Acrylic- and glass-block products are making a statement as shower enclosures and replacement windows in homes of all styles these days. Popular because they allow light to enter but maintain privacy, block products shine particularly brightly in shower applications. “Homeowners want walk-in, trackless, doorless showers because they require less maintenance,” explains Brian Wright, president of Seattle Glass Block, a design, installation, distribution, and product development firm in Seattle.
Wright prefers glass over acrylic block for such shower enclosures because of its durability, noting that acrylic installations don't look as clear as genuine glass and can even begin to yellow after a few years. Acrylic manufacturers dispute that point. “We're using the latest polymers that have built-in UV inhibitors that guard against yellowing and fading,” claims Erick Felsch, marketing and sales director for Builders Accessories, a glass- and acrylic-block manufacturer.
Block windows are homeowner favorites because they provide stylish looks but require little attention. “They have a very clean look and eliminate the need for window treatments,” says Bob De-Gusipe, marketing manager for Pittsburgh Corning glass block. Acrylic- and glass-block units come in a variety of clear and obscure finishes and patterns in standard and custom shapes and sizes.
Proponents of prefabricated acrylic block tout the sturdiness of the material in window applications and note that it has the same structural and thermal properties as traditional, dual-glazed windows. Prefabricated windows allow for quick installation due to their light weights. “Where a 4-by-4-foot glass window unit weighs 200 pounds, a 4-by-4-foot acrylic unit weighs 50 pounds,” he notes.
Glass manufacturers are keeping pace with acrylic by introducing lighter, 2-inch-thick windows. “It's still heavier than acrylic, but it's a very manageable weight,” says Kurt Hodson, general manager of Pacific Accent. Hy-Lite recently introduced a prefabricated line of six standard-sized glass-block window units to complement its existing acrylic selections.
Experts estimate that acrylic and glass blocks themselves are in the same price range and that the labor to install them is what sets them apart. DeGusipe says that a glass-block, walk-in shower might cost $3,500 and up installed, depending on where you live, yet a small, prefabricated glass-block window can be $150 to $200 in the Pittsburgh area. Meanwhile, Rossette claims prefabricated glass-block windows run the range from $200 to $1,800. And acrylic shower kits and prefabricated windows run anywhere from $4 to $15 per block at many big box retailers, pros claim.
With more and more emphasis on easy-to-install pieces, manufacturers and installers predict that prefabricated products will become predominant. Wright, for instance, is working with Pittsburgh Corning to develop a vinyl spacer system as well as design and estimating software for glass block. “Everything will be very Lego-oriented. Everything will easily snap together and nothing will assemble incorrectly,” he says. —Stephanie Herzfeld is associate editor of REMODELING 's sister publication BUILDING PRODUCTS . A version of this article originally appeared in that magazine.