[PA-NJ Glassblowers] A revival for glass block in Philadelphia architecture

Tony Patti gaffer at glassblower.info
Sun Nov 4 19:42:56 EST 2012

I thought this article on the architectural use of glass was interesting,
and wanted to share it.


>From pages D1 and D4 of Friday's Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, November
2, 2012.




In the architecture of Philadelphia's rowhouse neighborhoods and
postindustrial districts, glass block is a material that - aesthetically
speaking - has probably done more harm than good. (Think filler for holes
punched in old factory walls and grimy makeshift windows to illuminate
unfinished basements.)


But lately, some designers and architects, armed with a modernist vision and
a freshly expanded selection of textures and bold colors, have found
thoughtful ways to make glass block look cool again, not just in grand new
architectural experiments, but in humbler interior remodels, as well.


At dRemodeling in Tacony, designer Crystal Russell said inquiries about the
material have been rolling in from residential clients with increasing


"This really is a burgeoning trend, and clients are requesting more
'moments' of glass block in their space," Russell said.


Her clients now see glass block as a "luxury" material - though the
long-lasting, low-maintenance, high-thermal-resistance material is actually
cost-effective for homeowners seeking lower utility bills.


Glass block has cycled in and out of fashion before, said architect Jeff
Krieger, owner of Krieger + Associates Architects Inc. in Chestnut Hill.


"It was fairly popular in the 1920s and '30s, and then again in the '70s and
'80s," powered in part by Pittsburgh Corning Corp., the sole U.S.
manufacturer of glass block, he said. "Usage declined through the '90s, but
we've seen a little bit of renewal recently, as more people remodel
midcentury houses."


Mary Lynn Bruce, market product manager for Pittsburgh Corning, hasn't seen
an increase in glass block demand nationally - there are still so many parts
of the country with a sluggish home market - but she has witnessed a need
for the material in many historic renovation projects. The company is
producing custom-designed block to match the material installed in the '40s.


"It's a material that lasts a long time," she said.


Krieger, for one, has had the opportunity to experiment with the translucent
bricks in a couple of recent projects - and he's embraced it.


In a Mount Airy home that dated back to the 1930s, his challenge was to
build an addition incorporating an existing stone wall that ran through the
garden. He decided to cap the rustic stone half-wall, with glass block
running the rest of the way to the ceiling. He liked the juxtaposition, he
said: The blocks were substantial enough to hold their own against the
stone, but also contrasted with its heft and poured sunlight into the room.


When working with an 1860s Center City townhouse, Krieger took on the
material again. A glass-block-studded brick wall from a 1950s addition was
already a striking focal point, so he decided to play off the theme - and
take advantage of more recent technology. The glass-accented wall "was such
an unusual piece," he said. "We thought it was worth preserving." He echoed
the design in a new wall around the back patio, punching out holes and
filling them with sustainably produced colored resin panels from the
manufacturer 3form. The holes now double as niches for candles, which at
night illuminate the panels with a jewellike glow.


Playing off glass block left over from the material's heyday is one thing;
it's still unusual to see a contemporary architect double down on glass
block for new residential construction.


But that's just what Old City's Moto Design Shop did in a Fishtown project
that became a study in glass block and how to deploy it. The result: a
striking modern rowhouse whose facade features a multistory bay window made
up of the translucent cubes.


During the day, its reflective surfaces catch the color of the sky; at
night, when the lights are on, it glows from within.


"It was a way of pushing the boundaries of what a traditional rowhouse can
afford in terms of natural light," said Moto's Roman Torres. It achieved
that, pouring gallons of sunlight inward while preserving the homeowners'
privacy and providing sufficient insulation so that all that sun didn't
overheat the house on bright afternoons.


The project did present engineering challenges because glass block isn't
load-bearing, but the firm solved that by breaking the facade up into
modules, each framed in structural steel.


Russell used glass block to build dividers within a recent addition, where
the client wanted an open, sunny ambience to permeate a new bedroom and
bathroom. She's also used it to build walls for custom, walk-in showers.


"Bathrooms are the most common areas where we install and design with glass
block," she said.

A glass-block shower might be priced at about $2,500, which would include
materials, design, and installation, even customized touches like built-in
LED lights. Custom shower glass alone would cost about $2,000.


Russell says she likes the way both artificial and natural light interplay
with the glass over the course of the day, and she, like Krieger, has found
inspiration in the slew of new patterns, colors and textures on the market.


She's now a little surprised to find herself using words like elegant and
edgy in the same sentence as glass block.


"It's strange, because I remember hating glass block before I became a
professional designer," Russell said. "I remember seeing it in my elementary
school and other commercial structures, and thinking that it was more or
less the cheaper way to provide windows. It always felt somewhat like what I
call 'grungy fenestration.' ... Now, glass block is really becoming the
height of chic design in certain interior spaces. It has finally become an
exciting material to work with."


By Samantha Melamed For The Inquirer


Tony Patti
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 <mailto:gaffer at glassblower.info> gaffer at glassblower.info

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