The sky’s the limit with glass, but play it safe!

Justin Seldis of Sunsquare looks at why glass has become the building material of choice for architects, but also explains why it’s never been more important to put safety and security first as designs get bigger and more elaborate

Glass remains ‘on trend.’ Natural light and ventilation have become increasingly important to all buildings over the last 20 years, and that’s why glass is now everywhere you look. Architects are always keen to use elements from nature where they can, and glass lets them do this. It’s a fantastic, natural, recyclable material that also brings a host of benefits to any building, big or small.

Since the pandemic started, the popularity of glass has only accelerated, and there’s been a huge surge in demand for skylights and walk-on indoor panels. This is because people are re-evaluating the functionality of their homes as they spend far more time in them. Aside from the aesthetic benefits, skylights are helping people to transform their homes – bringing in natural sunlight, providing access to rooftops, and allowing for a fresh flow of air to create comfortable living and working environments. Genuinely ‘thermally broken’ skylights are also helping to keep rooms warmer, drier and more energy efficient all year round, saving people money on energy bills and reducing their carbon footprint.

The benefits of glass are clear, and the rise in its popularity has led to increasingly bigger and more elaborate specifications. The good news is that architects can ‘dream big’ with glazing, and there is a great deal you can do with it – in fact, the sky’s the limit! However, they must ensure they’re selecting skylights that meet the highest quality, safety, and efficiency criteria. This is, after all, glass hanging over people’s heads.

Bigger, more elaborate designs

As glass continues to be a more prominent feature in buildings, architects are dreaming up ever more extravagant ways to use it. It’s all about size – they’re looking for bigger panes of glass, covering larger areas of buildings. However, the bigger the pane, the thicker it needs to be – otherwise there’s more chance of it ‘ponding’ due to gravity. This is when a dip forms in the glass, allowing water to collect. For architects, this is a big design consideration, and robust calculations need to be made to minimise any possibility of bowing.

Architects are continuously testing the boundaries of what glass can do – not only with size, but also shape and function. Nowadays, we’re seeing requests for interesting, eye-catching shapes, like circles or triangles, and enhanced security features such as fire-rated glass and tamper-proof or even bullet-proof glass. Walk-on panels are incredibly popular, both indoor and out, and opening panels are helping people maximise roof space in ways they couldn’t before. We’re even seeing a sudden trend for glass boxes which can open fully so you can walk straight out of them.

Now that we’re all living more ‘digitally,’ architects are also requesting smart glazing. This is new for the skylight industry, but there are smart switches now available, giving people complete digital control. They can now ask Siri or Alexa to operate their skylight, or they can use an app and programme it to automatically open or close based on weather conditions, humidity or inside temperature.

Specifying quality

While the opportunities are endless with skylight design, quality and safety remain a core necessity. Specifiers are often surprised to find there are no mandatory standards for flat-roof skylights in the UK, and while there are regulations for individual components, like glass, there’s nothing covering the assembled product. This means specifiers need to be able to recognise genuine quality products and performance – people living or working underneath depend on it.

Unfortunately, the ‘regulation gap’ means there are sub-standard products out there. For example, ill-fitting wooden upstands (instead of sturdy, insulated aluminium frames), or lower-cost ‘toughened’ glass that can present a serious risk of injury if they break – which they do. Laminated glass is the safest you can get, and aside from making it extremely hard to penetrate for burglars, and blocking out harmful UV rays, it holds together even when broken, helping keeping the people below safe.

Specifiers also need to watch out for misleading marketing claims. Common ones include understated, miscalculated U-values or the use of the term ‘thermally managed.’ For an effective barrier between indoor and outdoor temperatures, specifiers need to seek out properly ‘thermally broken’ products. Without this, thermal bridging can occur, and this can cause irreparable damage, compromising a rooflight’s overall safety and effectiveness.

A stamp of approval

Despite the lack of mandatory standards there are still companies out there putting quality and safety first. Credible manufacturers are seeking their own third-party accreditation, providing customers with the quality assurance they deserve. For example, Sunsquare is working with quality assurance leader the BSI, to set a standard for flat-roof skylights in the UK to make sure products are regularly and rigorously tested for air permeability, weather tightness and wind resistance to ensure ultimate durability and performance levels.

Justin Seldis is managing director of Sunsquare