While structural glass walls are being increasingly used in contemporary commercial construction, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the use of structural glass to add impact, scale and light to a building, was only pioneered in the 1990s. Even today, the design and engineering process remains incredibly complex and specialised, with only a handful of experts around the world able to confidently implement large-scale structural glass facades.
Fairlite Glass Walls’ Owner and Director, Gareth Winstanley, happens to be one of them. A prominent expert in his field, Gareth is frequently called upon to provide his specialist consulting expertise for glass wall constructions. Here, he shares some insights about the evolution of his career, why structural glass design is still so incredibly niche, and what motivates him to do what he does.
When did your interest in structural glass begin?
It really wasn’t until the early 1990s that structural engineers started thinking about glass as a structural component. Two renowned façade engineers, Peter Rice and Hugh Dutton, were the true pioneers. I had just finished university around this time, and was working as a site engineer, focused on façade development and the creation of external envelopes. I was completely fascinated by the way glass could transform and elevate a building, and how this seemingly delicate material could be used so effectively in a structural sense. I decided to hone-in on glass wall construction, and after a raft of successful and high-end projects, became highly regarded in the industry for my expertise.
You then moved into construction. How did this come about?
I decided to move into manufacturing and construction and founded Fairlite Glass Walls. When you’re a designer, you rely on manufacturers to tell you what you can and can’t do. When you’re in construction, you have ultimate responsibility. Manufacturing glass walls, with no steel or aluminium components, is still a very specialist sector. As a result, we’ve been called upon to provide solutions for some of the world’s most impressive and renowned constructions.
What is your proudest achievement?
In terms of commercial delivery, the hardest and most complicated project I have worked on was one that I completed collaboratively with Hugh Dutton: a shopping centre at 268 Orchard Road in Singapore.
This project required over a year’s worth of full-time engineering. It involved creating an enormous glass exterior, with an internal structural “tree” made of polished stainless steel rods – each of which was unique. The design and production of this “tree” was one of the most complex in my career, and took us from Australia to Singapore, Italy, China, and then back to Singapore. It was in equal measure an engineering and design feat!
Your education or experience – which has been more valuable?
Experience, by far. I always say that completing a degree is like taking a driving test. The process simply teaches you how to pass your driving test, but not how to drive. When I came out of university, I had a good theoretical understanding of engineering, but no practical or real-world experience. There was so much I needed to still learn about things like thermal transfer, acoustic performance – just to name a few. Also, when I started out in glass construction, there were no rules. We really had to formulate things as we went along.
Who is your biggest professional inspiration?
The most inspirational person in my career would, without a doubt, be Peter Rice. Sadly he passed away in 1992, but he was very much a pioneer in our sector. He had a unique way of thinking, and even wrote a piece of landmark engineering software in the 1970s. Today, I get a lot of inspiration from a fellow engineer, Hugh Dutton. He is amazing to work with.
What makes Fairlite Glass Walls unique?
Our core differentiator is our expertise and experience. We also do everything in-house. We know how to buy the right glass, handle it, engineer it and install it. Often, we find ourselves up against businesses that outsource various components – whereas we do it all under the one roof which has enormous benefits in terms of consistency and cohesion. I think it’s fair to say that our team is known as the team to go to when it comes to structural glass. On a personal level, I’m often called upon to write papers and provide lectures to engineering students at Sydney University, as well as to speak at engineering and design events around the world.
How has the industry changed since you started?
Façade engineering has certainly grown in popularity and also in scope. Innovations in engineering mean there’s a great deal that you can do now. However the biggest difference I’ve seen is that there are now a lot of people who claim to be experts but who lack genuine areas of specialty. When you’re building a large-scale glass wall construction, it’s wise to choose.
What do you love about your job?
One of the reasons I love what I do is that there is no rule book. Winston Churchill once said something along the lines of rules being for the consideration of the intelligent, to be followed by fools. When it comes to structural glass, we have made the rules as we have gone along. I now know with absolute certainty what is going to work, and what won’t, based on my experience and specialist knowledge. The ability to problem-solve for clients is really what motivates me. I enjoy the challenge. I also enjoy working with talented architects – who understand engineering limitations and want to work together in a collaborative sense to find solutions. At the end of the day, I think everyone who works here at Fairlite Glass Walls loves what we do, and it shows in the quality of work we produce.
Interview courtesy of Fairlite Glass Walls