Although glass has been used to bring natural light into buildings since the days of the Roman Empire, its use was restricted to windows and other small installations due to its fragility. But thanks to the development of new construction techniques and glass production methods, especially since the early 1990s, the inner strength of this material is being revealed, and it is now considered a viable choice for much more structural roles.

The Hyatt at Olive 8, opened in January 2009, is Hyatt Hotels‘ second property in the city of Seattle, located only a block away from the Grand Hyatt on Pine Street in the city centre. The Olive 8 tower is ambitious for its eco-friendliness, and mix of guestrooms and full apartments on its upper floors. But the ambitiousness of those aspects pales in comparison with its chief design feature – an elegant, all-glass façade that blurs the line between the hotel lobby and the street outside, allowing natural light to spill into the ground floor during the day and illuminating the surrounding sidewalk at night.

Creating the Olive 8 glass façade

The Hyatt at Olive 8 began its life with a very different design, as Craig Davenport, principal at architecture firm MulvannyG2 and project manager on the Olive 8 build, explains. “This was sort of a sister hotel tower to the Grand Hyatt in Seattle. At first it was designed to be very similar to it in architectural character, which is pre-cast concrete and a stone veneer with punched openings; very few windows at the base.”

The sea change for the project design came when the owner of RC Hedreen, the Seattle property developer that owns the Olive 8 tower, took a trip to the Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, and was bowled over by its all-glass design. “He got excited about it and there was nothing like it in Seattle,” says Davenport.

“Olive 8’s elegant, all-glass façade that blurs the line between the hotel lobby and the street outside.”

“He wanted to create a different experience from the Grand Hyatt, so that a guest could decide whether to stay at the Grand Hyatt tower or the Olive 8 tower and have a very different experience in each, not only in the guestrooms but in the public spaces.”

And so the design plan was changed. New York’s Gluckman Mayner design firm was brought on board to collaborate with MulvannyG2, and the stage was set for the glass design that stands on Seattle’s 8th Avenue today. But using glass so extensively at the base of the building created its own problems, as the transparency that would be the building’s defining feature caused new complications at the construction stage.

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“We realised that when you look at the glass at the base of the building, you’re looking into everything,” says Davenport. “The intent was to not have any solid panels visible from the public side of the building. Even the backsides of soffits and ceilings, where you’re hiding all the HVAC equipment and lighting above the space, those soffits had to be returned up to the underside of the concrete floor in the building away from the glass. In this case we had to create a separate vertical element that hid that equipment away from the glass.

“Also, everything that needed to come up to the exterior perimeter of the building, like exit stairs, we realised you’re going to see into every one of those spaces, so how do you treat exit stairs and how do you light those spaces? And then the materials of the finishes within the space and the lighting of that became very evident, particularly at night outside the building, so when you look through the transparent glass box and you see inside each of these spaces, what would it look like from the outside?”

The visual impact of the new design inevitably added cost to the project, both in terms of procuring expensive glass components and tailoring the design to accommodate those components. “I know the budget rose once the owner decided to use the glass curtain wall system. In addition, having to treat the back side of some of the column and wall elements and ceiling elements added some cost. But it really added impact,” Davenport says.

Reaping the benefits of glass

The impact of the Olive 8 tower is apparent, but it seems the glass has made the hotel as spectacular inside as when viewed from the street. “It’s very dramatic,” says Davenport. “In the pre-function room, you’ve got this 20ft-high space that has a ceiling, but as you walk over to the exterior wall, you actually get 26ft of glass that goes up beyond that ceiling height. By doing that, the natural light penetrates even deeper because of the angle of the light coming into the space.”

“The impact of the Olive 8 tower is apparent, but it seems the glass has made the hotel as spectacular inside as when viewed from the street.”

The hotel’s meeting rooms are also consistently booked well in advance for both commercial meetings and social events, owing to the dramatic effect of the glass.

“The corner meeting rooms are particularly amazing,” says Davenport, “with 26ft of glass that wraps around the corner, and you’re in the middle of downtown, surrounded by these high rise buildings. When you walk into those kinds of spaces, you feel like you’re right in the middle of this urban centre.”

As well as creating memorable spaces, Olive 8’s extensive use of glass helped contribute to the tower’s excellent environmental performance, along with energy and water-saving efforts. The building was Seattle’s first hotel to receive certification under the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) scheme.

“In the rating system, you have to achieve 33 points to be awarded LEED Silver, which was our goal,” says Davenport. “Out of that, I can specifically highlight three points that were attributed to that glass. There’s a specific ratings system in indoor environmental quality that talks about the daylight and views of the spaces, and you get a point if 75% of your spaces have a connection with daylight and views, right up to the glass. Of course we achieved that, but then you get another point if you reach 90%, and we achieved that too. In addition, there’s a point for the controllability of systems, specifically with lighting. So, being able to control lighting so that we could take advantage of that natural light added another point.”

“Olive 8’s use of glass helped contribute to the tower’s excellent environmental performance.”

And even though the project’s budget grew after the glass design was adopted, the initial investment is being offset somewhat by the lack of artificial lighting required on the inside of the building during the day and on the outside of the building at night, as well as lower air-conditioning costs due to the heat resistant properties of the glass.

The glass trend

As a result of advances in glass construction techniques, there has been a dramatic upsurge in the demand for glass buildings, especially in China.

Hotels like boutique property The Opposing House in Beijing are feeding demand for glass as a way to create lobby spaces to satisfy a sophisticated customer base, many of whom have grown bored of traditional decoration. And as its use increases, so too will the sizes of glass panels that are able to be used, further emphasising the effect.

“Everyone is looking for that great lobby space, the tall transparent space and how to build that, and there are some solutions with structural glass systems that are being looked at and considered,” says Davenport. “We’re working on some very large mixed-use projects in China that have hotels in glass structures. Some of these are twisting, turning towers; they’re not constructed yet, but there are going to be some amazing projects coming out there as these towers start getting built in Shanghai, Beijing and other areas in China.”

“Advances in glass construction techniques has created a dramatic upsurge in the demand for glass buildings.”

It’s an exciting but complex and challenging area of design, and Davenport offers some sage advice to developers thinking of going ahead with a hotel project of this nature.

“It’s important, when you start designing these types of buildings, that you are working with a supplier or contractor that knows all the different products that are available and the different materials you can get.

“We did this at a time when glass was getting hard to find, there was a long lead time on it, so we brought our curtain wall contractor on board very early in design and worked with him, and he actually had to order quite a bit of glass in advance of the project. Having that resource was very important to us.”

Although the use of glass is an emerging trend, it’s clear that these complex and striking designs will not become the mainstream. The design and construction challenges are great and the financial costs are high. But that’s what makes these hotels so special to their guests and so ultimately rewarding to the firms that build them.