Technical Glass Products Builds Solution to Revitalize Fairleigh Dickinson University's Animation Lab - Interview Transcript
To refresh a 1960s-era building serving as Fairleigh Dickinson University's Animation Lab, campus leaders and collaborators NK Architects reached out to Technical Glass Products, who worked to develop a bespoke glass solution to the highly specific needs of the Animation Lab. We spoke with James Wharton, of TGP, to discuss the project.
For more coverage of the Fairleigh Dickinson University story, browse our September-October Digital Issue, which contains additional perspectives and images as well as related articles and much more.
James Wharton represents Technical Glass Products (TGP) in New York, New Jersey and all of New England. James has been with TGP for 15 years, and has successfully worked with numerous architects, building owners and subcontractors from development of schematic design through installation.
commARCH: This dialogue is really just about… when did you come into it? We could talk about some of the obstacles that they had and how you became a solution with the end result hopefully being that the community that we serve starts seeing we want to engage earlier than later, instead of just a bidding process.
James Wharton: And I think with what we do, that's super important as well, just based on cost involved with the fire-rated solution, the higher end fire-rated solutions as they are today. If people don't get out in front of it, they often find themselves in a situation where they want to use the product, but they haven't budgeted for it or an owner is so surprised by what it costs them, that it's just not an option anymore.
So there's a lot of desire in architects that I work with to utilize our products, but if they come into the game too late, it just doesn't become an option anymore. People are set on what they want to spend, they see a pretty big price tag on this stuff and they just say no and I think unfortunately a lot of times that it can really undermine the visual intent that an architect has.
I give continuing education presentations all the time and the thing I always say to these guys is if you think you want to use it, get out ahead of it, give us a call, call somebody, talk to them about it, understand not just what you can do but I hate to say it, what it's going to cost you to do it because it's not cheap. And I think we pride ourselves in being really candid about that.
I'm not trying to hide from it. I think people need to be aware so that they can be prepared for what it's going to take to do it.
cA: Well you see that in studies especially that an architect working on a project, the first one contact they usually want it's just to go to your website, see all that material, get a handle, don't call me. And then other surveys you'll hear, oh no, I want an existing relationship so I know I can call somebody up and see if it's feasible and what its all going to look like as early as possible.
JW: Yeah, I think that's how most of my good relationships have started. We have a lot of ways for people to access material from us, whether it's requesting BIM models or CAD files. And a lot of that initially for me is, you request it online, I send you the file back, “Hey, keep us in mind if you need anything.”
And ultimately somebody, if it works out, is going to call, they're going to email if they have a question. And then you create that rapport, that level of trust, and hopefully they call back. I think the thing that's funny in our industry - specifically, the fire-rated side of things -it's not on every job, you know what I mean?
I'm not the guy selling demountable partitions. I'm not the guy selling windows, where every job an architect does requires some level of that product so that they call you every month, every few months. I mean I have people who have to remind me, “Hey, we spoke four years ago about this project, well I ran into a fire rating again.”
My hope is that our product is good enough and that we did a good enough job supporting them that they remember. A lot of it's passing along. You work well with somebody and then it's, “Hey, my colleague said you were really helpful with this,” you know what I mean? So I agree with that, I think it's harder in what we do, just because of how infrequent the need for our material really can be.
It's getting bigger, but for a long time, unless it was a huge firm like Gensler or someone like that, you really didn't talk to somebody for a couple of years at a time cause jobs just didn't need what we had or couldn't afford what we had.
cA: Which makes sense on the marketing effort that your organization has.
JW: Absolutely, absolutely. I think I'm pretty good at what I do once they reach out to us, but we do an amaz- they, we do an amazing job, Brandner and TGP together, of just making us a household name. People think fire-rated is almost like Kleenex or Xerox, it's TGP and I have nothing to do with that, I just reap the benefits of it.
But it is pretty nice. I mean, people associate that and then they reach out and then hopefully we back it up with the knowledge and the support that they need.
cA: Getting involved in this project - because it was education and demands on those types of environments - I'm thinking, they would naturally reach out to your company or a company like yours.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a big market for us, the education market for exactly the reasons that you see there. They're trying to make these spaces more attractive, more inviting and they run into a lot of these issues, a lot of these restrictions by code that sort of handcuff what they're able to do.
And hopefully they dig enough and desire enough to not use what's typically available to them, to start to look for someone like us, and then they find us on the web and reach out and then we go from there.
cA: Well, how did this process go? Did you have a relationship with..?
