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W Hotel set to install new, stronger glass panels

Final repairs will soon begin on balconies at the W Austin Hotel and Residences, with workers set to install about 1,000 panes of specially engineered glass that can withstand hurricane-force winds and even bomb blasts, according to its manufacturer.

Glass panels were removed from balconies on the 37-story, $300 million building in mid-2011 after eight panels shattered on three separate occasions in June, raining glass into the hotel´s pool area and onto adjacent streets.

The W Hotel, which opened in December 2010, shut its doors for nine days while the panels were taken down, with guests being relocated to other hotels across the city.

Sheets of wood have been in place since, as engineers worked to determine what caused the tempered glass — which is found on countless other buildings across the city and around the globe — to break. The cause still hasn´t been determined with 100 percent certainty.

"We may never know the reason," said Beau Armstrong, CEO of Stratus Properties, the building´s developer. "We had a whole team come in and examine the glass. There was no rush. We´d already taken the punch.

"Our foremost objective is — and always will be — safety. We determined tempered glass over occupied areas was a bad idea."

SentryGlas, a product from DuPont, was determined to be the right choice, Armstrong told the American-Statesman. Installation should be complete in May, he said, with workers making repairs to occupied condos first, then vacant units. The contractors, not Stratus, will pick up the tab for the $2.5 million project, Armstrong said. About $500,000 has already been spent removing the original glass, as well as providing security guards and protective walkways while that work was under way.

"The railing system — and each component of the railing — have been engineered and subjected to rigorous evaluation, including a state-of-the-art ... analysis simulating real-world, worst-case performance conditions," said Rodney Harvey, vice president of production, forensic and field services with Curtainwall Design Consultants, which assisted with the investigation into why the panels fell.

Like laminated safety glass, SentryGlas has an interlayer that holds together shattered panes, according to Harvey. But, he said, its interlayer is much, much tougher than typical laminated glass — 100 times stiffer and five times stronger.

"We believe this railing is well-suited to the building," Harvey said.

The glass will also be mounted differently than before, Armstrong said. Instead of brackets on the sides, the glass will now be inset with stainless steel mounts at the top and bottom of each panel.

Glass wasn´t the only option on the table, Armstrong said. For a time, it looked like Stratus would go a different direction.

"I was so snakebit by the glass," he said. "We also looked at maybe using metal panels."

Those metal panels, however, would have obscured views for owners of the 159 posh condos in the high-profile downtown Austin building.

Stratus has asked condo owners not to use their balconies until a permanent solution is in place.

"Our residents have been so patient," he said. "It´s so great to have a solution that will work for everyone. I´m glad we were able to deliver the aesthetic they want."

And more residents are on the way, Armstrong said, with Stratus closing on $90 million in condo sales during 2011. A deal to acquire the building´s penthouse closed within days of one of the falling glass incidents.

"I find Austin tends to be a pretty forgiving place," he said.

January 23rd, 2012
Source: DuPont de Nemours International S.A./

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