Architects Guide to Glass, USGlass


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“There are two things I love about the Steve Jobs-now-Tim Cook enterprise: Apple’s products and how it has continued to challenge the glass industry.”-Debra Levy


There’s a reason they call James O’Callaghan, director, Eckersley O’Callaghan, “the big O” in the glass industry. Well, they really don’t. But you will after I explain why he deserves the title.

O’Callaghan’s presentation at the Glass Association of North America’s Building Envelope Contractors Conference was both enlightening and exasperating, and it detailed the inspirational and the insurmountable.

James O'Callaghan gives a presentation at GANA's BEC Conference earlier this month.
James O’Callaghan gives a presentation at GANA’s BEC Conference earlier this month.

In a thought-provoking presentation, O’Callaghan chronicled the growth trajectory of some of the projects he has done for a certain large international company named after a fruit that possesses the largest cash reserves ever. Yeah, that one.

O’Callaghan discussed the creation of the first Apple stores and the advancement of technology, which evolved from structures made of many panels of glass to one made of just nine lites. You can see it in the picture above of the Apple store in Istanbul.

Now, I was a late convert to Apple, but they are so good, and their products so amazingly sturdy and intuitive, that I am stupid for being so late to realize it. And there are two things I love about the Steve Jobs-now-Tim Cook enterprise: Apple’s products and how the company has continued to challenge the glass industry.

Apple challenged the specialty glass manufacturers, and this eventually led to the advancement of Gorilla Glass–Corning’s thin yet electrically-conductive glass. Apple has also done so with the architectural glass industry, too, and O’Callaghan explained the process.

The company wanted massive continuous expanses of glass—both for the Apple stores and for its new headquarters in Palo Alto (an effort, by the way, that is going to require more than 400 glaziers working simultaneously to complete).

Anyway, Apple wanted what didn’t exist. And when a company with $178 billion in its bank account wants something, someone is sure to try and get it for them. Yet, creating the machinery for a float line that could churn out these large lites on spec was something no American or European company was willing to tackle. Evidently, the “if you build it, they will come” mentality does not extend to incredibly huge investments.

So who did it? O’Callaghan explained that a Chinese company (he did not name) created the machinery, got it running and produced the ginormous lites successfully. That machinery was eventually sold to seele, which is using it to this day. Cook, Apple’s CEO, even made a field trip to see the manufacturing in action a month ago.

Mic Patterson makes a point last Friday during his presentation at Glass Expo West™ ’15.
Mic Patterson makes a point last Friday during his presentation at Glass Expo West™ ’15.

The fact that no other companies are looking at creating these large panels is partially a sign of the financial times, but also, I fear, a myopic view. “Why aren’t we making big glass here?” asked Mic Patterson, vice president of strategic development for the Enclos Advanced Technology Studio, during his presentation at Glass Expo West™ ’15 in Irvine, Calif., this past Friday. “Why don’t we make it here?”

Pretty good question. Here’s my theory: Most game-changing technology is incredibly expensive when it first comes to market. Think back to telephones, VHS, Betamax and high-definition television—all new technologies are expensive, and early adaptors pay more, like Apple undoubtedly is for its massive glass.

But a funny thing happens once such a product is introduced. New products begat new users in an unending cycle of more users, leading to lower prices, leading to more users. And eventually these technologies are used by almost everyone until they are replaced.

People like O’Callaghan and Patterson believe there is a pentup demand for this type of glass and that, free from the constraints of obtaining it, many architects use it in designs. Just having a plant here would decrease the cost that comes from shipping significantly.

Apple has been a harbinger of both industrial and architectural design since its beginnings. Let’s not be short-lited. Large glass is coming as sure as the iPhone 7 is already on the drawing board.