Glass walls and floor-to-ceiling windows have become hallmarks of many modern architects. But typically, high-glass homes are built in rural areas, on properties hedged off from the street, or many stories up in high-rise condominiums.
Now glass is entering its final frontier: street-level homes in urban neighborhoods. Architects say clients want all the benefits of a city—its energy, diversity and walkability—without the drawbacks of a traditional street-level city home, which is often starved for light. All that glass makes for great people-watching for the inhabitants. But it also provides great inhabitant-watching for the people outside the house.
As a result, architects are doing what they can to minimize the fishbowl effect. Some use subtle elevation changes so that it can be hard to see more than a few feet into a room unless the viewer is standing in the middle of the street. The glassiest parts of the home are put on the second floor, where the more-public living spaces are, while the bedrooms are put in back or downstairs.
Advancements in reflective glass are also allowing architects to construct glass walls that maximize the view out and minimize the view in. Architect David Hertz, of the Studio of Environmental Architecture in Venice, Calif., used reflective glass in designing what he calls the Panel House, a three-story, four-bedroom, 3,600-square-foot glass house on a small lot located right up against the boardwalk in Venice, in the heart of a nonstop pedestrian parade. The whole front of the house, which faces the boardwalk and the ocean, lets the owner look out but is like a mirror to people outside. ("In Venice, people flex in front of the glass and do their makeup," says Mr. Hertz.)
"It's about not being disconnected from the outside world—knowing what the weather's like without having to open a window," Mr. Hertz says.
Even when the windows are opened, the glass acts as a privacy barrier. On the first level, a special gear system opens the window by lowering it into a slot below—but the glass doesn't go down all the way. It stops at 3 feet, just enough to make it hard to see inside. The sides of the house are made from the same material as refrigerator panels, helping to counteract the heat generated by all the sunlight entering the home.
The owner of the Panel House, Thomas Ennis, an inventor of carwash equipment, says he wanted a full view of the ocean with no obstructions. He likes the openness of the house, which took about three years to build and cost about $1.6 million: "It makes me feel like I'm on a yacht in St. Tropez at the dock where people are walking by."
Still, two years after he moved in, Mr. Ennis has made some adjustments, including adding several large planter boxes in front of the windows to stop passersby from randomly yelling up at him. Now, if he sees tourists outside taking photos (his house is listed as a sight-to-see in several travel guides), he can choose to speak with them or not. He plans to put in blinds that open from the bottom instead of drapes, allowing him privacy at night but still letting air in.
In Chicago, physician Pravin Patel and his wife, Mojgan Laghaei-Patel, loved the light and views they had when they lived on the 42nd floor of a high rise with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. After they had their kids—now 10 and 13—they moved to a single-family house, which was very dark, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The couple didn't want to decamp to the suburbs—they liked the city's diversity and its proximity to work. So when another house next door went on sale, they decided to buy it and tear it down to build a five-bedroom house with an all-glass front on three of its four stories.
Since the lot was so narrow—24 feet wide by 119 feet deep—and pushed up against other houses, the only way to get a lot of light was to open up both ends with lots of glass, says architect John McCarthy of Osterhaus McCarthy, the firm that designed the house. A skylight in the middle and an open stairwell let even more light inside. Completed in 2011, the house has a two-story living room and dining room that faces the street with an all-glass front, which allows passersby to see in. Their daughter's room is also all glass in front, but the desk was placed by the window, with the sleeping area put in back. "I don't mind if neighbors see her doing homework," says Ms. Patel, who adds she isn't any more concerned about privacy and security than she would be in any other house.
In order to keep such a modern, glassy house from sticking out too much, the architects used materials and colors for the first-floor brick facade that mimic the neighboring houses. Big trees in front of the house act as natural heaters and coolers, with the leaves blocking the sun in the summer and the bare branches letting it in during the winter. The "backyards" are landscaped terraces, one of which is on the flat roof, next to an all-glass top floor that has views of the city but is too high for anyone to see in. That's where Mr. Patel reads and Ms. Patel grows the seeds for her garden.
Some believe that more glass means exposure to jeopardy. Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a Tampa, Fla.-based nonprofit supported by the property-insurance industry, says large uncovered windows could be viewed as creating a greater risk for burglary, theft and vandalism, while windows without shutters or extra thick glass could be viewed as a greater risk for natural hazards like heavy winds or fires. While different insurance companies evaluate homes differently, in general "unprotected large potential openings are not going to be looked upon favorably," she says.
