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July 28, 2014

Reflecting Portland: Custom glass features meld new with old buildings

PHOTo / Tim Greenway
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Brian Harrington, principal and director of business development at Bellwether Design Technologies LLC, outside the glass curtain his company engineered for the new Hyatt Place in Portland.
Sketch / Courtesy Canal 5 Studio
Architect Patrick Costin sketched the hotelís complex curtain wall while at home.

Bellwether Design Technologies LLC

409 Alfred St., Biddeford

Principal/Director of Business Development: Brian Harrington

Products: Designs, engineers and supplies complex glazing systems

Founded: April 2010

Employees: 9

Revenues 2014: Over $3 million

Contact: 571-3340

www.bellwetherdesigntech.com

Glass-fronted interlopers are popping up between Portland's quaint brick buildings, and if a Biddeford complex glazing system maker has its way, more architects will design signature elements like its glass crinkle wall at the new Hyatt Place hotel in Portland.

Brian Harrington, principal and director of business development at Bellwether Design Technologies LLC, the Biddeford company that engineered the Hyatt wall, says the idea for the crinkle curtain and adjacent flat glass wall along the street was to mesh the inside and outside worlds. In a sense, even looking at nearby brick buildings reflected in the Hyatt's glass brings the two worlds together.

"In the first floor lounge, the glass was designed like an extension of the street, to integrate it," Harrington says. "There's a lot of energy in the building." The flat wall glass abuts the five-storey high crinkle wall, which looks like a twisted, pleated skirt.

"There's absolutely an uptake in the work we do," Harrington adds. "There's a bit more of a budget needed, but it sets the personality of the building." The company plans to add two employees next year as its work expands. He says business has doubled every year, with over $3 million in revenue now. The company has been profitable from the start, he adds.

Because such glass typically is custom-built, there aren't specific market figures for it, he says. However, statista.com estimated the overall U.S. glass and glazing contractors' market at $12 billion in 2014. Bellwether also made the glass vestibule for The Harlow Building in Augusta.

The company also makes high-end skylights for businesses and homes.

The crinkle wall has drawn a bevy of free critiques from locals and visitors alike.

Jeff Levine, Portland's director of planning and urban development, told Mainebiz in an earlier interview that he's been intrigued by the diametrically opposed utterances he hears about the Hyatt's more futuristic approach compared to that of the Marriott, which extended its quarters more traditionally with a brick wall that continues down the sidewalk.

"I think it's like comfort food. With the Marriott, people know what it is, because it's a brick building. So far, the reaction to the Hyatt has been mixed. But I think people will like it over time. I think it will age pretty well," he says.

Architect Patrick Costin, a partner at Canal 5 Studio, sketched out the plan for Hyatt's crinkle wall at home after talking to the developers, East Brown Cow. He said the Hyatt brand, the corner location (at Union and Fore streets) and being in Portland all figured into the design.

"We talked and thought of the glass as pleated," he says. "One of my partners folded a paper and bent it, and that was the idea used for the corner and the wall that runs along the street. It's more dynamic. It was an inspirational moment."

The wall did indeed inspire. In July, Glass Magazine awarded Bellwether Design its "Most Innovative Curtain Wall Project."

Still, Costin says some people keep asking him when the bricklayers will come to cover the glass and finish the building. "We have to tell them, 'No, it's done.'"

Home grown expertise

Even Costin admits the wall was a first for his company in terms of complexity and ambition. He says it was good to have a local company with the technical skills and ability to meet the construction schedule. It took a little over three months to install the crinkle wall, which is a bit longer than a flat wall installation. The total cost of the crinkle wall was $375,000, including installation, Costin says.

"I was shocked to learn that we have the capabilities, knowledge and technical skill to build this wall at a company here in Maine," Costin says. "They're certainly a firm that can compete nationwide and worldwide."

Harrington explains that the wall was custom-designed from the dies forward to meet four strict criteria: unique aesthetics, performance, ease-of-installation and budget. The crinkle wall, which is more like a free-hanging curtain off of a rod, is a system that needs to manage extreme and varying angles vertically and horizontally.

The wall also needed to blend visually with the more traditional and adjacent off-the-shelf curtain wall system at street level. In addition, the crinkle wall had to be able to withstand Maine's weather extremes, keep water out and hold safely together, which Harrington said was done with silicone joints.

To keep the trapezoid glass pieces together and the wall strong, Bellwether fabricated a system of aluminum tubes that zig-zagged from side-to-side and in and out. The company made the crinkle wall off site, then delivered it in sections for the contractor to install.

"It was special," says Costin. "It was a true collaboration between the designer, subcontractor and the installer.

And it's a design element the customer clearly wants, as it takes longer to install and costs are double to triple those of a traditional glass wall. A typical curtain wall on a storefront, such as on a car dealership or a strip mall, costs $35 to $40 per square foot, Harrington says. But custom walls like the ones his company makes run $90 to $125 per square foot.

"We're very architecturally driven," he adds.

The company's first project was a long, frameless skylight in the headquarters of Kirkpatrick Oil in Oklahoma. The company wanted to only see the sky through the glass, not a lot of metal connectors, so Bellwether placed the supporting aluminum sills to the outside of the glass. Considerations like tornadoes and seismic events also had to be taken into account because the skylight was so large and above the people walking below.

Another challenge was a glass wall in the San Francisco Public Safety Building, which clearly had to be designed to be earthquake-proof, he says, but also able to withstand a blast should there be an act of terrorism.

Other challenges include placing glass features throughout multiple buildings with separate foundations.

The company also has a completed curtain wall at New York City's Beekman Tower made of 4,000 individual unique glass parts and a skylight system at Harvard University's Gund Library that looks like a cut gem.

More challenges

Harrington's company doesn't shrink back from tough projects. It has several in New York City and Washington, D.C., where a glass element is being added to make a building more competitive and to stand out. One large project in New York that his company started recently, for example, aims to bring the building up to a higher class of office space by adding a specialty glass element.

Right now, more of the company's business is in the large, skyscrapered cities outside Maine, though Harrington hopes to boost business at home. That includes curtain walls, skylights, canopies, vestibules, glass bridges and walkways, and feature walls and railings.

A recent project that is gaining lots of attention, especially from the nearby engineering students, is the replacement of glass walls on three sides of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kresge Auditorium, itself an odd structure with its shell roof balanced on underground balls at the three corners where it touches the ground.

Replacing the glass was considered by most companies to be impossible, Harrington says, until Salem Glass in Massachusetts contacted Bellwether, which ultimately came up with a way to replace the glass and won the contract. The company now is working feverishly to get the design elements in place, as the walls need to be installed next summer, before an anniversary celebration.

Harrington says the company has two grants from the Maine Technology Institute, one for $21,800 in July 2012 with an equal match for design and other work on its structural glass skylight system called Insight. It also received a second MTI award in March 2013 for $20,774, with a match of $20,656, to lab test prototypes of the skylights. Bellwether also has a line of credit for materials purchases, he says.

With the skylights, Bellwether also is going cutting-edge with frameless skylights, which Harrington claims no one else is doing. The first model was introduced in the first quarter, a 4-foot x 4-foot skylight that costs around $4,000 to $5,000.

Like the glass walls, Harrington notes, the skylights also can be signature elements to a building.

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