Design, Projects, Products

How Decorative Glass Fabrication Technology Provides Design Flexibility

Decorative glass techniques such as digital printing, ceramic frit, and acid etching provide architectural versatility along with thermal performance and compliance. Glass fabricators continue to advance technology in decorative glass applications to create visually impressive and unique designs. Some of the more popular decorative glass fabrication techniques include ceramic frit (including silk-screening), acid-etching, and digital ceramic printing. In addition to architectural visual appeal, these designs can also be used to enhance thermal performance by reducing glare and heat gain into a space, or reducing visibility for better privacy in areas such as conference rooms. A single decorative glass design can satisfy many design requirements simultaneously.

Ceramic frit
Ceramic frit is a combination of raw materials and inorganic pigments that produce a desired color. During the tempering process, it is coated onto the glass sheet and is heated to about 1,150° F, fusing the frit into the glass surface. After cooling, this produces a visually opaque, yet durably strong product that resists scratching, chipping, and fading.

In this process, a silk-screened stencil pattern can be used with clear, tinted, low-E, or reflective glass to create a beautiful visual glass aesthetic that also enhances thermal performance, especially when using laminated glass or insulated glass. The ceramic ink pattern can be a simple shape or an intricate gradient and can be used for a variety of glass applications, such as entrances, skylights, canopies, interior glass walls, exterior glass walls, storefronts, handrails, stairs, and doors, just to name a few.

Acid-etched glass
Acid-etched glass is another option in which glass is treated with an acidic material to produce a surface finish that diffuses transmitted light for a “frosted” glass look, often in a pattern. It has a similar appearance to sandblasted glass, in which sand is abrasively projected at a very high speed to scratch a pattern onto the glass; however, because sand-blasting can weaken the glass and make it susceptible to cracking, it has limited applications today.

Digital ceramic printing
Digital ceramic printing is a very robust and preferable design option in which digital images are printed directly on glass. This method has broad usage appeal for architects due to its versatility. Virtually any full-color design image pattern, text, or graphic can be vividly reproduced on glass, including imitating the appearance and texture of materials such as wood and marble. In the digital printing process, the first step is to prepare the image file using image processing software. Next, the ceramic ink frit gets digitally mixed to precisely mimic a wide range of CMYK model colors. The frit is fired and infused into the glass to create a permanent bond that will not scratch off. Factors that affect the digital glass printing design include the desired style and multitude of colors required, design versatility, sustainability, and other considerations.

The Parkland Hospital in Dallas is a good example of when to use digital ceramic printing. The vision architects at Corgan Associates had for the main glass façade of the hospital was to create the shape of a tree with the project contributors’ names integrated into the print design details. The fabricator used ceramic inks in varying levels of opacity to create the intricate design over numerous glass panels. High-resolution print quality was required to create the fine, crisp detail elements for a truly unique full-color overall image.

Another digital ceramic print application example is Columbia College’s printed façade at 600 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Because the building is located in the Historic Chicago Landmark District, the design of the new façade had to meet the approval of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which includes bird-safety glass. Nearly 46% of the glazed area used digitally printed glass for bird safety and was also designed to optimize solar heat gain. Upon close examination of the ceramic fritting, you can see that the design pixels are actually small bird graphics. Notably, the state of Illinois now requires all state-owned building construction and renovation to use bird-safe glass in the façade design. So bird-safe design requirements will continue to increase going forward.