Growing Panes: Homeowners Go Big on Glass Walls

Anita and Bob Dethlefs wanted the new Portland, Ore. home they were building to really let the sunshine in. So, the couple installed 2,700 square feet of Marvin windows—about $300,000 worth—on nearly every wall of the property.

Giant spans of glass,once seen mainly in commercial construction, are now more common in residential homes. Wendy Bounds explains how technology has enabled glass makers to make these more affordable, safe (if tempered) and energy efficient.

And then they put up 12 security cameras.

“We’re getting about as much light as you can in the Northwest but with so many windows, safety was the No. 1 concern for me as a mommy with kids running around the house,” says 43-year-old Ms. Dethlefs, who has five children. Her husband started a leadership conference business, Evanta Inc., in 2003 and later sold it. Their 13,000-square-foot, $5 million Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home even has a glass front door, letting visitors on the front stoop see through the family’s living room out to Mount Hood.

Forget about a room with a view. Today, homeowners want views from every room. As large expanses of glass have become architecturally acceptable for modern and traditional homes, new technology is making living in a fishbowl more practical—albeit sometimes challenging.

Homes That Let the Sun Shine In

Leah Nash for The Wall Street Journal

Anita and Bob Dethlefs moved into their new Portland 13,000-square-foot home in November. The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home has about $300,000 worth of windows to let in as much light as possible and help with the ‘gray sky’ malaise Ms. Dethlefs says she gets living in the Pacific Northwest.

Homeowners’ desire for more open floor plans with combined kitchen and living-room spaces has paved the way structurally for bigger spreads of glass. A growing appetite for more energy-efficient windows and associated tax incentives and rebates have also supported the trend.

“The open floor plan is predominant in almost everyone’s design now,” says builder Tim Wilkinson of Great Falls, Mont. “They want more light and bigger windows to take advantage of views.”

Today, thanks to technological advances, nearly all windows installed in new homes have special, invisible coatings that block heat and keep ultraviolet rays from fading furniture. Many also use double or triple-panes with argon or krypton gas sandwiched in between, which helps insulate in cold climates. Now standard on Andersen Windows glass: a titanium dioxide coating the company says sheds dirt and virtually eliminates water spots. Some glass makers are even marketing windows for residences that can tint and untint with the push of a button.

And for those put off by the prospect of raising and lowering so many blinds, companies such as Lutron Electronics sell window shades that can be controlled with an iPhone app.

“Across the board, people want more light,” says Mike Rogers, senior vice president of GreenHomes America Inc., a company specializing in energy-efficient home renovations, which has been incorporating more glass in its projects.

Beyond privacy and safety—Ms. Dethlefs’s chief worries—there are maintenance issues, such as how to keep so much glass spotless. (The couple pay $850 to $950 for professional cleaning at least three times a year.) And despite technological improvements, glass still doesn’t typically insulate as well as a wall packed with insulation.

Then there is the bird problem: Anywhere from 100 million to 1 billion are killed in window collisions every year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While manufacturers such as Andersen Corp. and Marvin Windows and Doors say overall window sales have slowed amid a sluggish new-house market, the companies say they are seeing more and larger windows going into new homes.

In modern homes, “they are filling space between floor and ceiling with as much glass as they can,” says Jay Sandgren, an architectural representative for Andersen. He says builders are being “a lot smarter” about positioning a home and the roof overhang to capture the most sunlight in winter and to block much of the heat from the sun in summer.

Building with glass isn’t cheap. Mr. Wilkinson the Montana builder estimates the price is about double the cost of installing regular walls packed with insulation. His own 4,800-square-foot home that he completed last year has $85,000 worth of Andersen glass, giving him a 240-degree view of three mountain ranges and the Missouri River. Even the deck railings are glass panels.

Tempered safety glass is installed according to local building codes in areas of homes where breakage might be of particular concern, such as windows and doors close to the floor or near a stairway or landing. Glass can sometimes attract vandals in the construction phase, a headache for builders, Mr. Wilkinson says. But breakage for homeowners “is rarely a problem,” he says, although he cautions that people mowing the lawn should look out for rocks that the mower can kick out to crack a pane.

Architect Thomas Roszak took the fishbowl aesthetic to the extreme in his own Northfield, Ill. home, which features commercial curtain-wall glass around the entire building.The walls are constructed from two argon-filled glass panes covered with what’s called low-emissivity, or “low-e,” metallic coating to block heat flow through the window, keeping the home cooler in the summer and warmer in winter.

With little traditional wall space, art is suspended in front of windows from a floor-to-ceiling, museum-type wire hanging system, Mr. Roszak says. For privacy, he planted trees around his one-acre property and installed $60,000 worth of electronically operated blinds.

One low point of glass-house design: The day his 8-year-old son spied a dead bird that had hit home’s glass siding, likely mistaking the trees’ reflection for safe habitat. “He said, ‘Daddy, I don’t think that bird is sleeping, I think it’s broken,’” Mr. Roszak says.

Glass homeowners must be mindful of clutter, since the view goes both ways. When Beata and Brad Peters built their 3,900-square-foot brick home in Hawthorn Woods, Ill., they incorporated large panels of glass symmetrically throughout. While most windows have wood blinds, the family tends to leave them open for aesthetics.

“I don’t put a lot of stuff in front of the windows,” Ms. Peters says. In the kitchen, appliances like toasters get packed along a wall with no glass.

Window-treatment companies are pushing to make shade operation less of a chore. Rotterdam-based Hunter Douglas this spring added a “Solar Energy Sensor” that raises and lowers blinds based on the amount of sun detected. Despite the slump in the housing market, the company’s North American sales rose almost 5% last year. An electronically controlled Lutron shade sells for about $900 more than manual ones and can be controlled via remote control or an app for Apple Inc. or Android devices.

Some glass companies now make windows that reduce the need for blinds altogether. One is Sage Electrochromics Inc. of Faribault, Minn., whose product consists of clear panes that morph to a grayish-blue tint when a user flips a switch to send a low-voltage current across the window. The tint reduces glare and heat but not visibility. Sage began selling the glass for residential applications around 2005, though they are typically found in high-end homes due to cost. An installed window costs between one-and-a-half to two times as much as one with typical low-e glass.

“If you’re on the West Coast facing the ocean when the sun is beating on the glass, what people do is pull their blinds and shades to block the glare,” says Helen Sanders, Sage’s vice president of technical business development. “What that means is you’ve just lost your view you paid a huge amount of money for.”

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