From the windows of ancient Rome to towering skyscrapers: Is glass the future for architecture?

From the windows of ancient Rome to towering skyscrapers: Is glass the future for architecture?

While the exact period of glass’ entry into architecture is unknown. Ancient Rome was the first civilization to have glass windows. Back then, of course, the expensive and low-quality material was considered a luxury and it wasn’t until the 16th Century that casement windows prevailed in much of Europe.

Fast-forward to today and the versatility and aesthetic appeal of glass have filled virtually every major city with massive, glimmering structures that boast spectacular urban views. However, in the last few decades, these buildings have also come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. The problem? The immense energy required to heat and cool buildings with fully glazed exteriors.

In fact, it was the advances in air conditioning technology in the mid-19th Century that made these buildings possible in the first place. To give an idea of the energy needs: some studies suggest that carbon emissions from air-conditioned offices are as much as 60% higher than those with mechanical or natural ventilation.

So, as the quest to restore the equilibrium of our planet has made its way to the top of architectural agendas, should we expect environmental realism to cancel out glass?

Well, the answer to that question will depend on how well cities implement existing technology, as well as developing new ones, in the years and decades ahead.

Already, architects and builders are adjusting their thermal thinking around glass buildings. Some of these require little innovations, like tactically placing windows so that a sunny, south-facing wall absorbs less heat than a north-facing one, or omitting glass on certain sides to provide shading for other buildings. But the most significant changes will likely come with new technology. For example, certain newer structures are built with special glass that blocks sunshine in hot weather; others generate electricity themselves by having increasingly efficient solar cells fitted onto the windows.


And then there’s the (major) point that glass is 100% recyclable. The problem, however, is that far from all glass used in architectural design is actually turned into new windows. By improving end-of-life management, glass could be fitted into a closed-loop system indefinitely.

The future of glass in architecture is one of the topics we discuss in our latest episode of WICONA Meets featuring Phil Sedge, Head of Facades at Mace Group. Kicking off his career in the late 1980s, Phil has spent over three decades working in facades building prestigious projects across London while working with the industry’s leading façade contractors. At Mace, Phil leads the way on innovations and industry drivers like productivity, quality and carbon initiatives.

Watch the episode now


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