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Last edited 24 Mar 2021
There is a noticeable trend towards larger rooflights, with sizes regularly exceeding 2500mm in width, height or both. While it is possible to accommodate these, it is important to appreciate the practicalities of weight, transportation and cost.
 Consequences of increasing size
As rooflight sizes get bigger, their weight increases exponentially. For example, a double glazed unit of 4mm thick glass weigh 20kgs per square metre and those using 6mm are 30kgs per square metre. Triple glazed units are 30kgs and 45kgs respectively. Add the stainless steel frames and hardwood liners into the equation and even a modest sized rooflight can weigh in excess of 200kg.
The reality is that when things are scaled up, even the simplest plans can start to become complex. Before architects draw that large rectangle on a roof plan, it is important to consider how the rooflight is going to be lifted from the ground to roof level and what the weight implications might be for the structure.
In some instances, a crane might be required, at which point, it may become necessary to establish whether or not the site has suitable access for any specialist lifting equipment (and has that requirement been accommodated in the budget).
The weight of an opening rooflight will also determine whether it is manually operated or requires electric actuation. Anything more than 1000mm wide or 1400mm high will generally require electric actuation to lift the weight, and in the case of wider casements, to provide a tight seal.
Manual operating casements are less expensive than electric, so there is a cost element that also needs to be considered when specifying larger opening rooflights. There is no maximum size in terms of what is possible to manufacture, although it is worth keeping in mind that a single piece of glass with an area over 5m2 becomes significantly more expensive.
There are alternatives to using large expensive single panes of glazing. It is possible to introduce glazing bars to reduce the unit sizes, use linking frames or have more than one casement. This not only makes the rooflights easier to transport, lift and install, but can also reduce the price.
If a large, single rooflight is the only option, it's also necessary to ensure safe installation is possible. While rooflight manufacturers will be able to provide advice on a suitable specification for the job in terms of materials, glazing thickness, functionality and installation, it is ultimately the responsibility of a structural engineer to ensure that the product being specified is fit (and safe) for the building that it is fitted into.
To avoid any ambiguity it is fairly essential that the architect, structural engineer and rooflight manufacturer discuss large rooflight installations, likely weights, load bearings, site access and lifting capacity at an early stage to avoid any problems down the line. It is not advisable to leave this for the builder to deal with at the last minute.
Another area for consideration should be the safety of large areas of glazing situated high up in a roof structure. Any rooflight should meet the BS 5516-2: 2004 patent glazing and sloping glazing for buildings standard.
This code of practice for sloping glazing defines that inner panes must always be laminated wherever rooflights are more than five metres above floor level (increased to 13 metres for panes less than three square metres) or are located over water (e.g. swimming pools). The standard permits the use of toughened inner panes in other applications (for example where rooflights are less than five metres from floor level), but only where a stringent risk assessment for the particular application has been completed and has concluded that the use of toughened glass does not give any additional risk to those below the rooflight.
No glass is impervious to breakage so it is important to remember that roof glazing can and often does sit high above common areas in a home or office, so there will always be an element of concern if a unit were to break.
Certain industry bodies are calling for all rooflight glazing to include a laminated inner pane to provide greater security in the event that the glass breaks. Much the same as how car windscreens are required by law to be laminated to protect passengers from shattered glass in the event of an accident. There can be no dispute that laminated glass is safer because it forms a net when broken, which remains in one piece, whereas toughened glass breaks into little cubes and will fall down onto whatever is below.
As laminated glass is more expensive, the industry perhaps sees this as a way of combatting the cohort of cheap flat rooflight products that have flooded the market with potentially dangerous products.
However, laminating rooflight glass creates its own unique set of problems, as annealed laminate is prone to thermal fracture and heat stress. This risk can be reduced by polishing edges, however the low-e coating is not practical for polished edges as there is a risk of damaging the coating. Swapping the low-e coating for a laminated glass with treated edges is likely to have a negative impact on the thermal performance of the unit.
The stress level at which the glass will break is governed by several factors. Toughened glass is very resilient and not prone to failing due to thermal stress. Laminated glass and annealed glass behave in a similar way, and the thicker the glass, the less tolerant it becomes, which is an important factor for larger rooflights.
The temperature difference for a location can be calculated and the risk of breakage due to thermal reasons reduced. However, to assess thermal risk, it is necessary to take the following factors into consideration:
- Type of glass being specified for the insulating glass units.
- Where the building is located.
- Orientation of the rooflight.
- Size of any glazing bars (if required).
- Details of any internal shading such as blinds or louvres.
- The framing material and powder coat colour.
- The window size and if it opens as this will change the angle to the sun.
- Whether any radiators are located directly below the rooflight.
- Any other details like other buildings or trees casting a shadow onto the glass.
Solar control glass either reflects energy or absorbs it to reradiate the heat outwards. By its nature, it gets hotter than clear glass and glass that is designed for thermal efficiency alone. Whilst the majority of installations are within the operating tolerance, in some cases, fluctuation in heat can put the stress beyond the limits.
Another issue experienced with laminated glass is a phenomenon called lensing, where images become distorted. This doesn’t necessarily cause such an issue with flat rooflight glazing where the view is a simple sky backdrop, but on pitched rooflights with a view of a landscape, this distortion may be a problem.
While there is a growing trend for projects to include more and larger rooflights, it is not as straightforward as just adding them to the plans. There is more to specifying large rooflights than meets the eye, and having a better understanding of what glazing is required and involving a qualified structural engineer in the early phases may help to resolve issues that could arise further down the line.
This article was written by Paul Trace, Stella Rooflight.
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