Breaking the Glass Barrier

Everything we’ve ever been told or understood about glass implies fragility. As children we were told, “Don’t touch that,” “Hold it with two hands” or “Don’t throw the ball too close to the house,” the implication being that if we were not careful we’d break the precious decoration, serving dish or window. The result has been that as adults we are distrustful of glass and skeptical of its application as anything more than hung glazing or decoration. These ingrained qualities of glass as precious and fragile create a huge potential for glass in disruptive applications.

One such application is glass as flooring, the most provocative example of which is the Grand Canyon Skywalk. This horseshoe-shaped, engineering masterpiece is an all-glass bridge which cantilevers out 70 feet from the canyon rim. Visitors walk out onto the open-air bridge and look down through the clear glass beneath their feet to the canyon floor over 4,000 feet below. When clear glazing is used in the vertical orientation we hardly acknowledge its existence, always looking beyond the glazing to the view or activity on the other side. However, when used in the horizontal orientation as floor, you can bet people take notice. All of the sudden the only thing between you and the bottom of the Grand Canyon is one sheet of the same material you once shattered with a baseball (especially considering visitors have to wear shoe covers to avoid scratching the glass!).

I think sometimes the tendency for those of us in the building and design industry is to want to invent something totally new. We strive to use new materials and make materials better (high-performing, ultra-strong, etc) but we don’t often think about making familiar materials unfamiliar. This form of re-use will, I believe, become more and more important as the industry fights to stay current while striving to reduce consumption and waste and recycle existing materials. The second life of materials then doesn’t have to stop with remaking and reusing the same material in the same way, but rather becomes an opportunity for reusing the same material in a new application.

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