Lisa Schon remembers holding the bird in a piece of cloth. Its tiny eyes turned to stare at her, bewildered. “I could feel its heart beating like mad,” says Schon. “The bird was terrified, and at the same time I was scared I might crush it.”
Little did the captive know that it was on the last step of a test for this year’s new, triple-pane model of Ornilux, a bird-friendly architectural glass, and would soon be released. Now that the bird had been weighed, sexed, and banded, a technician released Lisa’s bird into a tunnel where a pane of control e-glass awaited it alongside the Ornilux. Gaining speed, the bird suddenly braked when approaching the Ornilux, though, to the human eye, the Ornilux looked the same as the control. And then, “It got to go free. It was a pretty magical experience,” says Schon, who has been working as Ornilux’s representative in North America for the past six years.
And over those six years, architects all over the world have become increasingly aware of the problem posed by the glass forests our cities have become: birds collide with buildings at alarming rates, and up to a billion die every year in the U.S. alone, per the Bird Collisions Program of the American Bird Conservancy. Solutions include silk-screening, tilting, filming, etching, and the ceramic fritting so beautifully realized in Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower in Chicago.
These strategies have merit. What sets Ornilux apart is that it uses a UV coating undetectable by humans but visible to birds, which means you don’t have to have unwanted patterns showing up in your glass facades. For Dr. Christine Sheppard, a well-known activist ornithologist who heads up the American Bird Conservancy’s collisions program, Ornilux represented the Holy Grail. After knocking on glass manufacturer’s doors for years, here, finally was the clear—as in transparent—answer.
Ornilux is a niche product of Arnold Glas, a manufacturer of insulated glass products based in Remshalden, Germany, with 1,000 employees in various plants. In 1999 its motto, Dinge anders tun—doing things differently—became something of an understatement. At that time, Dr. Alfred Meyerhuber, a lawyer and amateur naturalist, was reading an article on orb weaver spiders. These spiders work hard spinning their webs. The last thing they want are birds crashing into it and messing up their means of making a living. So, they have learned to produce UV reflective strands of silk which warn birds off their collision course.
Why couldn’t this biological trait be mimicked to prevent birds from crashing into glass windows? Thought Meyerhuber, who happened to be a good friend of Hans-Joachim Arnold, the owner of Arnold Glas. “As glass manufacturers, we have been part of the problem; now we need to be part of the solution,” he told his friend. He then turned Meyerhuber’s idea over to Christian Irmscher, Arnold’s Head of Research and Development.
A case study by the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute described how Irmscher had to use the orb spider’s UV solution more as an inspiration than as a technique to be exactly duplicated. Patterns, rather than solids, of UV coating, tended to intensify the contrast in the glazing; sandwiching it between two layers of glass enhanced the reflective qualities of the glass even more. One can watch Irmscher in this short video of flamingoes and polar bears invisibly separated by the glass bird-friendly partitions he helped bring to market.
In 2006, the year Lisa Schon joined the company, Arnold Glas introduced Ornilux SB1 to the commercial market. It still had a few barely perceptible vertical lines. Three years later, the firm came out with Ornilux Mikado, its patented crisscross pattern named after a German game of pick-up sticks. Nearly invisible to the human eye, Mikado costs out like other bird-friendly glass at roughly two and a half times regular e-glass.Though Arnold has retired from his position as Chairman, “Ornilux is still his baby,” says Schon. “He’s always developing and testing new models.”
Dinge anders tun.
For examples of Mikado’s crisscrossing biomimicry in action, check out the FX Fowle Architects’ LEED-Gold Center for Global Conservation, and Ennead Architects’ Bridge for Laboratory Sciences at Vassar, as described in Architectural Record. As for other projects requiring minimal, pattern-free, bird-friendly glass, there’s now a clear choice.