JW: I've worked with NK in the past on different projects from time to time. Again, it's sporadic, it's not always the same team. From what I remember, it was more of a, hey, I was on your website, I have this issue, I'm looking for a solution to it, I think you guys might have something but I need to understand a little bit more about what the capability is.
This one's pretty unique, it's more what we run into, but it's unique for an architect who hasn't done it before. In that, code sort of makes you think that the requirements at a location like this limits you to a solid non-transparent wall and I think they're somewhat aware that things may exist, but really figuring out which products can do it, is what's tough for them.
So they'll often call and say, “Hey, from what code says, this is the only thing I can do.” And I'm able to say to them, “Hey, you know, we've tested products that look like storefronts and entrances but they're tested to the same standards as a solid rated wall construction.” That's usually when I get the, “Oh, that's amazing, I didn't realize that, I understand now, can you back that up?” And of course, all of our collateral has documentation of all of our listings, so we set them at ease pretty quickly.
I still have some skeptics saying like, well, do I have to get approval to do this? And, you know, based on most of what we've done, no, you don't. These products are tested equal to what was traditionally available to you. They just, look like what you want them to look like, which I think is where people get excited typically.
cA: But in the problem, the issue, actually, not even, it's not any of those, it's really the opportunity they had is, we're doing cool stuff within this area, let's not hide it.
By not hiding it, people will be introduced and desire to join this type of program, right? And then you gave them that open environment they wouldn't normally have.
JW: Right, right. And I think the key for us is just, you know, I joke a lot, but our products are mostly used and really we produce and design them so that people don't notice that there are anything different.
I mean, you're spending a lot of money on something to make it look exactly like everything else. We don't want people to know, “Hey, what's that, is that something else?” And that's kind of funny to think about, but that's the idea. How do we make the transition between rated and non-rated not nearly as apparent as it was for years?
A cinder block wall and a butt glaze storefront system, they look pretty different from one another and it can make for some pretty uninviting spaces or some pretty interrupted spaces. We have something beautiful here and something pretty institutional and unattractive here, and if we can make it so the two look the same, I think that's really what we're striving for, ultimately with everything that we do.
cA: How did they lay out to you what they were dealing with and what their need was? Did they generally say, “Okay, we would love to have glass and we see that you're the only type of solution?” What was the impetus to get them going?
JW: Yeah. I mean, it really the impetus typically they'll call and they'll say, “Hey, I have an application, in this case the 60 minute fire rating, based on where it is, based on what the application, what the occupation of the building is, we require this level of rating.” And in this case, it's the highest level given, which is.... which basically says that the product has to act as a wall. And they're going, “Hey, we're just trying to do anything here. “
And what I'll usually do is we have an array of products that sort of are designed to meet different aesthetics, whether it's a storefront, whether it's a curtain wall, just the door and a sidelight, or in this case, something butt glazed, I would have them typically show me an elevation. I usually say, what do you want this to look like? Show me what you want it to look like. We may not be able to do it exactly that way, but I need an understanding of what your vision is.
In this case, it was pretty straightforward, you know, single span interior, as uncaptured as possible storefront system and so that led me immediately to the system that I offered to them. I then will typically run through the limitations of our system. Because they are classified as walls they're unlimited in how large an elevation can be, but we do have maximum tested individual light sizes.
So really it's just me saying to them, okay, here are the parameters, here are the limitations - that's not the right word, but let's call it that. Here are the limitations of the system, this is the biggest piece of glass you can have. I don't care how you do it, just make sure that no single light within this elevation exceed this.
Here are our doors. They're narrow style, large leaded glass. However, here's the max width, here's the max height. And I try and empower them to then take that information and design, whatever it is they want that's as close to what they're doing elsewhere, within our parameters.
And that's really usually the progress. I mean, this one wasn't all that different from a lot of conversations I have. "Hey, what can I do? Can I do anything at all?” “Yeah, you know what? You can.” “Here's what you're trying to do, here's what I can offer you that's close to it.” Here are the sort of the boundaries you have to play within, and then I let them run with it.
Usually what I'll say is, why don't you then draw it up, send it back to me, we'll make sure that you didn't design anything that we can't do, make any tweaks to it that's necessary, and then provide them the rest of the support they need. Whether that's CAD specs, whatever it is to try and see it through to bid.
cA: And one of the things that keeps coming up is no change in color with that glass.
JW: So fire-rated glass in general has kind of made a progression. Initially it was wired glass, which obviously has its own aesthetic downsides and that really doesn't look like anything we're using in the rest of the building. A lot of the solutions following that were ceramic based products, which listen, we still sell, they're great, but they do have a slight tint to them.
