When the recession hit the US eight years ago, the construction industry ground to a halt — and with it, the suppliers of building materials like glass. Now, boom-time architects and developers have a problem: There isn’t enough glass to go around.
A fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal gives us a very vivid look at the long arm of the recession. When thousands of building projects were scrapped after 2008, 11 glass factories shut down (out of less than 50 that exist in the US) when there weren’t enough skyscrapers and condos to buy up the supply of this high-cost material. Nowadays, as construction in the US is reaching fever pitch, the remaining glass factories literally can’t make glass fast enough — leading to some projects sitting nearly finished, sans facades, for months awaiting their skins.
The shortage is so severe, one of the biggest real estate developers in the country is actually branching out and getting into the glass manufacturing business. You’ve probably heard of Related Cos; it’s the developer that’s currently building the largest private development in American history, a coterie off skyscrapers and condos on Manhattan’s West Side known as Hudson Yards:
All of those glassy towers and apartments are going to require quite a bit of glass — and Related isn’t going to wait months for it. Instead, it’s built its own glass factory in Pennsylvania. Robbie Whelan explains:
The developer needs more than 3,000 panels of architectural glass for an apartment tower it is building on Manhattan’s West Side, said Bruce Beal Jr., Related’s president. The new glass company, dubbed New Hudson Façades, is producing mockups for those panels… “With the logistical issues, small number of producers and growing costs, we’d rather bet on our ability to domestically produce and control the supply” of glass, Mr. Beal said.
It’s an interesting example of the economic reverberation that is echoing across the building industry, even though the downturn has passed.
But the shortage is affecting industries outside of architecture and construction, too — especially technology. Makers of LCD screens, for example, are also hurting from the shortage.
Maybe most interestingly, this isn’t the first time a glass shortage has hit the world. Katy Devlin, editor of Glass Magazine (yes, there is a glass magazine!), dug up a 1920s story from the New York Times that reports on a glass shortage after World War I, when plenty of glass-making machines were destroyed and booming demand from countries in Europe busy with reconstruction.
Of course, the avant garde architecture of 1930s Europe favoured glass and steel; we have the International Style to thank for those years of elegant, emerging modernism. There’s nothing radical about plate glass today — but its ubiquity across all sorts of building types, in a way, is why this shortage is happening at all.
Lead image: The robotized process of unloading float glass by ICAPlants.