Edited and photographed by Harry





The concept, design and construction of the Sydney Opera House stand as an affirmation for twentieth century man-that by his imagination and by his own hand he can shape his world to his needs. Ove Arup

The hands of Michael Lewis Ove Arup & Partners outline the glass walls as proposed by the Architect


To understand the design and construction process, it is necessary to understand the terminology used for reference to each section of the glass walls. The Opera House complex consists of two main buildings, side by side, both lying roughly in the northsouth direction, plus a separate restaurant. The larger building, on the western side, contains the main Concert Hall and is covered by the A shells. A 1 faces south and is closed by the A 1 glass wall. ALI:shell is the most northerly one, looking over the harbour, and is closed by the A4 glass wall. The intermediate shells, A2 and A3, do not have glass walls but are closed by bronze louvre walls. Glass walls also occur in the side shells, which connect the main shells. The same system applies to the eastern building, housing the Opera Hall, but these shells have the prefix B. The restaurant has north and south glass walls designated C11 and C12, plus side walls.


The glass walls are an epitome of the problems of the whole of the Opera House. David Croft

David Croft, Design Engineer, Ove Arup and Partners.


or side trusses. These trusses were supported, in turn, by V-columns on to the podium. Wind load components out of the planes of the mullions are transmitted through the ties between mullions to the centre truss. These ties also restrain the mullion chords in compression against lateral buckling. The centre truss was formed by the two centre mullions braced diagonally together so as to resist sideways loading and was fixed laterally by the corbels at the top, by crossbraced struts to the auditorium wall, and by the truss/V-column system at the bottom. The end mullions furthest from the centre were not of standard section but, instead, trusses which connected on to the ends of side trusses. These provided support roughly mid-height to the vertical glass surfaces at the sides. The Geometric Calculations The bulk of the geometric calculations were carried out using an I.C.L. 1900 series computer. The mathematical definition, as already described, was programmed in Fortran, the programme containing variables into which the different geometrical constants could be read as data. By the time the programme was complete, there were approximately 60 constants in the A4 glass wall, ranging from the defining parameters of the shell rib, the position of the mullion origin and cone apices, to the offset dimension of the glass from the structure, the width of the silicone rubber joints and the diameter of the corbel reinforcing bars. The result was, in effect, a mathe-·

The juxtaposition of the various disciplines as envisaged by the designers.



The geometry of glass walls A4 & 84




1---.I I I


Glass Glazing bar

Fixing bracket Mullion Mullion tie

Detail showing connection

of parts


Front elevation


This geometry also applies to glass wall B4.

30F 10M


Side elevation


Front elevations

30F 10M

C11 C12




Front elevation

Side elevation

This geometry also applies to glass walls 85 & 86.

30F 10M




Front elevation

Side elevatior

This geometry also applies to glass walls B7 & B8.

30F 10M

A7 A8

Front elevation

Side elevation

This geometry also applies to glass wall B1.

30F 10M






of mullion to shell corbels .


• Fixing of ties between mullions.



Mullions in pesltlon on A4.



Robert Kelman, Ove Arup and Partners.

When the erection of the steelwork had been discussed with the main contractor before design commenced, he had expressed the opinion that he could not expect to erect steelwork hanging from shells which were known not to be in their correct theoretical position, and in circumstances where no direct means existed for measuring to fixed control points, to an accuracy of better than ±Y2 in. This was accepted as being very reasonable, but it seriously affected every aspect of the design and erection of the glass. If the glass sheets were all to be calculated and pre-cut to size, means must exist of getting the support, into which the glass sheets were to fit, into the theoretically correct position. The only alternative was to erect the glazing bars as accurately as possible, then measure the space for each glass sheet and cut it to size. Such a system was abandoned as far too time consuming, although this method had to be used for those sheets of glass abutting the concrete shells. However, this decision meant that the means of attaching the glazing bar to the steel mullion must be capable of adjustment so that, when attached to the mullion say 112in. high and 112 in. to the west of its

correct position, that part of the fixing to which the glazing bar attached could be set in the exact position and also rotated to the correct angle. This proved to be quite a complex piece of mechanical design and was carried out forthe Engineers by Hawker de Havilland Aust. Pty. Ltd. The material selected for this bracket was aluminium bronze, wh ich offered great strength together with resistance to stress corrosion and fatigue, and was capable of being cast and machined. Approximately 2,500 fixing brackets were used, at a cost of $37 each.

