Under the Glass
Ahead with a Curve – Coastal Curved Glass, Vancouver, B.C.
By Alex Mackenzie
Coastal Curved Glass leverages unique skills to provide the ultimate in custom bent glass.
By Alex Mackenzie
The process for bending glass, on its surface, seems like a fairly simple one: heat it up and bend it into shape while it’s malleable. But the skills required to bend glass to exact specifications while also retaining the highest level of optical quality take decades to master. That’s where Coastal Curved Glass comes in.
A relatively small company with only 12 employees, what Coastal Curved Glass lacks in size it more than makes up for in the quality of its products and the uniqueness of its offerings. The company started out in the early ‘80’s manufacturing wood windows and double-glazed insulated units, but switched to the bent glass industry in 1992 when the company moved from Saskatoon, Sask., to Vancouver, B.C.
The company’s current owner, Pat Healy, took over in 2012 from his father who founded Coastal Curved Glass under the original company name, Healy Windows, later Seabird Bent Glass. With the new ownership came a new era of growth and prosperity for the company, providing curved glass for massive names like Facebook, Google and Tiffany’s.
Decades of knowledge
Coastal Curved Glass operates out of a single 20,000-square-foot fabrication facility in Vancouver, serving mostly the United States and Canada. The company is currently running at full capacity, and it’s not hard to see why. According to Healy, “In Canada we have the largest offering of different types of glass and different types of shapes. It’s very rare that someone calls us and we can’t achieve their particular request.” The ability to deliver on unique designs at the optimum quality is one of the main components of Coastal Curved Glass’ success.
Another of these components is the company’s diversity of offerings. As Healy states, “We do everything from marine glass to retail storefronts, new commercial buildings, insulated units for exterior, staircases and really everything in between. We try to tackle a bunch of different markets, which serves us well because of the ebb and flow of business and the economy. Having so many different areas to focus on, we seem to be lucky in the fact that housing can slow down but the marine sector still goes or vice versa. So, our percentage of what we’re doing is always changing and we’re always rolling with it. It’s served us well so far.” The types of glass and the markets that Coastal Curved Glass serves means its employees need a masterful level of knowledge and experience, which they have. “With our annealed glass, it’s a significant niche,” Healy explains. “It takes decades and decades of experience to get the right optimum quality and the right type of moulds and techniques to get a good optical quality on a piece with complicated geometry, and we’ve really put in the decades of time learning that. So now that that’s fairly straightforward for us, we find our ability to create interesting shapes with high quality is our number one market right now.”
Achieving such a wide array of offerings and unique and interesting designs at the highest optical quality requires special techniques to ensure that every piece Coastal Curved Glass puts out is structurally strong. Healy notes, “We have a variety of different ways of strengthening glass, from tempered glass to chemically strengthened glass, laminated, etc. In our annealed and laminated glass, we can achieve a huge variety of interesting shapes: anything from three-dimensional automotive type glass to glass with straights and curves and all kinds of interesting geometries that are typically not possible on your average tempering furnace.”
Alongside Coastal Curved Glass’ ability to produce mind-bending luxury glass products, it also offers a level of customer service that clients need when working on ground-breaking projects. As Healy states, “Our relative success in the United States seems to come from our Canadian approach to helpfulness and willingness to go the extra mile with our customers and helping the project get from an idea on a piece of paper to actually completed. We’ll really sit down with companies and we’ll figure all the little details out. We’ll help them find all the other subtrades and the different things that they may need and we spend a lot of time doing that.”
But even with all the experience and technology that Coastal Curved Glass employs to achieve the unique designs it is known for, there are still times when architects and designers ask for something that just can’t be done. When that happens, Coastal Curved Glass works with its clients to not only come up with a solution, but also to make sure that the client is aware of the potential pitfalls and problems that could arise from a given design.
Bending to COVID demands
The hardships resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt across nearly, if not every, industry in Canada and around the globe. For Coastal Curved Glass, the initial shock of shutdown seemed like a nail in a coffin. Healy explains, “When the shutdowns first happened with COVID, we thought we were in a lot of trouble. We had to lay off almost all of our employees. All projects that we had upcoming were cancelled or postponed. The phones stopped ringing. The emails stopped coming. Everything dried up very abruptly and it was quite scary.” Surviving through this time has been a challenge for many, but one thing that worked to Coastal Curved Glass’ advantage was its small size and loyal staff of irreplaceably skilled fabricators. Healy notes, “Our employees have been with us, all of them, for a very long time and we’re just super fortunate to have such a loyal staff that we laid off mostly everyone and within two months after the shutdown we were back to full employment, back to full production, and we’re just so thankful our employees all hung on with us and stuck with us and all came back.”
The other side of the labour issue with regards to COVID is the shortage of new, skilled labourers. Healy states, “We’ve been struggling, just like everyone else, with labour shortages, which is very difficult. Like I said, we have a very loyal staff who have all been with us for decades and so we’re doing okay with that, but it’s definitely difficult to find new people.” This downtrend in appropriately trained and sufficiently skilled new hires has led Coastal Curved Glass to re-evaluate the roles of people and technology in its business. As Healy explains, “One thing that really alerted us with the whole coronavirus pandemic is that people are so important to our business, but at the same time we really need to automate it more and we need to make sure that we have enough automated equipment that if we did have more of the same types of slowdowns and stoppages and sicknesses that we have more CNC equipment to do more duties. We’re not looking to replace anyone, but we’d really like to come into the future.” This push towards the future for Coastal Curved Glass includes an expansion of their current facility and a significant investment in new technology such as CNC machines, 3D printers and, their most recent purchase, a 3D laser scanner to retrieve extremely precise measurements of large-scale structures that can then be turned into 3D CAD drawings.
While technology and automation upgrades are becoming not only more common but in fact a dire necessity for many, the issue of supply still poses an issue whether the work is being done by humans or machines. For Coastal Curved Glass, material shortages haven’t caused too much of a disruption. As Healy notes, “We’ve been very lucky with our suppliers that we’ve yet to have any jobs cancelled or not being able to fulfill because of material shortages. I know there is a big shortage in the industry, but, so far, we’ve navigated it without any disruptions.” Though the company has been able to secure the supplies it needs, the increase in price for many raw goods has been difficult. Healy simply states, “It is what it is. Our customers understand when our prices are going up because we’re passing on the price increases from everyone else and it’s just all an it is what it is type of problem.”
Despite everything that the pandemic has thrown at them, Coastal Curved Glass is still going strong. Healy notes, “Over the last year we’ve been running at 100 percent capacity, and it looks like we’re going to be at 100 percent capacity for the next year. Revenues are growing steadily year over year. Last year was our best year ever and this year looks like it’s going to beat that as well. So, we’re really happy about that.” •