Published on February 16, 2021

Essentia Health’s Vision Northland project incorporates bird-friendly fritted glass

exterior shot of fritted glass panels on the new building being constructed

As planning and preparation got underway for Essentia Health’s $900 million transformation of its downtown Duluth medical campus, one of the most common concerns was bird safety.

Birds often are unable to see transparent or reflective glass that is prevalent in large buildings. With Duluth serving as a popular bird-migration route, Essentia is using fritted glass in the design of its 15-story hospital tower and eight-story clinic tower to avoid bird strikes. “Frit” — a ceramic layer with lines, dots or another pattern — breaks up the reflectivity of the glass and makes it visible to birds. They recognize there is a solid object in front of them.

Some of the first panels on the clinic tower have been revealed. Crews have been busy installing the panels, which are 56.5 inches wide and 17 feet tall, since Jan. 20, and will be doing so for the next year.

Essentia solicited advice from birding experts to incorporate best practices. That includes designing evening and night lighting in a way that not only will reduce bird collisions, but also skyglow and light trespass. Beyond conforming to guidelines from Audubon Minnesota, much of the frit pattern meets the stricter Ontario requirements, which stipulate that the frit openings should be 2 inches by 4 inches.

“As a Duluthian who cares deeply about birds, and as a longtime client at Essentia, I am delighted with Essentia’s good-faith efforts to make its new facility as safe for migrating and local birds as possible,” said birding aficionado Laura Erickson. “No glass is truly bird-proof, but selecting the least reflective glass possible and using a dense frit pattern will protect migrants during daytime when some are resting in the city and others are on the move. And setting lights-off as the default in public spaces will help prevent nighttime collisions as nocturnal migrants flood through in spring and fall — they get disoriented by lights, especially during the foggy conditions Duluth gets in abundance during migration.

“If Essentia can develop a culture of conservation, with staff keeping window coverings closed at night in private rooms except when patients want them open, that will also minimize attracting birds to the facility, most important from August through October and in April and May, especially during foggy weather,” Erickson continued. “I value the way Essentia has made it clear from the start that protecting birds is an important priority, and that their designers looked into the best design and glass technology for accomplishing this in Duluth.”

The glass, manufactured by Viracon Glass in Owatonna, Minn., is comprised of two panes. The frit will go on the inside surface of the outside pane. There are 31 different patterns unique to the Vision Northland project. They will be more distinct and noticeable on the tower, which will have the appearance of being enveloped in Lake Superior fog. Patterns for the rest of the building will be more subtle.

Another benefit of the frit: It supports the new hospital’s “green” mission by minimizing solar heat gain and light pollution.

“At different times throughout the year, we are reminded how important our migratory bird populations are in Duluth,” said Kris Henry, senior advisor for Vision Northland at Essentia. “The fritted glass will not only offer a beautiful and distinctive look to the Duluth skyline, but will also protect the many species of birds as they migrate through our area on the shores of Lake Superior.”

Our architect, Philadelphia-based EwingCole, worked diligently to ensure that those patterns will be obvious to birds but also transparent enough for humans. We want to preserve the building’s stunning views of the lake and Duluth’s hillside.

The frit patterns will emulate the flow and softness of Lake Superior, according to Saul Jabbawy, director of design for EwingCole.

“Our goal is to make the building really special and unique,” Jabbawy said. “We would never pick this frit pattern for another city. The city really grew on us very quickly, so we tried to incorporate a lot of the physical beauty of the city into the building. We tried to make this look like Duluth.”

Currently, much of the clinic tower is enclosed in a shrink wrap made of polyethylene. Once the massive wrap is no longer needed, McGough Construction, the project’s general contractor, is looking into reusing the polyethylene.

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