Living in glass houses, shunning stone

Nov.November 16, 2007 11:18 AM

Walls of glass distinguish many of Manhattan’s newest marquee properties, and make many a pricey but older apartment look like a concrete bunker. But the prevalence of this aesthetic also brings design challenges, from privacy concerns to building difficulties. As residents adjust to the new look of their modern condos, developers are working out the kinks for future projects.

“Glass is big these days,” said Stanley Perelman, managing principal at Jani Real Estate, the developer of One York Street in Tribeca.

Each of its 40 condominiums includes floor-to-ceiling windows utilizing a curtain wall system, which for decades has been mostly associated with commercial high-rises.

Perelman admits working with glass has been more challenging. “Everything is custom,” he said. “Because of what we are doing, nothing is off the shelf.”

“This has not been an easy project to design,” he added. “Everything is an issue: How to create operable windows, the attachments to the glass, how you deal with a kitchen in a curtain wall, how you deal with a bathroom, how you are going to heat the curtain wall. For example, if you put a central heating and cooling unit in, the curtain wall will fog.”

The godfather of glass

World-renowned architect Richard Meier is by most accounts credited with putting glass residential buildings on the Manhattan scene.

“I’m very gratified by that,” said Meier. He has worked extensively with glass, both in a number of residential and commercial projects, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, and the 165 Charles Street and 173- 176 Perry Street projects in Lower Manhattan, and admits there are unique challenges to working with glass.

“I think the challenges are one must be forced to deal with proportions, how the exterior glass skin relates to the rest of the building, how it captures light, reflects light,” he said. “[But] I believe glass is a contemporary material that expresses. It’s transparent, it’s filled with light, it creates an extraordinary experience you can’t find anywhere else.”

With his Lower Manhattan projects complete, Meier is turning to Brooklyn. One Prospect Park will be a 15-story glass tower with 119 condos, located along Plaza Street and Eastern Parkway facing Grand Army Plaza and overlooking Prospect Park. It’s scheduled to be completed in summer 2008.

Until now, the price of living in a glass project designed by Meier was reserved for the very rich. Not so with the Prospect Heights project. “What we’re doing in Brooklyn is not a luxury building,” he said. “It is all glass, which may seem luxurious, but it is not out of the realm as far as what is economically feasible as far as construction costs.”

A new look catches on

Appropriately-named architect Gloria Glas, with SLCE Architects, which served as executive architect on an upcoming project called ThreeTen located at 310 East 53rd Street, said she noticed the trend toward the use of glass in residential real estate four years ago.

“Before, the image of residential buildings was a lot of brick and punch windows and now we are seeing an acceptance as far as using glass in residential buildings and that is a big change,” said Glas.

Developer and hotelier Andr Balazs, whose current projects include 40 Mercer Residences, a 40- unit luxury condominium building to be located at the corner of Mercer and Grand streets in Soho, said the use of glass is spreading here from overseas.

“In Europe, the use of glass has been much more extensive than in the United States. In fact, some of the best manufacturers are not based in the United States,” the Hungarian-born Balazs said. “So what you are seeing is an evolution in technology that is making American developers more confident.”

Even so, Balazs worries that there may come a point when developers and architects may start to use glass too much.

“I am not sure I would necessarily turn to glass as an overall material in New York. I think there are a lot of problems with glass,” he said. “The proximity to your neighbor in full tilt glass is problematic for some people. Also, I think the truth is, unless you provide for the window closure, these buildings can look like a tenement house in Hong Kong.”

All of the units at 40 Mercer have window treatments.

“This makes the façde work as a unified design that will keep the building looking the way it is meant to look,” Balazs said. “In most buildings made of glass, everyone puts up different treatments and that can degrade the quality of the building.”

An architect’s legacy

Alan Ritchie of Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects stresses the importance of preserving privacy in a transparent dwelling.

One of his current Manhattan projects, the Urban Glass House, the last residential building from celebrated architect Philip Johnson, who died in January 2005, is based on a small glass house Johnson built for himself in New Canaan, Conn., in 1949. That structure, a National Historic Landmark and considered an icon of Modernism, served as the inspiration for the 12-story glass-and-steel Urban Glass House at 330 Spring Street in the West Village.

Ritchie says because the building is located in an urban setting as opposed to Johnson’s Connecticut house, which is on open land, the need for privacy played a role in the design.

“We have columns at every 10 feet on center, which are covered with 2-foot-wide panels, so it is not a total glass box,” he said. “I think, in residential construction, unless you have some solid elements, in many instances you are taking glass in residential construction too far.”

Ritchie pointed out the various types of glass that he sees being used in residential applications. “Not all glass is totally clear, you can have etched glass or frosted glass to add privacy. Also we are seeing a lot of ‘low e’ [low energy] glass, which shades the sun and preserves energy within the building.”

The developer of the project, Scott Sabbagh of Glass House Development LLC, said the cost of construction is higher when using glass over materials such as brick.

“It’s probably a 50 to 100 percent premium to use glass curtain walls over a traditional brick or even window wall system,” said Sabbagh.

But the payoff is obvious.

“Light is probably number one. Often in urban settings, certainly in Manhattan, when you have a lot of urban buildings you sort of get light-starved,” he said. “This allows you to bring a certain amount of light into your living space.”

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