The Crystal Clear Delusion
The skyline of every major city is dotted with endless towers and skyscrapers cladded by glass. It fills our heart with joy, knowing that our posterity is immensely lucky to experience such a picturesque future. All credit belongs to glass – The material that got crowned the 21st century style icon.
Strolling through the IT parks (why is it even called a park!?), my mind always wondered why are all corporate offices predominantly covered in glass? Wouldn’t it be acting like a greenhouse and trap all the heat inside the building? Did we really want greenhouses to spring all over the globe regardless of the local climatic conditions be it India, USA OR even desert countries like Dubai? All a greenhouse does is accentuate the local weather conditions – hotter summers and colder winters. Here’s the science: The U value of a triple glazed glass is 1.0. and that of a simple brick wall with minor insulation is 0.35, i.e. glass is about 65% more vulnerable to lose heat through the same thickness of wall. Contrary to the facts, glass was touted to be energy efficient. Companies spend tons of money just to negate the effects of the ‘greenhouse’ by installing centralised cooling systems. In the process of negation, additional heat is added, which in turn has to be balanced by more cooling. What I just described is the global warming cycle at a very small scale. According to a study, carbon emissions of glass offices were 60% higher than buildings with natural or mechanical ventilation. Think of all the carbon emitted all over the world. Isn’t it ironic that we hold yearly global summits vowing to lower emissions, and build these massive seemingly innocuous greenhouses at the same time?
From the very nascent stages, glass didn’t do well as a building material. Ever since the first large scale usage of glass in the making of Crystal Palace in 1851, these structures had to be modified to enable natural ventilation, removing some spaces of glass, putting on curtains, etc. Glass caught the attention of commercial spaces due to two reasons I believe. One, a rising population of computer workers started to overtake the demographic of the working class, which was hitherto dominated by workers sweating it out in factories. Offices were compact, multi storied and held computers. Two, the widespread usage of air conditioning systems. They provided comfort, and environmental conservation wasn’t as much of a concern as today.
The glazed exteriors promoted the company’s visual appeal of being modern, elegant and transparent. But in reality, these structures were opaque from outside and shaded from the inside. The spaces are designed in such a way that a white collared guy wouldn’t know if it’s raining, or sunny, or what time is it, or if a serious incident happened right outside the office. He/She couldn’t be more disconnected from the world. This brings in the additional costs of lighting leading again to over consumption of energy.
I think only two factors outweighed all the above problems - the imagery of modernism and ease of work for architects. Yes, designing these buildings were a piece of cake for architects. What better than to render an entire building with homogenous squares of glass, devoid of any defining characteristics of a typical building?
This story about mass delusion ends here, but the thoughts don’t. It is the need of the hour to find alternate materials for building world changing companies, not just by the look and feel of it, but interior to exterior.
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