The House that Glass Built—Literally

The Emerald Art Glass House was created to cantilever above the glass shop below.

When a builder friend looked at Bob Zielinski’s plans to build a house, he told him, “No one can build this. Build it yourself.” And that’s just what he did. Together with his wife, Kim, the Zielinskis own Emerald Art Glass in Pittsburgh, and wanted to build a home that would showcase and highlight specialty glass products in as many ways as they could. It took about three years, but that’s just what they did. Working with Pittsburgh architect Eric Fisher, the resulting residence cantilevers over the Emerald Art Glass manufacturing facility, extending about three times farther than nearby Falling Water. And yes, yes, glass products are featured throughout.

This Pittsburgh home acts as a billboard for the work of the glass business below.

While the Zielinskis had known for some time they wanted to build a unique home—and knew there would be challenges along the way—their first obstacle to overcome was site selection.

“We were looking to build a house but could not find property we liked,” says Bob Zielinski. “We had additional land in the back of our building and that’s how the idea got started.”

Next came finding an architect, and that, too, was a challenge. Zielinski says they talked to five architects in search of one creative enough to design their home.

“We looked at structures in the Pittsburgh area we liked and photographed them, and [that’s how the] idea [was] born,” says Zielinski.

Eric Fisher’s design was to create a house that would cantilever over the factory and display glass predominately throughout.

“We do specialty glass work so we wanted the opportunity to use our skills to incorporate glass into our home,” says Zielinski.

The home's massive glass walls provide incredible views of the city.

Speaking of his design, Fisher says, “Ideas travel from one project to another, and each project is the result of exploring ideas. The cantilever came out of the idea to align the edge of the house with the factory below.”

He continues, “The homeowners wanted to showcase glass throughout the house. This is done most predominantly with the butt-glazed, radiant glass at the end featuring the Green Heat radiant glass technology from Dlubak. It’s about 34 feet of continuous glazing that assists in hearing the interior.”

Fisher says that glass wall also acts as a billboard for the glass company below.

“This gabled roof above the factory is a celebration of glass, speaking to its use below,” says Fisher. “So the idea was to be able to ‘talk’ about the factory below through the façade, which is visible from about 15 miles away.”

Glass was used on the stair landings throughout the home.

Glass can also be found in railings, on the stair landings, kitchen counters, wall claddings, illuminated flooring, a variety of window shapes and sizes and more.

The largest piece of glass, according to Zielinski, is in the front window which is 1-inch laminated glass that’s 9 sections totaling about 54 x 144 feet.

“That accounts for the phenomenal view,” he says, adding that they do not have one sole glass supplier. “We buy our flat glass from a variety of suppliers, as no one company stocks everything.”

Zielinski and his own team handled the fabrication, which includes tempering, laminating and everything in between for their installation.

“We are a glass company here in Pittsburgh where there are a lot of creative people. Anyone can do practical; our goal is to create practical art in glass,” says Zielinski.

“This is the most glass I’ve ever used on a project,” says Fisher. “Ideas follow the project and this was a great opportunity. I believe a building should explore a set of ideas and this one is an exploration of the use of glass.”

But a project like this was not without challenges. According to Fisher, though, the structural diagram and holding the house up was not the tough part.

“The challenge was creating a space that would have monumental qualities while also being intimate and livable on the inside,” he says. “That took a lot of time to bring to scale and be comfortable.”

Zielinski adds that while he wanted to use glass every place he could, he knew there were also limits to keep in mind.

“We used glass everywhere we could think of—but you have to use it tastefully; it’s a balancing act to get the best glass showcase, but if that’s all there is it becomes very cold.”

Completed in 2011, the home received an AIA honor award, and stands as a great accomplishment for both Fisher and the Zielinskis.

“It was a huge risk to present my solution to the clients,” says Fisher. “I learned you really have to listen carefully to what the client wants and interpret it so that they like it. I learned it’s OK to take risks; if I had not taken a risk I could have been fired from the job or something could have gone wrong with the project. This was a great opportunity to learn these lessons.”

His house may seem extreme, but Zielinski says, in fact, he and his wife are not. “We are average people with great imaginations and capabilities and feel fortunate that glass is our medium.”

Images provided by Eric Fisher/Fisher Architects.