Every few years, architects and designers revisit what consumers want in interior spaces: open floor plans with minimal walls or more defined rooms with doors to shut out traffic and noise? Translucent wall panels offer a solution that fits between these two extremes. These panels, made of resin and other plastics, provide sturdy, substantive definition without blocking light. Manufacturers embed the panels with a variety of materials, including organic reeds, grasses, bamboo rings, and flowers, as well as fabric, paper, and metal, to meet any style.

“There are so many varieties, it’s just ridiculous,” says David Borgerding, a New Orleans sculptor who also runs Borgerding Metal Works and fabricates and frames translucent panels for architect and designer clients. “You look through the catalog and you just drool.”

Recycled Content

Panels typically come in 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets, with some manufacturers offering larger sizes, and thicknesses range from 1/8 inch to 1 inch. Weights range from about 24 pounds per sheet to more than 300 pounds. Manufacturers claim that translucent panels are stronger than glass and are much lighter.

But there is a major shortcoming to many translucent panels. “The downside is it’s expensive,” Borgerding says of the panels that can cost from $600 to $1,000 and up. “If you can get past that, it’s fantastic.” Most companies offer an extensive inventory of cast-off smaller pieces at a reduced cost.

In Santa Monica, Calif., architect Kyle Moss of Levitt + Moss Architects used 3-Form panels as a stairway balustrade in a major remodel of his own home, which recently earned a LEED Platinum rating. Lumicor, 3-Form and other resin-based panel manufacturers use enough post-industrial recycled materials in their product to qualify for LEED points. Some projects earn extra LEED points for innovative design when using translucent panels.

For Moss, the panels’ main virtues are code-satisfying safety to the stairwell (codes differ around the country) with light flow and interest. And he had another mandate: “My wife saw them and she was dying to have them in the house.”

Work It

Translucent panels can be cut and they drill easily with normal woodworking tools, says Borgerding, without the gumming problems he’s experienced with other plastic products. To prevent scratches, he maintains the protective covering on each side until he completes fabrication. He likes the product better than plywood because it doesn’t warp and twist in the humidity of the South. Edging is necessary for thinner panels, and the edges must be sealed when organic materials are sandwiched in panels to prevent moisture wicking.

Borgerding fabricated several projects for New Orleans architect Wayne Troyer, of Wayne Troyer Architects, including a white bubble 3-Form panel in a stainless steel frame for an office bathroom door, and a green Panelite product in an aluminum frame for a sliding bedroom door. Both of Troyer’s specified products provide light flow with privacy.

Some panel manufacturers offer graded translucency levels. For instance, when Lumicor resin panels are used for countertops, the maker can add an opaque layer during manufacturing so the cabinet tops and hardware remain unseen. When specifying the products as inserts in panel doors, designers can choose levels of opacity to hide cabinet contents.

For fabrication, a variety of craftspeople can do the job, from carpenters to glazers and welders (for the frames). Resin panels can be bent, but that is typically done at the manufacturing plant. Designers and architects who specify this product can give their fabricators something more exciting than the same old same old. “Whenever Wayne calls,” Borgerding says, “it’s fun.”

—Kathy Price-Robinson, a longtime remodeling writer and videographer, maintains Kathy’s Remodeling Blog, www.kathysremodelingblog.com.