Trex Commercial Products
colorado state health medical center

A Clearer Vision

Oct. 12, 2021
Glass railings in a building can play a role in enhancing daylighting.

There’s no denying that daylighting – the harvesting and distribution of natural light – continues to be a key design element for commercial buildings, especially educational facilities. Because of the many health, energy and environmental benefits that daylighting strategies offer, designers and engineers are looking for new ways to let the light in.

Research clearly supports this trend; daylighting has been directly linked to improved mood, enhanced morale, less fatigue and reduced eyestrain – factors that can and will lead to increased job satisfaction and productivity. In schools, effectively designed classroom daylighting strategies have been shown in studies to boost performance in math and reading, and improve students' overall health.

Equally important to budget-strapped schools are the cost savings that daylighting offers; according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy, total energy costs can be reduced by as much as one-third through the strategic use of daylighting technologies.

And finally, reducing the consumption of electrical energy also reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the environment. In fact, daylighting has become so important to the building industry in regard to the environment that it is considered a critical performance measure in green building certification programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Spreading sustainability

Although windows and skylights remain the first and most obvious daylighting choices for buildings, other architectural elements can enhance the impact of daylighting and contribute considerable benefits. One such option is glass railing. When used on stairways, overlooks and walkways, glass railing can play a key role in facilitating light infiltration into a building's interior spaces.  As part of an overall integrated design, or a retrofit, glass railing can go a long way toward opening up a space and enhancing the ambience and safety of a building environment.

The David A. Tepper Quadrangle at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., which opened in 2018, is an example of a building intentionally designed to harness the power of daylighting. At 315,000 square feet, it is the largest building on campus and reflects a new model of higher education that connects teaching, learning and innovation. Open from floor to ceiling, the building has 82,000 square feet of exterior glass, and 85% of the facility has access to natural light. The space was designed to offer an environment for collaboration and interconnection, and daylighting helps make that possible.

Enhancing that daylighting is the building’s glass railing system and a glass roof. The design emphasizes open space and provides an abundance of natural light that improves the well-being and decreases the stress levels of the students and faculty.

The Tepper Quad design and construction received LEED Gold certification.

Factors to consider

Schools and universities should consider several factors when looking to include glass railings as part of a building’s daylighting system.

  • Make sure the glass railings are integrated within the overall design of a building. Include them in all plans from the start. Particularly when glass railings are being considered, architects and glaziers should identify manufacturers at the beginning of design planning to best understand what’s possible and what’s required for an optimal outcome.
  • Assess available light sources. Some studies show that too much light, and direct light that creates a glare can be counterproductive and become distracting or irritating to building occupants. Reflecting or diffusing daylight to minimize glare enables light from the to illuminate a space without distracting students.
  • Choose the right type of glass to fit the needs and design of a building. Glass is offered in a variety of options, ranging from clear tempered and laminated to low-iron, fritted, PVB or SGP interlayer, as well as colored or patterned interlayer, to name a few. There is even glass that can adjust from clear to frosted for added control and privacy. 
  • Fabricate off site for efficiency on site. Pre-engineered systems enable glaziers and contractors to work faster and accomplish more at the job site. Engineered systems also tend to see fewer change orders and callbacks, which can add considerable costs to a project. 
  • Determine whether potential glass suppliers for a project are up to date with newer technologies such as 3-D scanning. Although it has been around for years, the building and architectural metal industries are just now tapping into its potential. This technology offers a faster project turnaround, improved safety and cost savings.

Features such as all-glass facades, exterior glass windscreens and glass architectural railings have been shown to enhance the daylighting benefits to students, teachers and others who spend significant time in an educational facility.  Beyond academic improvements and cost savings, well-designed daylighting may bring about health improvementsreduce depression, enhance the quality of sleep, and decrease the frequency of sick days.

In education facilities where stairways can inhibit the distribution of daylight in the building, glass stair railways can help schools and universities extend the effectiveness of their daylighting strategies.

Laura Rygielski Preston is president of Trex Commercial Products, a national leader in architectural railings for commercial applications. Based in Minneapolis, Trex Commercial Products, Inc. is a subsidiary of Trex Company, Inc. To learn more, visit


Stunning Stairway

At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the $59 million, 113,000-square-foot Health and Medical Center has consolidated the university’s medical programs into one building. One of the signature features of the facility is a circular staircase at the center of the building, lined with a stainless steel and glass railing, that reaches all four floors of the building. The staircase spirals up four levels toward a skylight that is a portal for plentiful amounts of daylight streaming into the building interior.

The glass railings help enhance the effects of daylighting by letting the rays penetrate deeper into the facility.

3-D laser scanning technology was used to create a multilevel curved stainless steel and glass railing that amounted to 720 linear feet. Hundreds of glass balls hang from the top of the building to provide a feeling of calm.

The university says the staircase design was intended to create an open feeling that invites patients and visitors to use the stairs and creates a visual connection between the services offered in the center.

The building has received LEED Silver certification for its environmentally friendly design and construction.

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