Humans have been using glass in various capacities for the last 4,000 years – as functional vessels, as art, and as building materials. More recently, within the past four decades to be exact, Norman Foxworth, founder of Louisiana’s own Dependable Glass Works, has expertly cornered the international glass manufacturing market through his calculated investments in modern technology, innovative equipment, and sound expertise. In this relatively short amount of time, Foxworth grew his company from a standard glazing operation into an all-encompassing production facility whose daily roster will likely include projects from the most celebrated architectural minds of our day as they execute the most influential building projects of our time.
Walking into the impressive, yet understated showroom of Dependable Glass Works in the heart of downtown Covington, one can hardly comprehend the scope or scale of the projects being fabricated just steps away from the serene front desk area, a contemporary curved glass fixture assembled using surplus panels from the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Product displays of textured, laminated, antiqued, and cast glass line the perimeter of the room. Above a wall of windows overlooking the passing pedestrian traffic, a collage of completed projects from their reputable 40-year history illustrates the artistry, the ingenuity, and the uninhibited possibilities of architectural and residential glass.
My brief Wednesday afternoon excursion through the two expansive production areas just beyond the showroom walls felt more like an exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime tour of a highly secretive locale rather than a leisurely jaunt through an open-air warehouse in south Louisiana. My guide, Will Watts, a veteran glass connoisseur and a Dependable Glass employee for over 23 years, explained what was occurring as his men executed a range of industry specific tasks from beveling edges to laminating and insulating panels to cutting precise shapes using a high powered water jet cutting machine. “This machine cost half a million dollars, but it can easily cut through steel, armor, and I’ve even seen it cut through a 13-inch thick piece of solid glass,” remarks Watts as we approach.
Further along the way, I spot a line of ghost glass panels being prepared for the new $504 million renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “We manufacture a lot of glass for museums, galleries, and high-end showrooms that want anti-reflective windows or enclosures to display their products. It’s called Pilkington OptiView™ Anti-Reflective Glass,” notes Watts. He constructs an analogy to explain. “You’ve just traveled 1,000 miles to see the Declaration of Independence.
When you finally get a chance to look down at this monumentally historic artifact, you want to see it and not the guy standing next to you reflected back in the glass, right? Same thing applies to a luxury car dealership, for example. When you drive past the glass showroom, they want you to see their shiny new cars rather than a reflection of your old jalopy cruising past. Or let’s say you just built a vacation home with a wall of windows overlooking a majestic lake. When night falls, your view should be the twinkling stars overhead rather than a reflection of the living room lamps inside,” Watts points out.
Anti-reflective glass also works by blocking 99% of UV transmittance to protect the interiors and contents, and it offers the same security features and acoustic control of laminated glass. Pilkington also produces a line of self-cleaning glass called Activ™. This product is ideal for exterior windows or glass canopies that are largely inaccessible or impossible to clean. “We installed these on the Superdome where they had windows that were covered by metal grates,” Watts explains.
Using a dual-action coating system, the sun’s UV rays are harnessed by the first layer to break down organic matter (such as dirt or bird droppings), and when it rains, the second layer has a hydrophilic property that causes the water and dirt to sheet down without leaving unsightly streaks. Dependable Glass maintains an inventory of all types of glass products including Pilkington’s OptiView™ Anti-Reflective and Activ™ glass. “It’s a bird killer,” laughs Watts as we move on to our next stop.
Passing another workstation, we see a finished window that was created for a vacation home in Aspen, Colorado. “This window is avalanche proof,” notes Watts. “It is designed to withstand a wall of snow catapulting down the side of a mountain and slamming full force into the home. We use Safety PlusÆ II Hurricane/Impact Resistant Glass,” he explains. This glass is Metro-Dade approved and has passed several tests including the Large Missile, Small Missile, and Cyclic Wind tests. “Imagine an 8-foot long 2’ X 4’ being shot out of a cannon by wind traveling at 200 miles per hour. That’s the Large Missile test, and it was designed to simulate a tree branch being slammed into a window during a hurricane.
I’ve seen huge guys try to break this glass with a sledge hammer, and it won’t budge,” remarks Watts. “Now that is not to say that this window may not break during a fierce hurricane, but in the rare occasion that it does, it will stay intact and prevent water and debris from destroying the rest of the interior.” Even with this highly specialized product available in the next town over, most of the downtown New Orleans skyline was replaced with a lesser quality window. If another storm strikes in the future, the property damages sustained as a result of blown out windows will most likely be equal to or greater than that of Katrina depending upon the current level of inflation and the escalation in the cost of materials and labor. “Replacing a window, even an expensive one, is still cheaper than replacing the window and everything that was destroyed inside,” Watts reasons.
As my tour continues, I witness a prototype glass wall designed as a trophy display area for one of golf’s most iconic figures to date. Thick layers of laminated glass slabs were stacked from floor to ceiling creating an undulating, rhythmic texture similar to the cross section of an ancient canyon wall. Ever so often and at varying heights, a protrusion of glass organically extends outward to create a shelf. The entire wall is backlit to capitalize on the translucent nature of this time-honored material and to enhance the glowing jewel-tone color effect. “We use laminated glass in a variety of colors and patterns to create one-of-a-kind effects for all sorts of projects. In fact, we developed something called infinity glass for The Champagne Bar in Chicago.
Infinity glass gives the illusion of depth, and in this particular instance we were hired to craft a bar top that appeared to have champagne bubbles inside of it,” Watts recalls. “There are so many things you can do with glass that architects and designers may not be aware of yet. But once they visit us and begin to understand the infinite possibilities, they start incorporating these things into their designs. Cultivating a better understanding of what can be achieved through glass is a tool that inevitably makes you a better architect or designer,” says Watts. “My main responsibility here is to help find a solution to a problem or to fulfill a design desire. And we do it all the time with stunning results,” he concludes.
After inspecting a section of glass layered with dichroic film and destined for the outdoor trellis of the Comcast Headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Watts continues to show me samples of architectural glass layered with Chinese chicken wire, tree bark, photographically imprinted film in the form of a DNA double helix, and finally, a thick glass countertop with what seems like tons of colorful marbles magically suspended inside. “One square-foot of glass can hold 588 marbles,” he notes. This sort of whimsical creation was used in the design of the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, while a thicker carved column on display alongside the marble infused glass was incorporated into the remodel of the New Orleans Superdome. Each column took eight hours to cut. “Almost every phone call I get starts out the same way,” says Watts when asked to describe the best part of his job. “A customer will call and say ‘this is going to sound crazy,’ or they’ll say ‘I’ve been told this cannot be done.’ When I hear either of those introductions, I know they are swimming in our pond now,” he says smiling.