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The new glass on the block
By Kathleen Ostrander

Since glass block burst onto the architectural scene about three years ago, styles and uses have undergone a huge change.

Robert Nelch of Henry Nelch & Son Co. said glass block is now available in a reflective style as well as different patterns and colors. 

“The changes have made it as popular to use outside as inside,” he said, “it allows light through, but depending on what kind you are using, it gives you as much privacy as you want.”

There are some structural constraints. Glass blocks are not recommended for load-bearing areas. 

“You couldn’t do an entire building in glass block,” he said. Mortar or grout can be used to bond the blocks to each other, and silicone can be used in certain circumstances, he said.

Silicon creates a clear but flexible bond, which means it has only limited uses, warned Nelch. Several years ago the blocks came as, well, clear glass blocks or maybe frosted. 

“Now they come with patterns, and you can control the amount of light and privacy by the use of the patterns,” he said. 

For example, there’s one type that has a sort of internal bubble look — like different-sized oil droplets in water are in the block. Blocks with fluted lines diffuse light as well as images behind them to send light through but distort the image behind them.

A pattern called icescapes looks like the top of a pond covered with ice that someone has just cracked. Blocks with a wave pattern can be set either to look like circles or installed to look like waves of undulating water. There are finishing and end blocks so walls or edges can be curved or rounded.

And, of course, all of the patterns can be combined in any way, Nelch added.

Initially, architects used the glass blocks as decorative areas on the sides of front doors. 

They allowed light in but protected the privacy of the occupants. The use of blocks expanded to privacy windows for bathrooms with outside walls as well as elegant separations between the vanity and commode area.

Then the attractive decorative features of glass block boosted its appeal. Architects could vary traditional wall and window designs with the block. Glass blocks provide dramatic “eye appeal” to three-story foyers, and the angles of the block can be set inside a home so light at different times of the day can be diffused or explode in a spectacular light show as the sun goes down.

Glass blocks can be used in half or three-quarter walls to break up a space or create an area, such as a shower, that allows for privacy but also creates an air of space and elegance.

Windows along an outside wall can be done in designs that give an appearance of height and space where a blank wall once existed.

Homeowners who want to give a dramatic backdrop to a piece of sculpture can line a wall or area with glass block. Back lighting, with different types of bulbs, explained Nelch, can make an area of glass block glow like neon. For example, to optimally display a black sculpture, lighting a glass block backdrop with rose light could add additional depth and interest to the art piece.

Trendy club owners have taken advantage of the glass block and used it in bars that glow in luscious colors through the use of colored back lighting. Using lights that flash on and off add a strobe effect to the entire bar.

Nelch said glass block has “gone green,” and solar reflective blocks can be used to make a building more energy efficient. 

The blocks are also available in rose, amber or blue — so decorative and decorating possibilities are endless.



Henry Nelch & Son Co.


  • Address: 800 S. Ninth St.
  • Phone: 788-0300
  • Web site: www.nelch.com



Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )

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