Towering skyscrapers with glass facades almost define bustling metropolitan cities like New York, London, or Hong Kong. When visitors look up, they see row after row of windows, but why do skyscrapers have so many windows anyway?
Skyscrapers have so many windows because material worth and beauty are driving forces behind most modern cityscapes. Steel and glass are attractive and easy to build with compared to heavier construction options, but sadly, these building materials can create functional and environmental problems.
Windows in skyscrapers aren’t going by the wayside, but the conversation surrounding their function in society is certainly growing.
The Advantages of Using Glass on Skyscrapers
Most modern skyscrapers are built on a “skeleton frame.” Because they generally carry the weight on internal support beams, structural strength is not a significant concern for constructing the exterior walls.
Glass is lighter, easier to install, and easier to maintain than many other layering materials. It looks sleek, streamlined, and allows architects a wide range of design opportunities they’d otherwise be denied with heavier materials.
Skyscrapers are predominantly constructed for use as office spaces or commercial buildings. Since the early skyscrapers, it’s been an important design target for offices to get enough natural light. Before the introduction of air conditioning, it was particularly vital for workers to have access to windows.
Architects and historians alike often tout the beauty of glass architecture, which is debatably the main reason skyscrapers with glass facades are so popular. However, people have been waking up to the issues involved with building massive buildings composed of an entire glass exterior.
Many modern architects are attempting to change the way skyscrapers are built to make them more eco-friendly, like this 18-story one in Norway named “the Mjosa Tower.” These new buildings have been dubbed “plyscrapers” to indicate they’ve been composed, at least partially, of wood.
Some newer skyscrapers in New York, the US city with the most considerable amount of these tall, shiny buildings (the count is over 6,000), have employed stone and copper in addition to wood.
When Did Glass Skyscrapers Rise in Popularity?
Glass skyscrapers rose in popularity when the introduction of steel and metal production during the Industrial Revolution opened the doors for an entirely new way to compose buildings.
In a sense, large-scale glass buildings were representative of a new era of economic success and renewal in the post-war period.
The rise in computing and office jobs, particularly in cities with higher population densities, required a place for these workers to go, and glass skyscrapers were the answer to this.
The Introduction of Air Conditioning
Air conditioning allowed the construction of the United Nations headquarters in New York to become the existing model for glass office structures worldwide.
The UN headquarters was the first building to have a complete sheet glass exterior. It was built in 1948, shortly after introducing commercially-used HVAC systems which made the project possible.
Air conditioning allowed architects the luxury of not having to rely on insulative building materials; it also allowed innovation. Before its use, building designers had to be mindful of where to place seating for office workers concerning their access to windows. It also allowed for denser layouts.
Cheap, Fast Construction
Architecture critic Justin Davidson from the New York Post has said (on making the construction of skyscrapers easier):
“The idea that you could essentially assemble a building like a piece of Ikea furniture, taking prefabricated parts and putting them together without skilled stone workers…but pieces of it could just roll out of a factory, and you can assemble them. This idea was very attractive to builders who wanted to put up a building quickly and cheaply. And that continues to be true.”
As demand for more office spaces grew, so did the need to construct them quickly and cheaply. The ease of “stacking” streamlined materials like steel and glass horizontally and vertically made this possible.
Skylines and Aesthetics
The concept of “sculpting a city skyline” has been attractive to city planners, architects, and those with positions in municipal offices to increase overall city value. When it comes down to it, everyone wants a striking-looking city about which they can boast.
The reality of the matter is that the main reason glass skyscrapers have dominated over the past 75 or so years is that glass buildings’ glaring shortcomings (no pun intended) went largely unaddressed.
Why Windows on Skyscrapers Are Problematic
As alluring as large windowed facades are, there is ample reason for pushback on their construction these days.
Energy Use and Other Environmental Factors
Glass skyscrapers negatively affect the environment and are thought to have had a substantial impact on global warming. The only energy-saving benefit of glass is the lack of artificial light installed, but this is far surpassed by the amount of electrical equipment used in office buildings.
Computers and servers generate a large amount of heat, so cooling via air conditioning is an essential component of general energy use. A large study carried out by UCL’s energy institute between 2015 and 2017 has determined that carbon emissions are almost 2.5 times as great in high-rise buildings as low-rises.
The amount of energy used for cooling has doubled since 2000, and if new energy efficiency measures aren’t introduced in a widespread manner, that number is expected to double again by 2040.
Strong Street Glare
While energy usage is a pressing concern, the glare created by the plethora of windows adorning skyscrapers has also produced some surprising issues.
A notable office building in London, initially nicknamed “the Walkie-Talkie” for its concave shape, wrought havoc on the buildings across the street and even melted a car parked outside for a mere hour.
It smoldered front doors, set carpets on fire, and even shattered one shopkeeper’s front walkway. Its path of destruction earned it a new nickname: the “fryscraper.”
The degree of damage by this building is a bit of an isolated incident, as the curve of the building had the unfortunate effect of hyper-focusing the sun’s rays to a particular spot. The fix has been to install curtains to deflect them, but it is undoubtedly an expensive mistake to fix correctly.
The same designer was also responsible for a building in Las Vegas that was nicknamed the “Vdara Death Ray” in 2010 for severely burning poolside tourists. A fix similar to the curtains installed in London was instated, in which the hotel purchased a large number of beach umbrellas for protection.
Finding a Solution: Plyscrapers and Other Building Materials
The use of glass windows in skyscrapers won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. However, the increased awareness amongst architects and the public has led to the advent of “plyscrapers.”
Using wood instead of steel for structural support still allows for exciting designs while supplying better energy efficiency. They still, of course, have plenty of windows.
Alternatively, some architects in New York have returned to using stone, brick, and copper.
As a society, we certainly haven’t seen the last of heavily windowed skyscrapers, but we can look forward to their evolution. Change is good, after all!
- Designing Buildings: Skeleton frame
- The Spaces: The world’s tallest ‘plyscraper’ completes in Norway
- The Economist: Plyscrapers
- Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat: Steel and the Skyscraper City: A Study on the Influence of Steel on the Design of Tall Buildings
- Heintges: United Nations Headquarters Facades
- American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE): Air Conditioning in Office Buildings After World War II
- University College London Energy Institute: UCL-Energy ‘High-Rise Buildings: Energy and Density’ research project results
- IEA: Cooling
- Reuters: Reflective “death ray” torments Vegas sunbathers
- Dezeen: New York architects ditch “default” glass facades for brick, stone and copper