Every building needs windows, but healthcare facilities – specifically involving behavioral and mental health – have certain inherent considerations that can make glazing projects more challenging.
But what are those considerations, and how can building specifiers meet them while also staying cost conscious? Unicel Architectural’s Vincent Couturier recently sat down with Patrick Flannery of Glass Canada Magazine’s Glass Talk podcast to discuss all things glazing and healthcare. Here’s a transcript of their conversation.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Patrick Flannery: What are the main priorities for healthcare project managers putting together these hospital projects when specifying glazing?
Vincent Couturier: I’d say the top priority is often hygiene – they’re in environments where there needs to be a lot of sanitization. Everything has to be dust-proof in the interior, and for exterior glazing you need very clean lines so there aren’t many places for dust to accumulate.
Another priority is privacy control, of course, for patients. That’s something that’s very sought after, along with a lot of light – they like to aim for the maximum amount of light possible, but while keeping some privacy.
PF: I like that point about clean lines. You probably want to make sure you don’t have too many unnecessary angles on your frames. You might not even have level sills sometimes?
VC: For sure you need, I would call it interior dry gasketing, meaning no detail inside that would rust or anything like that. What we’ve also seen a lot of, since we do some curtain walls as well, are requirements around sound transmission between floors. Architects will have us put some kind of noise reduction inside the mullions. I won’t tell you all the trade secrets, but we’ve had to develop some pretty fancy sound transmission class (STC) control stuff over the years.
If you’re in an urban environment, you need good STCs on your insulating glass if you want a quiet room for your patient. Now if you look at Europe, they don’t really use STC anymore because it’s not a very precise measurement for noise control. It’s an environmental issue, not just a glass issue – you can have a good STC, but is it good for that specific frequency in your specific application? So there are a lot of factors, but in the end everything is meant to make the patient feel comfortable so they can get better.
PF: I hadn’t thought of that, but the sound control must be a huge aspect of it. I’d love to hear your trade secrets on how you soundproof your mullions but I won’t make you dig into anything!
VC: It’s not rocket science – it’s just finding the right stuff to put in, and to be able to manufacture it in a cost-effective manner while also mitigating condensation.
PF: It’s usually about some kind of fill, but is it good to have a gap in there too?
VC: Air gaps are good for noise control – that’s what gives you the best sound control. But at the same time you need some layering. Blocking noise frequency is all about layering and if you look at just the glass, adding an asymmetric laminated block will help improve the number of frequencies that get blocked. So let’s say the double six laminated glass will block certain frequencies, but might not block a higher pitch or a lower pitch. That’s why you need various layers, to block a higher range of frequencies – but again, then you’re getting into thick or asymmetric laminated, which increases costs.
And cost is always a factor in healthcare, especially in Canada. We do a lot of projects in the United States where cost is a factor, but they’re privately owned and competing against other healthcare facilities to be better and attract patients.
PF: You mention something that’s crossed my mind a few times, and that there’s been a trend in Canada to do a little more than they used to do with the appearance and the aesthetics of healthcare buildings. What accounts for that, do you think?
VC: I think the interest in having beautiful beautiful buildings as part of an architectural heritage is kind of now back on the table, while in the eighties or sixties, it was a lot less, an important factor. I’d say governing bodies now want to leave behind an architectural heritage that wasn’t really as much of a factor a few decades ago. I mean, we now see bridges being built where they do architectural contests just to make it look good, because it’s going to be there for years.
You want nice landscapes and cityscapes at the end of the day. And there are great architectural firms in Canada and most of these projects are done locally. We have good people making great designs, so why not do them? And if you look at the cost, yes it’s an increase, but it’s not much of an increase when you compare having a nice exterior to just using brick and mortar.
PF: It’s a great point – they built all those horrible square yellow brick things in the seventies and eighties, and ultimately they became an eyesore and had to be torn down. So on the privacy side, can you tell me a bit about your shading and interior blinds products, and what makes it a good solution for healthcare?
VC: It’s very important, especially in Canada, to have a controllable solar heat gain coefficient. One option is electrochromic glass, but that involves wiring all your openings and it usually adds a lot of complexity. Most electrochromic glass uses DC voltage and most electricians work in AC voltage, so it’s not the kind of electrical work they usually do. And then if you want a nurse station that controls all the openings, but not all at the same time – you want individual control – that has a lot of layers of complexity.
That’s why we supply integrated louvers and blinds that can be operated with motorized, magnetic, or manual solutions. So you control your intake of sun. You control your light transmittance. Because when you’re looking at insulating glass values, you want the lowest solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) value with the highest light transmittance value, and integrated louvers and blinds allow for controllable values. You can have high light transmittance in one room and low light in another that’s by an exposed facade.
Soft coats are also excellent at controlling solar heat gain, but if you’re in an environment like Canada, solar heat gain isn’t always a bad thing like it would be in Texas, for example. You may not mind some solar heat gain during wintertime where you can heat up your building with the sun. And with integrated blinds and louvers you can control your solar heat gain. Our Vision Control product allows you to have a six or seven solar heat gain when it’s open, and then go as low as almost zero when the blinds are closed. You can lower it to around 0.6, which is not that good normally, but it can be good in wintertime.
