Sure, we’ve all heard that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but there’s a whole lot more they should watch out for, too.
That, at least, was what sprang to mind when we learned that a famous glass house in Knoxville, TN, is now for sale for $575,000. This 1,731-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath home has an exterior made almost entirely of floor-to-ceiling glass—offering gorgeous views of the 2.32 acres of woodlands surrounding it.
Called the Shell house, it was designed by Bill Shell, a University of Tennessee architecture professor who built the place in 2004 and lived there from 2010 to his death in 2017. In his will, Shell donated the place to the Knoxville Museum of Art, which decided to put it on the market—albeit with protective easements to preserve the building’s integrity.
Listed on Sept. 4, the home quickly received a flurry of interest culminating in 20 showings and two offers so far, according to listing agent Barbara Apking at Coldwell Banker, Wallace and Wallace.
We can see why this house didn’t sit around, since it’s certainly a striking piece of architecture. Still, though, there’s a big difference between admiring a glass house and actually living in it. What’s it really like?
The many flaws of living in a glass house
For starters, the saying about how “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” actually comes from architect Philip Johnson, who, like Shell, designed and lived in his own glass house in New Canaan, CT.
And though true glass houses like these two are certainly rare, plenty of homes—particularly from the midcentury era—feature massive floor-to-ceiling windows that are adored by scores of home buyers.
In other words, plenty of folks love the idea of a glass house. You can’t beat the views, the feeling of openness, connection to nature, yadda yadda … we totally get it.
But fully glass-walled houses do come with their downsides. Namely, of course, it’s hard to get past the fact that everyone can easily see in the house. What about privacy?
Apking does point out that the property’s topography does much to protect the Shell house’s inhabitants from prying eyes.
“The house can’t be seen from the road,” she explains. Meanwhile, the Tennessee River runs along one side of the house, and while plenty of residences are situated on the other side, the river is wide enough that “you’d need a telescope to see in the [Shell] house.”
In short, Apking insists, “You can run stark-naked through the house, and no one could see you but birds.”
Still, not everyone is convinced that this fishbowl offers foolproof privacy.
‘Don’t buy this house’
“My advice? Don’t buy this house,” says California real estate developer Tyler Drew. “The reason why commercial buildings are so comfortable with this much glass all around is that no one sleeps in them at night, and commercial parks usually have full-time security guards looking after them. You, as a resident, do not. Not only can people passing by see every action you take, but all of your valuables are on display.”
Aside from that? “Cleaning this thing is going to be a pain,” Drew continues. “Like commercial counterparts, large glass displays only look good when they’re clean, and when they are not they look awful. And there are protective easements on this house preventing you from even modifying the glass or structure in any way. This is a hard pass for me. But maybe some exhibitionists might think otherwise.”
Privacy aside, glass homes can also be energy hogs. According to Apking, heating and cooling costs amount to about $210 a month—which doesn’t seem all that bad, but then again, it’s a small house.
“Glass is notoriously inefficient energywise,” says Welmoed Sisson, a home inspector in Maryland. “Even the most high-tech window glass only has an R-value of about 5. In comparison, a typical insulated wall has an R-value of between 15 and 20. The only real way to prevent massive energy loss in winter is to cover the windows with full draperies or insulated blinds, which kind of defeats the purpose. The solar gain in the summer will also greatly increase cooling costs, and will also lead to fading of furniture and flooring.”
How to make a glass house more livable
We’re not saying glass houses should be avoided at all costs, but just to weigh the pros and cons so you know what you’re getting into.
“If you like glamping, then this house is a must,” says Maya Madison at Keller Williams Realty in Metairie, LA. “The obvious plus to a glass house are the incredible 360-degree views of the surrounding nature. You feel like you are outside, except you have no bugs, wildlife, and controlled temperature.”
As for the downsides, there are ways to mitigate them.
“The best solution might be time-activated blinds that roll down during daylight hours and up in the afternoon or evening,” says Tyler Weinrich at WPropertiesOK.com in Oklahoma City. “These are pretty discreet window treatments that really only come into play when they are needed, and can be run on timers pretty easily.”
And although few of us will ever contemplate living in such a place, there are take-home lessons here for anyone who digs homes with big windows.
“All in all, if you plan to buy a glass house or a house that has lots of or huge windows, make sure that they are thick, double-paned windows, and you’ll be fine,” says Weinrich. “Just because you see a glass window doesn’t mean you should think all your freshly air-conditioned air is rushing out. The amount of heat transfer through modern windows is very low these days. You might just need some extra maintenance to make sure the seals around the windows are in good shape.”
As for safety, “security measures can easily be taken by adding motion sensors to the glass panes, which trigger whenever a pane moves too much or breaks indicating a break-in attempt,” Weinrich adds. “While there might be a lot of hesitation or concern with the general public about a glass house or large glass windows, when you sit down and research things a bit, you will find that there isn’t really that much to worry about at all.”
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