We partner with Pilkington for the products we provided for this project, utilizing their Optiwhite, which is a low-iron float glass and we introduced specialty inner layers in between the lights of glass and ultimately come out with the clearest solution for a fire-rated glass.
And the great thing is it's also our highest performer in that it can meet that transparent wall assembly that I discussed before. So it's going to allow us the largest sizes, the clearest overall color and just visibility through glass.
So it's just a really, really high end product.
cA: Who was driving that need? Was it the architect saying, “Okay, this is what we need to achieve,” or was it you saying, “Here's a heads up, if we don't do these types of things, you are going to see these things?”
JW: In this case, based on the requirement they had, this was the only product that worked for them. So a lot of the glass products that are available sort of as more of a commodity in the fire-rated world are these ceramics which are alternatives to wired glass.
When you get into these transparent wall applications, where we're really providing something that is tested and considered to be solid wall construction, just allowing for visibility, you're typically going to be led to a specific line of products, which are thicker than traditional glass.
So in this case, when she told me what the application required, it wasn't a, well you can have this, or you can have that. It was simply, if you need to meet this standard, here's the product. We only offer it low-iron. We want to make it look as good as possible especially since it is multiple lights of glass, it can get thicker, we want to keep it as clear.
So really in this case it was what it was. What they got to choose was, how do you use it? So in these systems, the glass is the constant. The rating will dictate the thickness of the glass for the application and there will be a size limitation per piece.
What they get to choose and this is where sort of the fun for me comes into play is based on what they want it to look like. I have an array of framing options or installation options that they can use. So this could have been a captured storefront system with aluminum mullions or in this case because of what they were looking forward, ended up with that clear silicone joint. So coupling that low-iron glass with a mullionless, clear, silicone, five millimeter gap between that stuff basically makes for a continuously clear wall for them to really open up and obviously get that super cool, unique red look, display all the interesting things that are inside that lab itself.
cA: That's where the collaboration happens then. We know this is the right product, but how do we use it in this area to really achieve the goals.
JW: Yep, exactly. And I think based on what they were describing, what they wanted it to look like, it was pretty simple to say, okay, well, here's the system that's going to give you the most glass, the least metal and I don't always get into what's going on around this, but in this case, I think it was pretty simple and you can see it in a lot of those photos.
One side of this space is going to be non-rated in a lot of cases, the other side isn't. And so the idea is how do we best match what's on the other side of this thing. Again, going back to that, we want what we're providing to look exactly like what's being provided everywhere else to make this whole thing have that continuity, that seamless transition.
So I think this one, from that end, once they told me what they needed, it was a pretty simple direction to head, to give them the product that would best do it.
cA: I think to throw out what we're talking about earlier is, since your organization is a marketing machine, as an architect and I complete this type of high profile project, I want that out.
Is that another advantage that your company offers? Because your organization markets so well, it wants to be front of mind at all times. Me, as an architect, I'm doing a high-profile project. If I know I'm working with you and as a result, you're going to take this case study out. You're going to use it and this voice. It's going to be really good for my architectural firm. Is that a consideration that hits?
JW: Yeah it is. I wouldn't say as often as I'd like. I'm really proud of what we do, a lot of our stuff is a pretty small piece of the overall job. So you've got to find something like this, where it's really the showpiece. And I think this one in, not that there aren't others like it, but this one was unique in how visually stimulating it was, how important it was.
A lot of what we do - and I'm not trying to downplay it - but it's doors into stairwells, it's allowing for visibility, light transfer, things like that, but it's not the focal point always, and in this case it was.
I've obviously had a lot of projects like that: Manhattan, Northern Jersey, that sort of Metro market definitely uses this stuff differently than the rest of my territory or even the country does, because the projects exists, the budgets exist to do it.
But yeah, I think that for a lot of people that is a big thing. You know, I'm doing a brewery up here in Massachusetts where the architect is really excited and he had seen some other stuff that we had done. We did a distillery for Angel's Envy and he had seen that and he was like, “Hey, maybe we can photograph this when we're done too.”
So I do see it. I'd like to see it more because I get excited about it. That's for sure. I think from time to time. But I do think that our marketing, the projects that we have done, the things we show, give these people confidence, hopefully to say, all right, I can turn to these guys and they're not going to lead me astray.
And they're ultimately going to make it look pretty good.
cA: Thank you so much. Great job. I hope to meet you in person.
JW: Absolutely, absolutely. I look forward to it. I'd like to meet in person and if you need anything else, just let me know. Okay?
cA: Awesome, thanks and vice versa.
JW: Thanks so much.
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