A History of Glass Block

Glass is one of man’s most important and lasting inventions. During the history of glass block, this essential material in its many forms has been reimagined and adapted to uses ranging from dinnerware to packaging, biotechnology, fiber optics, and much, much more. Glass is a critical component in windows, doors, and other interior features such as mirrors, picture frames, decorative vases, and bottles.

Attributes like transparency, insulating properties, and durability also make glass an ideal building material.

Glass block today is emerging as a popular component of building design for both interior and exterior use. Architects throughout the world are applying glass block to their masterpieces, often earning rewards for beauty, functionality, and energy efficiency.

Why is Glass Block Important in Architecture and Design?

Glass blocks light permitting quality allows light to pass through floors and walls to illuminate adjacent rooms and hallways. Glass can provide the desired degrees of privacy with varying levels of light-permitting translucence while still admitting generous amounts of light to pass through.

When used as a primary exterior cladding of a building, glass block maximizes natural light, potentially illuminating the entire inner space with sunlight.

Importantly, glass block is a highly sustainable construction material that is recyclable and may be produced from recycled materials. Glass block reduces energy use for lighting and is an excellent insulator that reduces the cost of heating. Given the sustainable, energy-reducing nature of the material, glass blocks are often employed in the construction of many LEED-certified structures in the United States

Early Uses of Glass for Construction

The history of glass block in its original form included windows that brought beauty and light to an otherwise dark environment. The material gained some prominence in the 1800s as functional, light admitting material for skylights and walls segments.

In the early history of glass block, “deck prisms” were added to oceangoing ships. Before electricity, natural light could be admitted into the areas below deck, thus reducing the fire risks of candles and oil lamps.

Also, as part of the early history of glass block, many may recall the presence of sidewalk-embedded, curved-glass “lenses” that as they walked beside busy city streets. These “vault lights” or “sidewalk lights” were not lights actually, but simply glass prisms that admitted and diffused light throughout a room beneath the sidewalk. The rooms could be receiving or storage areas for the building above and, without the presence of windows, benefited from the natural lighting through the glass prisms.

Some sidewalk vault lights are still in use in some cities today, although many have become collectors’ items.

Original Patent for Glass Block

As a true construction material, however, the strength and durability of glass “bricks” for broader use was still limited

In 1907, Deutsche Luxfer-Prismen-Gesellschaft (loosely translated: German Light Prism Company) patented a process to strengthen the material into glass block by fusing two sections of glass into a single unit. When the two glass pieces were joined, a hollow center was created. The partial vacuum within enhanced the insulating qualities of glass block to allow for:

  • Sound deadening
  • Energy insulation
  • Fireproofing

The history of glass block began as the material could be used for applications in much the same way as concrete blocks. And, compared to other materials, quality glass block was easy to install and maintain.

Glass Ceilings, Walls, and Floors Add Beauty and Enhance Space

The prism effect created by the glass block facilitated the dispersion of light throughout an interior. Factories, train stations, and indoor shopping areas and arcades installed glass ceilings that would provide plenty of natural light for the visitors.

Underground railways throughout the world began using glass block ceilings to illuminate their stations. These elements are still prevalent in parts of the London Underground and Paris Metro systems.

The history of glass block continues through the Depression of the 1930s; glass block became popular for external and internal use because of its modern style and low cost. Less expensive than other building materials, glass block became a popular option.

Today, glass block is used for interior and even exterior walls to reduce energy consumption. These architectural strategies lower the cost of artificial lighting while illuminating “dead” space within a building.

For example, a glass floor, stairway, or walkway can be aesthetically pleasing. But, also, the glass block set in steel or aluminum mountings, allows the room or space beneath to be illuminated without requiring additional dedicated artificial light sources to make the area usable.

Glass Block and Structural Glass in the 21st Century

The history of glass block continues as glass block today is available in a broad range of colors, patterns, textures, degrees of transparency, and sizes. With the technology of today, glass block may be customized to meet the needs of any project.

Further, the mortars and silicones that seal the fusion of the glass blocks have been continually improved to create a permanent storm and fire-resistant barrier.

Light and Productivity

The presence of natural light has been proven to enhance learning and productivity. The periodical, Psychology Today, summarizes a high-level study that links the availability of abundant natural light to improved sleep, vitality, and productivity. Today, more offices and classrooms are being partitioned with attractive glass block.

Glass Block and Security

Vandals often use basement windows to gain entry into homes and businesses. Standard pane windows are easy enough to break. When home and business owners install secure and unbreakable glass block, the would-be intruders become quickly discouraged and move on.

Glass block has even been installed in high-security installations. For example, GBA Architectural Products + Services was chosen to incorporate glass block construction in the Howard Young Correctional Institute in Wilmington, Delaware. The premise was simply to provide the necessary degrees of security while admitting abundant natural light, which is also essential. The system consists of 1,000 pieces of solid glass brick, cast in place with rebar reinforcement.

Besides being tamper-proof or vandal resistant, modern glass block is also blast, hurricane and tornado resistant.

Contact GBA Architectural Products + Services

As the material of choice for many iconic structures throughout the work, glass block is practical and easy to maintain. Acceptance of the product has been worldwide, embraced by world-class architects and designers as the building material of the future. Witness the beauty and functionality of such important structures as Maison Hermes in Tokyo, the Library at the University of Deusto in Spain, and the 11-story Iulm University digital library in Milan, Italy.

Projects by GBA Architectural Products + Services include parts of the Puck Building and Stillwell Avenue MTA Station in New York, St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and the 21C Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City.

There is no denying the beauty and practicality of glass block. Since those early days when prism deck glass illuminated the dark belowdecks of sailing ships, the science of glass block development has come a long way.

Consider glass block for your next project. Glass block is beautiful, sustainable, durable, and secure.

Contact USA’s experts in glass block construction and technology. For information, phone the GBA Architectural Products + Services experts at any of the numbers listed below:

GBA Offices:

  • Midwest: (877)-280-7700
  • East Coast: (212)-255-5787
  • West Coast: (213)-634-7050