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All-glass facades create opportunity for local contractor

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A family-owned local contractor has worked its way back from the recession by riding a new obsession in commercial real estate: buildings with all-glass facades.

TSI Exterior Wall Systems, based in Upper Marlboro, has specialized in the design and installation of building exteriors since its founding in 1977, and has worked on major local projects, including the construction of FedEx Field and Nationals Park. In its best year ever, during the real estate boom, TSI did $71 million in business, all of it between Northern Virginia and Baltimore.

Commercial construction is returning slowly, but the projects that have begun share a universal similarity — they are being drawn up with more glass than those designed 10 or even five years ago. Architects frequently unveil new office designs with glass from floor to ceiling.

“People are looking for more glass, more opening, more natural sunlight,” said owner Pete Cornellier, whose father, Vic, founded the company. “Glass performance has also come a long way ... so you can still insulate the building well, which was always a concern in the past.”

With glass in vogue, TSI has landed work on a string of some the region’s largest projects in recent years. In 2009, the development team for CityCenterDC, led by Hines, chose TSI for a $35 million contract to build the all-glass skin of the project’s two high-end office buildings — whose main tenant is law firm Covington & Burling — before it even selected a general contractor.

The work is under way now, and includes the construction of five bridges between the two buildings and the installation of 10-foot-by-10-foot glass panels on the ground floor. So few glass manufacturers produce such large sheets of glass that Cornellier traveled twice to Guadalajara, Mexico, to find a company that would assemble them by hand. Each sheet of glass weighs 1,600 pounds and costs between $7,000 and $8,000.

TSI is also working on the Washington Marriott Marquis convention center hotel nearby, a renovated office building for the Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville and facilities for the Food & Drug Administration in Twinbrook.

Construction is nowhere near the levels it reached before the recession; there might be 10 office buildings under construction locally at one time today, while there might have been 40 in 2008. But Cornellier said TSI did $57 million in business last year and, if the emphasis on all-glass exteriors continues, might yet get back to boom levels.

“It does look like things are beginning to come back,” he said.

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