The fixing bracket,


Some of the many bronze sections used in the glazing of the Sydney Opera House.






.. .... ""~

I ......




The glass supoort pin.



effect when viewing the glass walls at angles where the line of sight passes through two or more glass planes simultaneously. At a time when other manufacturers could not satisfy the Architects on colour, BSN set about making a number of experimental castings using various ratios of colouring oxides. As the tinted glass was to be laminated with quite a thick layer of clear float glass, the slightly green appearance of the latter had to be allowed for in selecting the oxide ratios. Eventually a colour called demi-topaze was created, and this was accepted by the Architects. By the end of the contract, BSN had produced over 70,000 sq. ft. of this glass. In the laminating process, the demitopaze glass is brought together with clear float glass to form the laminate. The float glass itself is manufactured in a continuous ribbon by a process which includes floating molten glass on a bath of liquid tin. Because the surface of the tin is dead flatthe glass is dead flat, too, the natural forces of weight and surface tension bringing it to an absolutely uniform thickness without the need for any grinding or polishing.

Float glass, and ... _

_ .. pot-cast




In its final position, each sheet of glass was supported on two small stainless steel pins inserted in holes in the glazing bars. The ·support area of each pin was % in. x % in. and a bearing pad of vulcanised fibre was used to distribute the load and allow a uniform pressure. For this system to work it was essential that the support pin was absolutely firm in its socket and the bearing surface accurately parallel with the sawn edge of the glass. In addition, the supports had to be to the correct levels to within very fine tolerances, and the actual levels were determined by the cutting tolerance for each particular glass sheet. The only way to achieve such accuracy was by using the lower edge of the glass as the template to position the drill after the glass was aligned and levelled in place. Again the aircraft industry was called in to assist and Hawker de Havilland, in conjunction with the Engineers, designed a combined support jack and drill jig which clamped on to the glazing bar below the glass to be erected. The glass sheet, dangling from suction pads over the foot of the mobile crane as the whole machine was trundled manually forward to the wall, was lowered on to two screw supports on these jigs, which could be raised or lowered until the glass was precisely positioned; then an integrally mounted electric drill,

through a template hole in the jig, drilled a matching hole in the glazing bar. The support pins were inserted, the glass allowed to settle firmly on to them by releasing the screw jacks, and the whole jig assembly removed ready for the next sheet of glass. The system was completely adaptable to variations in glass sheet sizes and, in one ortwo cases where a glass had to be recut, the inch or so difference in level was of no significance. However, in order to accommodate the wide range of conditions and the variations in section of .the glazing bar in different parts of the glass walls, these jigs became miracles of complexity. A glance at a cross section through the A4 wall will give some idea of the difficulty of access to each part of the wall, as the lowersections extend well out in front of the upper ones. As each level was glazed a scaffolded platform, the full width of the wall, deep enough for the glazing machine to be operated, and with room to unload and store glass brought up by the crane, had to be built. To allow the mobile crane to be moved about by hand the platform had to be decked out as smooth and level as a well built floor, and this whole area had to be lowered and reconstructed as each horizontal band of glazing was completed.





Once the glass was seated on the support pins andthe jigs removed, the sealing process was commenced. Few problems were envisaged, apart from the very real difficulties of placing sealant into some of the wide and awkward [oints. Testing of the adhesion of silicone to both bronze and glass had been carried out in London and in France, where the glass suppliers had run a series of tests through the weatherometer using silicone from all the prominent manufacturers. From these tests and from the Engineers' own tests in London, the Rhodorsil 38 clear silicone manufactured by Hhone-Poulenc in Lyon was selected. Approximately a month after the first sealing was completed, it was noticed that the sealant was separating from the bronze glazing bar. The most likely reason appeared to be poor preparation of the bronze work, or atmospheric contamination prior to sealing. The faulty material was cut out, a series of site tests instituted and the areas resealed. It soon became evident that the problem was much more serious than was anticipated. It proved almost impossible to achieve a permanent adhesion of silicone to bronze which would withstand water immersion.


