Going back to glass bricks

Architects rediscover benefits of material popular a century ago

For years, glass curtain façades have been de rigueur for hot new condos. While they have not faded from view, more affordable and traditional-looking glass bricks are coming back in fashion.

Architects are including clear bricks in new condominiums where traditional masonry is desired, or required, making thinner glass unsuitable — as well as using them on projects for which providing security and natural light are priorities. Glass bricks or blocks cost considerably less than tempered sheet glass and vandal-proof specialty glass windows. In some cases, glass brick can be installed without professional glass specialists.

Architect Adam Meshberg sees glass block turning up on newer condominiums in Williamsburg. By his estimates, glass blocks can cost $5 to $10 apiece for an 8-inch square block, or for rectangles measuring 8 by 16 inches, while tempered sheet glass that is a half-inch thick can run $20 to $40 per square foot.

Glass brick or block offers excellent thermal and sound insulation, fire protection and security, said Meshberg, who has used the material for upper-level windows and on interior walls separating bedrooms from bathrooms. Clear blocks are also popular for ground-floor spaces.

“They let light through while still having the security of a solid wall,” he said. “There is always an issue in design of how to treat ground-floor spaces that need light but are vulnerable to the sidewalk traffic.”

Architects and designers also appreciate bricks for their resilience in weathering the elements and for their availability in standard sizes.

An architect who specializes in historic preservation, Joseph Pell Lombardi has plenty of experience working with clay bricks, but not glass. For a six-story, mixed-use project planned for 401-3 Greenwich Street in Tribeca, he designed a traditional Romanesque-style building made entirely of glass. Plans call for building a façade made of clear glass bricks laid in a traditional brick pattern, with carved glass columns and other details that are in keeping with the neighborhood’s prevailing Romanesque Revival style.

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“The glass bricks are being used exactly the way people use red brick,” Lombardi said. “We created a modern building, but we used masonry. It’s not using any form of new technology that’s been developed by glass companies.”

In fact, there’s nothing new about glass brick. It was originally developed in the early 1900s to provide natural light in factories. Glass block buildings became popular in the 1930s and ’40s almost to the point of excess, before falling out of fashion in the 1960s and ’70s. In New York, glass-block partitions can be seen in a number of subway stations.

While the bricks Lombardi plans to use cost more than plate glass, they are cheaper than more conventional construction, which would feature clay brick, finished gypsum wallboard and furring — long, thin strips of wood or metal used to support the finished surfaces in rooms.

And although the budget didn’t drive the decision to use the material, Lombardi said his client, an English developer whom he declined to identify by name, was pleased to find out glass bricks are not especially costly. The clear brick façade would be preassembled in panels in a factory to ensure precision. “That’s a fairly economical way of doing things,” Lombardi said.

In Nolita, architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed a seven-story sliver-style townhouse at 277 Mott Street with a floor-to-ceiling curtain wall, which would be veiled by a system of operable glass masonry screens that would work like curtains. The architecture firm did not return The Real Deal’s phone calls seeking comment on the status of the project.

However, according to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Web site, the screens would feature custom-made glass bricks set in a traditional brick pattern with staggered voids. The glass bricks would be threaded on rods “like beads and suspended from tracks in front of the glass wall at every floor slab,” the site noted. According to the site, the screens would satisfy local zoning restrictions that require building façades to be at least 50 percent masonry.

In the South Bronx, the new light-filled Betances Community Center features lots of clear glass. On the ground floor of the three-story building, glass brick was used on a back wall that faces an apartment building and playground. The New York City Housing Authority had concerns about vandalism and maintenance, so architect Stephen Yablon used solid glass brick instead of plain sheet glass.

“We used it because we wanted to maximize natural light in the space,” Yablon said. “We weren’t sure the people in the apartment building wanted to be looking through into a gym. If it were a plain glass wall, you’d be looking directly into a gym.”