Ann Arbor, Mich.–based Ply Architecture has researched a peculiar 18th-century weather-predicting instrument to create an architectural glazing system that is both functional and decorative. The instrument, called a storm glass, was used by Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s famous voyage. A sort of crystalline barometer, the storm glass is a sealed glass cylinder containing a mixture of distilled water and chemicals that predicts weather based on crystalline shapes and patterns that form in reaction to weather conditions.

The architects’ system, called Stormglass, substitutes conventional architectural flat-glass interior partitions with those formed by lashing storm-glass tubes together (since the network of tubes is not weather-tight, most research is being directed toward the building interior). Current flat-glass technology concentrates primarily on creating thermal efficiency while retaining as much transparency as possible to allow views. Stormglass responds to the natural environment not through transparency, but by encouraging varying levels of opacity in the tubes.

With any number of possible tube configurations, the system can create physical space in a room; the glass tubes can also reflect artificial interior light and filter daylight into a room, helping to modulate light levels. Juror Sylvia Smith was intrigued: “The tubes can create space, and then take advantage of … [outside] weather conditions in the building.”

The jurors appreciated how well the architects extrapolated the study of a single element, the storm-glass tube, to create an overall building system. Ply Architecture created digital models in Catia that allowed quick visualizations of the possibilities of different tube configurations. Ultimately, it was the exhaustive research process itself that most captivated the jury: It’s not every day that an 18th-century nautical weather device is submitted to the rigors of repeated parametric modeling.

Project Credits

Project Stormglass
Research and Development Support University of Michigan A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning Research Through Making Grant and Office of the Vice President for Research Faculty Grant and Awards Program
Architect Ply Architecture, Ann Arbor, Mich.—Craig Borum, AIA, (principal-in charge); Chris Bennett, Sara Dean, Ross Hoekstra, Jessica Mattson, Natasha Mauskapf, Jason Prasad, Wiltrud Simbuerger, Assoc. AIA, Julie Simpson, Alex Timmer, Lizzie Yarina
Orchid House and Storm Glass House
Kathy Bernreuter and Michael Downing