The manufacturers were consulted and their Australian agents came to the site. Other primers were tested and gradually a successful technique was evolved. Test specimens consisting of two flaps of glass and a short length of glazing were made from every day's glazing until literally hundreds of test pieces were in store and under test. Success was achieved, but at some cost. The problem appeared to be that the silicone joint as designed was too deep in relation to its width. The volume of silicone on the joint was excessive, in relation to the free surface area from which acetic acid generated during the curing could disperse. The acetic acid was able to attack the bronze through the primer, and the product of this action dissolved out when the joint

was immersed. The laboratory testing had been done using standard specification test pieces where the surface area to volume ratio was large. The cross section of the joint was changed to allow a greater surface area of sealant relative to the volume, to facilitate dispersion of acetic acid, and the method of clamping the cover strip down on to the sealant was introduced. More time also had to be allowed for curing of the primers before the silicone was applied and much more time given for the silicone to cure and the generated acetic acid to disperse, befor the cover strip was placed. In the lower sections of the wall, which were more vulnerable to the weather, a full three weeks was called for and this meant that the



July 1971 With the teething problems of the sealant resolved, work continued towards the completion of glazing on A4 shell.



The sealant problem having been resolved, the glazing bar cover strip was confidently fixed and sealed.


As early as 1968 the Architects had made the decision to use an undercut view window from podium level to a height of seven feet. This form was tried at the suggestion of GEe lighting consultants, to eliminate reflection in the glass walls at eye level and to give a night time effect of an open window. Not only did a mock-up prove that it would do this, but also that it would emphasise the hanging character of the walls from the shells. In October 1971 the first of these windows was installed in A4.



Understanding develops and individuals become a team. Robert Kelman







After the installation of the glass there still remained the questionable task of how to clean it. Quick-Steel, who had made the glass handling machinery, were asked to produce 'some sort of gadget which would climb the area to be cleaned'. First thoughts were for putting a ramp up to the lower cone and running an outrigger vehicle on the longitudinal mullions, but it was all too complicated. Instead, the idea was reversed, starting at the top and working down. A bronze monorail was mounted along the full length of the concrete strip from which the glass wall hangs. The monorail, specially extruded in Melbourne, is in 5 tt. lengths to allow a regular expansion and contraction gap as on a railway line. This movement introduced the problem of tension and tolerance on the bolts that secured it to the concrete. To ensure that these bolts would not fail and shear through metal fatigue after a few years, a test programme was set up, this time by the School of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Sydney. Along this monorail will run a small carriage. It will be pulled up by a winch installed in the apex of the shell and go down by gravity. It is a very complex piece of machinery which had to satisfy very stringent Department of Labour and Industry safety requirements. Suspended from the carriage is the 'buggy', as the one man platform has been christened. In this buggy a man can move across the face of the glass along the monorail, and up and down by means of the buggy's own winch. It is fitted with rubber suction

pads on the side facing the wall, and these create an instant vacuum. The operator flicks a switch and, like a fly, sucks himself to the surface for safety. Originally, the buggy was intended to move across the lower cone as well as the two higher sections of glass. But, although the glass was designed to withstand a once in a century wind force of 30 lb. per sq. ft., the safe concentrated load on the edge of a sheet at a joint is only about 40 lb. Unlike steel, glass does not distribute its stresses, therefore it was wiser to restrict the buggy to an area where its weight was carried by the cable suspension. To enable the window cleaner to reach and clean the extremes of the glass, a pneumatically operated I rotary nylon brush was developed but, when extended to its full 40 ft., it proved to be too cumbersome. The final solution came in the form of a robot approximately 2 ft. square, fitted with a rotary brush that both scrubs and rinses. This robot, with its arteries of water, compressed air and electricity, is controlled by the man in the buggy. It is fitted with safety devices such as a dead man's handle and automatic cut-out should it wander too close to the edge. In all, there will be four buggies operating on the glass walls, two left-handed and two right-handed. This will enable them to be used in tandem for maintenance work such as replacing a sheet of glass, should this ever become necessary. The whole development of the means to clean and maintain the glass has been one of test, alter and refine, until all criteria were satisfied.

We have realised that only intimate integration of the various parts or the various disciplines will produce the desired result. Ove Arup


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