Glass tubes combine to form a structural wall assembly that admits daylight, generates energy, and insulates like a solid wall.
“The project presents quite a beautiful solution and takes it to a scale that I haven’t seen before.” —juror Erin Besler
When Gary Haney, FAIA, a design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) set out to devise a glass wall for the Baccarat Hotel chain, he wasn’t looking for a brilliant technical innovation—he simply wanted something that evoked the crystalline elegance of the Baccarat jewelry brand. “I had the idea for curved glass, a sort of scalloping effect,” he says. Soon, he narrowed in on a series of custom-fabricated vacuum-insulated glass tubes—formed by two pieces of curved, low-iron glass, joined around an airless chamber, and capped at each end by metal plates—and a door was opened.
The tubes, stacked one beside the next, have structural qualities—they are self-supporting in heights of up to 15 feet—and, when vacuum-sealed and combined into a façade system, they offer an R-value comparable to that of a solid, insulated wall, despite being fully glazed. This is a big advantage considering that glazed surfaces are the single biggest site for heat loss and gain in a building. The aesthetic solution also answered a host of energy retention problems, and “pretty soon we were thinking of it as a whole system,” he says.
The façade formed from the glass tubes was not ultimately included in the hotel design, but Haney and SOM are moving forward with them as a research project. Though attractive, the application isn’t just a pretty face. “I could see them being used in warehouses, labs—not just storefronts,” he says.
The team has been working on new iterations—for example, placing a photovoltaic rod in the middle of each tube, which receives enough focused, concentrated solar energy from the convex surface of the glass around it to generate electricity, the amount of which is being studied—and SOM has patented the design. “Taken together, it’s quite a remarkable thing,” Haney says. Aside from its technical qualities, “it just looks really cool,” he says. “You can get full daylight, along with the insulative capabilities of a solid wall.”