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Reimagining the Use of Glass in Architecture

Scientists in Corning Research & Development Corporation lab roll willow glass
Image provided courtesy of Corning Incorporated.

For four graduate students in the Syracuse University School of Architecture , a semester-long research collaboration offered a unique challenge: work with Corning Research & Development Corporation, one of the world's foremost innovators in materials science, to take an extraordinary glass material and design architectural applications for it.

A gloved hand shows the flexibility of the willow glass by bending it
Image provided courtesy of Corning Incorporated.

Corning® Willow® Glass is as thin and flexible as a sheet of paper. It was originally developed for use with electronic devices, but the material has an array of possibilities because of its many interesting properties: It can be fabricated at building scale and wound on a spool; cut into coupons, wafers or sheets with standard tools; and is easy to decorate with high-resolution printing techniques.

School of Architecture Professor Daekwon Park first proposed the collaboration to Sean Garner, senior research associate in Corning’s research center.

“The collaboration was an opportunity for the students to work with a leading corporation in glass and ceramic technologies,” Park says. “They not only learned about Corning’s novel technologies, but also how new products and ideas are developed and commercialized.”

Garner has been involved with Willow Glass since its early exploratory stage. He coordinated and managed the partnership with Park, participated in discussions with the Syracuse University School of Architecture team and provided feedback throughout the partnership.

“My objectives in collaborating on this design project were to gain a fresh perspective on new flexible glass applications and opportunities, and provide background information on flexible glass attributes and capabilities that the students can utilize in their future careers,” Garner says.

Expanding Career Horizons

Students from the School of Architecture at Corning

For Harshita Kataria ’18, Wang Liao ’18, Chenxie Li ’18 and Lei Feng ’18, the assignment developed valuable skills. The students were asked to think about the potential architectural applications of Willow Glass that are not possible with polymer film or rigid glass.

“The experience broadened the perspective of their roles in the profession from the traditional architect who designs buildings to a design consultant and design researcher who can utilize their skills to contribute to technology research,” Park says.

The collaboration offered students the opportunity to learn and experience the process of material technology research, one of the key goals of the master of science in architecture program at Syracuse University, according to Park.

Students with a background in architectural design are traditionally taught a “top-down” approach that begins with a vision for a building or structure with the variables input later. For the Corning collaboration, the students had to start with the material research of the Willow Glass, taking a “bottom-up” look at its characteristics and properties to build up to a design.

Students flexing materialStudents started with the material research of the Willow Glass, taking a "bottom-up" look at its characteristics and properties... 3D model of material as an awning build up to a design.

“Students struggled with not having the overarching concept—the big idea—at the beginning of the research where they were asked to focus on a specific feature of the material system, for example movement, layers and adaptability,” Park says. “Although the students felt blind at times not knowing what they were designing, they began to understand as each finding informed the next step and they finally arrived at a targeted application.”

Learning Through Collaboration

Early in the semester, the students toured the Corning Museum of Glass with an expert guide to learn about Willow Glass as well as other key technologies and products.

“Corning provided students with initial background information on the properties of flexible glass and showed illustrative samples of electronic devices and laminated glass surfaces that are enabled by Willow Glass attributes,” Garner says.

The students returned to campus to develop their initial ideas. They worked with paper and other flexible materials, making sketches based on research and gathering inspiration from case studies. They were then asked to produce a rendering, sketch or prototype.

“From the very beginning of the project, I was impressed by the additional creative ways flexible glass could be integrated into new applications,” Garner says.

The students then performed two weeks of production work to identify a niche. The next steps involved several rounds of design iterations, each improving and building on the last before they brought their ideas back to Corning.

“After the initial kick-off session, reviews were held for the students to present their concepts and obtain guidance,” Garner says. “After the students identified their unique directions and developed their concepts, Corning provided additional feedback on design enhancements and scalability.”

Each student focused on a different aspect of the Willow Glass’ potential: Movement, space, layering and surface/form.


3D model of other awning style model of material used as full wall which becomes and awning

Harshita Kataria —Kataria’s research explored the movement of Willow Glass to imagine different ways to operate building openings for potential air and water flow control. The minimal aesthetic forms a clean interface between the interior and exterior space.

Surface and Form

Student bending material 3D model of pavilion

Lei Feng —Feng’s research explored patterns and forms using Willow Glass. Feng proposed a pavilion that showcases the potential of the Willow Glass in a way that resembles willow tree branches moving with the wind. Each ribbon is geometrically formed to control its movement and the subtle pattern creates a unique atmosphere for the visitors.


3D model of material used to create privacy wall 3D model showing versatility of the material as privacy wall

Wang Liao —Liao’s research focused on developing spatial applications using Willow Glass.  A roll of Willow Glass is rotated 90 degrees and used as reconfigurable interior room dividers for office spaces. The transparent walls create various types of semi-private zones without sacrificing the open plan of an office, and sensors, lighting and media components can be embedded directly into the glass.


Model to show glass layers for windows 3D model to show glass as windows treatment

Chenxie Li —Li’s research investigated the potentials of multi-layered Willow Glass for building façades. Alternating patterned Willow Glass layers and an actuation mechanism are used to control the shading. This system can also be used to control thermal and acoustical properties.

“The reviews during the project helped the students make better informed decisions on how to move forward based on the feedback from the engineers in terms of limitations, cost and capabilities,” says Park.

The last stage of the collaboration for the students was speculation—an opportunity to imagine the environment of the design, how it would be used and how it would function. A final review was held at Corning and attended by designers, engineers, marketing professionals and managers.

“The interactions and feedback during the reviews and final presentation provided valuable experience to the students who were entering the field after graduation,” Park says.

Looking Toward the Future

Identifying applications and designs that value new materials, such as Willow Glass, begins by working with collaborators to determine what the material enables that doesn’t currently exist. Through this partnership with Corning, students in the School of Architecture gained hands-on ideation experience, while being exposed to professionals who are driving innovation that will influence Willow Glass’ future potential for impact.

“Collaborating with the students in this design project provided fresh perspectives on new and innovative applications for glass substrates and laminated structures,” Garner says. “Students gained insight on achievable flexible glass material properties and capabilities as well as trade-offs that need to be considered during system-level design.”

Introduced by Edward Bogucz, former executive director of SyracuseCoE (the Syracuse Center of Excellence), Park and Garner presented their research at a forum in early 2019 entitled, “Engineered by Corning, Designed by Syracuse Architecture: The Architectural Applications of Corning Willow Glass.” The presentation was part of the SyracuseCoE Research and Technology Forum, a monthly series that highlights research, collaborations and projects by faculty and industry partners. Park is a member of the SyracuseCoE Faculty Fellows Program and Corning is a long-time SyracuseCoE Industry Partner. The forum was moderated by Syracuse University’s Executive Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations Gary Girzadas, who assisted in initiating and working on the logistics of this partnership.

Park believes the project serves as an example of a good case study for other industry-academia endeavors. “By engaging with designers at the early stage of the research-and-development phase rather than after the technology is fully developed, it is possible to explore a wide range of potential applications and niche markets that can enrich the research objectives,” Park says. “Furthermore, the feedback from these exercises often leads to new ideas for the direction and goal of the technology. Although the perspectives and proposals from students can be less developed at times, the ideas are more creative and unexpected.”

Shaina M. Hill

This story was published on .

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