The future of glass in architecture: a conversation with Nancy Sewell

Multi-use buildings, personalisation and availability of sustainable resources


We spoke to Nancy Sewell – independent design consultant with more than 40 years’ experience in advising and designing commercial office buildings, airports, hospitals and mission-critical workspaces in over 60 countries – on the future role of glass in architecture.

As Nancy Sewell suggests: “One major challenge is the availability of resources, in particular sustainable building materials. The world is getting smaller, so people that are designing for the future have to understand the cultural differences and the issues of doing work in a variety of countries. If you’re doing work in the UK, it’s quite different than doing work in the US, China, India or South America. You have to really understand about the availability of products in those countries and their nuances.”

Global trends are creating new challenges for architects and designers. But what are these megatrends and what role is glass likely to play in helping to solve these challenges?

Sourcing sustainable materials

The construction of sustainable, energy efficient buildings is already gathering pace globally. Indeed, the governments of many countries are actually demanding more energy efficient buildings.

“Although there may be other certifications in the future,” says Nancy, “at the moment, LEED is really the globally recognised one. So, creating materials that meet those LEED standards and getting them to different countries is a challenge that will continue.”

Urbanisation and multi-use buildings

In terms of corporate, commercial buildings and workspaces, says Nancy, the big trend is that people don’t want to drive long distances to get to the office.

“They want to live close to the office because they don’t want to have to travel over long distances. This means people will either decide to live really close to their office, or even within the same complex, or will work more from home. This is certainly already happening in the US, China and Europe.”

People will start to look at more urban environments in which to live, which will ultimately fuel the demand for more multi-use buildings that feature a commercial element with offices for employees, but which also have residential space – a building that is in use 24/7.

This means designers will have to make work environments feel more like residential spaces and vice versa. As Nancy suggests:

“Furniture, lighting and glass will change so that people will feel more relaxed when they’re in the office. Working from home will be similar: when you’re at home you’ve got more of a true work environment to work in; you’re not sitting at your kitchen table, but in a real workstation that’s ergonomically fit for purpose. Glass can add to that comfort and wellbeing.”

Personalisation in buildings

In commercial and mixed-use buildings of the future, the ability for personalisation will become increasingly important and glass will almost certainly have a role to play. People will want to be able to control the light and shading in a building, which many glazing products are already helping to do. They will want to control as many aspects of the internal environment as possible.

“Today, a lot of these things are controlled at the building level, but I believe there’s going to be a trend towards people wanting to control things at a personal level. I’ve talked a lot with other people about glass and the privacy aspect that glass can provide, as well as its ability to turn opaque versus being clear and translucent,” she comments. “Many commercial buildings have windows that are all shuttered because some people don’t want any direct sunlight on their faces. There’s going to be a growing need for personalisation there. Going forward, when you’re designing for these buildings in other countries, there’s going to be a need to understand what that particular country wants and its cultural nuances.”

Changes in building materials

Nancy also suggests that man-made sustainable materials are likely to be very much a part of what the architect community will use in the buildings of the future. She says that while it’s wonderful to have natural, real wood, real glass, and real stone in architectural designs, the availability of some of these materials will perhaps not be as easy to source in the future.

“Take man-made stone for example. It looks almost as good as the real thing, but it’s much more cost effective and easier to obtain and easier to transport. So perhaps these types of materials will be very useful in the future. Also, the ability to have liquid materials that will harden may become more widespread. We may even see 3D printers being used to make temporary housing.”

In terms of glass, says Nancy, “It’s a wonderful product and so it’s going to be around for a long time. In fact, I think the use of glass has become even more prevalent in the workplace than it was even five years ago. Work surfaces and the ability to draw on them – glass is great for that and a variety of other applications too.”

The importance of renovations and retrofits

According to Nancy, another challenge for some areas, particularly in the US and Europe, is that they have too much real estate inventory.

“The trend is moving towards decentralisation using real estate that’s already built. So, designing for retrofit versus new builds will become important. Glass manufacturers are going to have to understand how they can make their products easier and more cost effective to retrofit to buildings. New construction is going to slow down for maybe the next 20 years or so because there’s just a lot of vacancy right now. There’s always going to be some new construction, of course, but it’s the volume of new builds that will decline. In terms of glass, the question is, how do I retrofit an older building with the right kind of glass that’s also cost effective.”

Science and the environment

According to Nancy, scientists and environmental engineers are likely to have the greatest impact on the design of buildings in the future.

“Today, the biggest drivers are financial,” she explains, “However, I believe that in the future the building is going to have to provide some benefit to the environment, too. Questions about the environmental impact of a new building will need to be answered: does it do something that purifies the air for the occupants? Or does it use sunlight more effectively so that it’s helping to power the building? These environmental factors are going to drive how we design buildings in the future. And that doesn’t just mean how efficient the building operates. It will also require evidence of what other benefits that building is providing to the rest of the city. Perhaps the building could become some sort of power generator, for example.”

Next-generation architects

The next generation of architects will need to be much more broad in their thinking and knowledge of building materials, as well as building techniques and the environmental issues. As Nancy predicts:

“They’ll also need to be much more focused on science rather than just aesthetics. Many go into the profession because they’re attracted to the creative side of architecture. But they’re going to have to be even more technical in the future. They’ll need to expand their knowledge on the environment and wellbeing of building occupants. The design will need to be very functional and technically correct.”

Architects will have to become more creative in using what’s available to them in terms of building materials and their sustainability. They’ll have to be much more creative and more technical in order to expand what they can do with less. As Nancy concludes:

“Right now, we’re in this fabulous economy where everything is available. As our economies start to slow down, we’re going to have to do a lot more with less. That’s where the creativity comes in. If you’re a good designer, you can do a lot for less. The designers that have everything available to them and unlimited budgets don’t have to be as creative as the people who don’t have that, which is going to be a real challenge in the future.”

The views in this article do not express the views of Guardian Glass and Guardian Glass may disagree with some opinions offered by the experts featured.

About the Expert – Nancy Sewell

Nancy Sewell is an accomplished executive-level leader, with extensive experience in global real estate and planning strategies, workplace design and utilization, and enterprise-wide asset management. Nancy now works as an independent consultant on special projects where her 40 years of experience as an interior design architect, global leader and strategist for companies such as Gensler and Hewlett Packard are required. She advises clients on real estate strategies, portfolio optimization and interior design and construction challenges. Nancy is a subject matter expert in workplace strategy, enterprise asset management, change management and process improvement. Nancy holds certifications as a Six Sigma Black Belt, Project Management Professional and commercial interior design.

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