold all buildings to much higher and more aggressive efficiency standards in the coming years.

Something interesting is at play here. As I see it, the mayor’s statement seems based in a misconception—that glass is the culprit behind inefficient buildings and that it can’t possibly reach critical energy standards. Those of us in the commercial glass world know that this isn’t true though. Today there are a variety of technological advancements that allow glass to deliver outstanding efficiency in today’s most architecturally impressive buildings and structures.

So where is the disconnect? In this context, it’s interesting to consider the ongoing development of Hudson Yards taking place in Manhattan, which Mayor De Blasio likely had in mind when making his comments. The new buildings are beautiful, highly glazed and—as glass defenders are quick to point out—LEED Platinum certified in the case of 10 Hudson Yards. So while it’s true highly glazed buildings can be inefficient, that only happens if they’re intentionally built that way.

There are a few different things that motivate the end-use energy consumption of a commercial structure and the materials used to get there. It might be occupational comfort. It might be corporate sustainability goals. But most commonly, it’s building codes and the energy performance requirements written into them. New York City isn’t the only major North American municipality pursuing major gains in efficiency, after all. By 2020, Vancouver will require a 20% energy reduction below 2007 levels in all newly constructed buildings and zero emissions by 2030. We’ve seen building codes become more and more demanding over the years, and over that same time period, glazing systems have evolved in tandem with the continuous application of new energy-efficient technology. I have no doubt that glass technology will continue to keep up that pace.

Of course, there are always budgets to consider. As it relates to code-required energy performance, I believe that’s the real driving force behind our building material choices going forward. Glass can hit evolving efficiency targets—but it must do so while being economically viable for developers and architects. There’s a balance to be struck here, utilizing the right materials and technologies that don’t lead to unnecessary, costly complexity.

It’s in our interest—and our responsibility—to advocate for advanced, value-added components and technologies. Our ability to meet stringent new codes economically, and to educate architects and developers about exactly how we can do it, is how we can ensure glass continues to be a part of efficient cities and skylines for the foreseeable future.

Joe Erb is a commercial sales specialist for Quanex Building Products.