Glass houses aren't new. Two of this country's most famous examples—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's see-through Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill., and Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.—date back to the middle of the last century. But some architects aren't as comfortable with the idea in cities. Daniel Piechota, a partner of the San Francisco-based firm Sagan Piechota, says he uses glass all the time in less-crowded neighborhoods but not downtown in cities. He argues that glass is tricky enough when there's lots of space, with issues including birds, flying tree limbs and the generation of additional light pollution, which can mar the nighttime scenery. In cities, a glass house "doesn't seem appropriate," says Mr. Piechota. "The people inside become on display."
Others say it's part of the city experience to see and be seen. "If you're going to live in an urban area you might as well embrace it," says architect Kevin Angstadt of QB3 Studio in Philadelphia. His firm designed a roughly 3,000-square-foot, four-story glass house in downtown Philadelphia that boasts an all-glass three-story entry, living and dining area. On the second floor, the dining room almost looks like a 9-foot-high stage for the audience in the street. There's so much glass on so many levels that inside occupants can see through to the exterior of the house and back through to the interior of the house's other rooms. On the top floor is the glass-box master bedroom surrounded by a terrace, which sports a sunken wood hot tub, a grill and lawn chairs.
Mr. Angstadt says that with the exception of the dining room, the view into the home was slightly fragmented by putting the windows at different angles in different parts of the house, and by pushing the glass inward at the corner. "When you are in the living room you might see a pair of legs walk by or a head float by," he says. The house cost about $350 a square foot to build.
In 2008, Barry Alan Yoakum moved into his 2,600-square-foot, two-bedroom house, which has a white brick base and an elevated glass box angled toward the Mississippi River, in a dense urban neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn. Shortly afterward, he found himself the subject of interest of a teenager with a telescope across the street. (Mr. Yoakum spoke with the parents to get the kid to stop.) Then he noticed tour buses, en route to somewhere else, would frequently stop in front of his house, discharging camera-wielding occupants who wanted to photograph his unusual house. The crews of the tugboats and barges that float by along the river often peer into his bedroom with binoculars.
And it isn't just humans he needs to watch out for: Mr. Yoakum had only started to get used to the birds hitting his windows when one day there was a noise that sounded like a rocket. It turned out to have been a full-grown hawk that slammed against the glass, leaving feathers. He found the large bird stunned outside and watched it fly away five minutes later.
Still, Mr. Yoakum, a partner at architectural firm Archimania, says he usually sleeps with all his drapes open. "I have friends who drive 2½ hours away to a lake house on weekends," he says. He is five minutes from work and can walk to restaurants, movies, and grocery stores—and can still gaze out from bed to see flocks of birds swooping up the river and the moon tracing its way across the sky. And he doesn't worry about security because when the alarm system goes on, so do all the lights, making it very easy to see a thief from anywhere in or out of the house. "People are so used to living in caves with punched holes," he says. "That doesn't feel good to me."
Mr. Yoakum used what's called "smart glass," which is coated with a material that blocks heat and keeps out ultraviolet rays. Some have double or triple panes, gas between them for maintaining heat and coatings that can keep dirt and water spots from ruining the views. For Mr. Yoakum's house, which cost about $400,000 to build, the window packages cost $53,000; Mr. Yoakum estimates that it would have been about $40,000 if he'd used regular glass.
Other architects prefer to stick with clear glass for houses, saying such "smart glass" interferes with the quality of the natural light, distorting the view to the outside, and tends to cost too much. Chris Pardo, founder of Elemental Architecture, who designed Mr. Risdon's Seattle home, used standard windows but with thin supports between them to give a "storefront" look.
Getting the houses past neighborhood design review boards is growing easier, architects say. Mr. McCarthy's firm had extensive opposition when he built similar looking glass houses in Chicago in 2007, but found mostly enthusiasm when the plans for the Patels' house came up for review a few years later in a different Chicago neighborhood.
Mr. Yoakum built his house in a planned community dedicated to mimicking architectural styles of the past—like Charleston, S.C., sideyard houses and simple shotgun cottages—yet he had no trouble getting his home approved. He even passed off the all-glass box attached to the house as a "bay window." "I couldn't do hundreds of years ago. It's not today," explains Mr. Yoakum.
Wall Street journal, November 30, 2012
How would you feel living in a glass house? I don’t know about you, but I like to visit the New England Aquarium, but I certainly wouldn't want to live like that and have people looking through my windows all day?
Karen Powers, Real Estate Broker