So basically architects will come to us and ask for a solar heat gain coefficient of .25 or so, and which glass we recommend for that? And we’ll say that we can provide a soft coat that will do that, but we can also provide a more affordable glass that provides higher values when the blinds are open and lower values when they’re closed. It gives you that controllable feature. There was a University of Waterloo study done on U-values, that found with integrated louvers and blinds, when they’re closed with a double glazed IG you get close to a triple glazing effect because that creates two air chambers. They’re not perfectly sealed, but you limit convection within the IG with two zones because your blind is closed in the middle. And since the blinds don’t touch the glass, there’s no heat conduction within glass to glass because there’s always that little airspace. So having integrated louvers or blinds actually provides a better (when they’re closed) U-value than without blinds.
PF: I like the point about solar heat gain – I mean, this is the conundrum we have in our cold climate: Is solar heat gain good or bad? And the answer is for half the year, it’s good. And half of the year it’s bad.
VC: We’re also seeing a lot of demand for behavioral applications. A lot of hospitals are converting floors into behavioral health floors, and it’s something we’re seeing a lot of – retrofits and new buildings are being done with behavioral health in mind with ligature resistant operators, so you can’t hurt yourself with them. Architects also look at glass stops – making sure the gaskets can’t be pulled out. That is something we have special designs for. We also have an AAMA 501.8 certified curtain wall system and interior window that is impact resistant up to 2,000 ft. lbs.
We’ve passed that test for both exterior and interior solutions. And this is also where integrated louvers or blinds are important, because you need privacy control for that level of patient care, but you don’t want the patient to be messing up the blinds or curtains. So this is where our system is perfect because you get privacy control, with no cleaning involved, and you can’t break it. I’ve seen a lot of projects where a gasket can be pulled, so someone is going to pull on it, for sure.
And dealing with polycarbonates and exterior applications is tricky. They don’t yellow as fast as they used to, but they can scratch, so you want something that is replaceable. So it’s about coming up with solutions that bring that polycarbonate safety, but also the replacement aspect down the road when you just want to switch out the polycarbonate and not the facade system.
PF: That’s great stuff, and honestly not something that would have crossed my mind for healthcare applications.
VC: Our engineering team worked so hard on this – we built our own test bed in the plant, because we needed to test so much before finding the right recipe. And we have two solutions in this regard: One is the full system, with anchors, welding, and other stuff involved. The other is a retrofit product for floors that are to be turned into behavioral application floors, but don’t want to redo the whole facade. We have a system where we retrofit from inside that gives the patient privacy aspect with Vision Control, while giving you the sturdiness required for behavioral health applications. So we offer both products, depending on if you want to switch the whole facade from outside or if you want to just retrofit from inside.
PF: So is there no AAMA standard for this stuff?
VC: There is the AAMA test, it’s the AAMA 501.8 test for exterior applications that tests for 2,000 ft. lbs., but it’s a test.
PF: Right – it’s a test protocol. It’s not ‘this is what it needs to be.’
VC: And the maximum you can test is 2,000 lbs. Architects will often spec 2,000 because that’s the highest you can go and it’s pretty hard to achieve. That’s why we’re often part of the design process with the architects, because we’ve done a lot of these projects. We can guide them on how it was done and the attributes that made it successful or the things that can be improved. Architects are very good at what they do but this is often uncharted territory for them.
And we don’t know everything, but we have some knowledge and experience from projects we’ve done in our tests. And when they’re designing the building and they need some help, we can provide that.
PF: Let’s talk about installation. What goes on when you’re installing glass for healthcare applications, and what do you have to be mindful of?
VC: I would say there are two categories. First is a brand-new building with an opening date, and everything needs to be done yesterday and you’ve got to rush to finish on time. A big challenge that every contractor is facing right now is finding enough skilled labour to meet those lead times.
And then there are the jobs that are facility extensions, or innovations, and that usually involves a lot of section closures with real patients there. So that adds another element to lead times – having access to certain parts, having just general access, so the hospital is still running while you’re building an addition like a new wing. And that’s generally a problem in construction, but now you’re adding all the healthcare people and patients into the mix. So that has proven to be difficult. I was down at a behavioral project in Boston the other day with some of our installers, and it was a live place – so we had to have police officers with us in every room we went into, while our tools were watched by an officer.
And that’s when you realize why architects are so picky on the silicones used, and the glass stops, and the fact that they to be need tamper-proof with no visible screws.
PF: You’re right – I mean, they’ve got all day. If it’s not impossible to get it out of there, it’s going to come out there.
VC: Even in educational applications I’ve seen gaskets get pulled. People get bored when there’s nothing else to do. Even for our Vision Control ligature points, we’ve had to double the wear and tear testing because some people will just turn it all day long. They don’t want them to break it, and we don’t want them to pull it out and hurt themselves. So we’ve come up with special designs that prevent that.
PF: Is there an aspect of the glazing that’s important to consider in terms of infection control?
VC: So, with Covid they have positive pressure rooms that force air out of the room and not into it. It’s very important for the air to flow one way or the other. For exterior glazing this really isn’t an issue because there aren’t openings, but we do a lot of interior glazing as well. So the glass between the patient rooms and hallways needs to be airtight.
Cleaning is also important. All our operators are made of brass, which is primarily copper and zinc, which prevents germ and bacteria formation (copper is bacteria resistant). For Vision Control we use a special antimicrobial HDPE, which is a type of plastic polymer. So the thumbwheel operators for these units are made of antimicrobial plastic.
PF: Interesting stuff, Vincent. Thanks very much for joining me today. And thanks for listening to glass talk. You can find this episode at glasscanadamag.com or on the major podcasting services.