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Aston Martin, an Astronaut and Me: An Interview with Matthew Sharman

By the time Financial Director Matthew Sharman joined his brothers at Cantifix it was 2008 and the company was 16 years old. Aside from discovering that Charlie and William were far more intelligent than he’d given them credit for, Matthew quickly began to recognise the unique challenges and opportunities that belong to the world of bespoke structural glazing.

 

We caught up with Matthew at the end of May 2024 to talk about the past, present and future of Cantifix. Along the way our conversation touched on sustainability, trends, projects he’s proud of and projects he wishes he could have been involved with.

Date

10 Jun 2024

By

Simon McAuliffe

Matthew Sharman

Let’s start at the beginning. What was it that drew you to structural glazing in the first place?

 

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that I had a life before structural glazing and Cantifix. My background is in hedge fund accounting, but my brother Charlie approached me one day and said ‘This might sound crazy, but do you want to join Cantifix?’ It took me by surprise because the thing about a family business is that you rarely talk to one another about it outside of the office, so I wasn’t really sure what the company actually did.”

 

“I said yes, of course, and once on board I was surprised to learn that my brothers were so smart – I thought I was the intelligent one! Despite my business background, I love the creativity that goes with each project and the beautiful buildings that we get to create. Often, our projects push the engineering envelope, so there is always a question of risk. I’m familiar with risk – albeit financial risk – so I am used to calculating, minimising and managing any dangers whenever they present themselves.”

 

What are some of the most common challenges you face when working on a glazing project?

 

“I would say six years ago the biggest challenge was glass suppliers selling cheap glass. It is competitively priced but certainly a poorer quality – as a result, glazing can easily become a danger, rather than a beautiful focal point.”

 

“Thankfully, times have changed – today the supply chain takes a lot more responsibility in terms of quality and safety – but the pressure to move towards recycled glass (known as cullet) could introduce glazing of inferior structural integrity. Our biggest challenge could be summarised as a need to be more sustainable without impacting the specialness of our pieces and the safety of our clients.”

 

Can you describe a particularly challenging project you’ve worked on and how you overcame any obstacles?

 

“Almost every single one – I don’t seem to get involved with the easy ones.”

 

“Joking aside, if you wanted to put a name to the challenge, it would probably be the Creamery at our long-term client The Newt in Somerset. It is a brick-by-brick beautiful renovation of an old milk factory, crowned by a 60-foot-tall chimney. Why was it tricky? Because it combined the biggest challenging factors in a perfect storm – tight tolerances, innovative stuff (such as long pieces of tightly curved J-shaped glass) and a design that never stopped changing.”

 

“Goodness knows how much glass we broke in the process – but I suppose sometimes you’ve got to break a few eggs to make an architectural omelette.

 

If you went up there today, you would see that they are achieving the hardest things possible. I journeyed west for a visit and the project manager Chris Bovington pointed out the tiles that curve in three different places – it was amazing, but it is unlikely you would notice. All members of this project contribute their own individual excellence and we are thrilled to have been part of it – despite the difficulties!”

Can you describe something about the company that many people may not know?

 

“If you’re looking for the silliest but coolest project we’ve worked on, it would have to be the super chalet concept by Zaha Hadid. These are micro dwellings that touch the world softly, meaning that they are self-sustaining. You put one in the desert or on the shores, and you can live luxuriously in an impressive place. The chalets have curved glass, but they also have glazing in the style of frog’s eyes on the roof.”

 

“I was invited to come to the concept’s open evening and speak, but when I looked at the guest list, I was surprised to see that Cantifix was rubbing shoulders with an astronaut (there to speak about self-sustaining living) and a designer at Aston Martin (who better to talk about luxury?). Introducing the three of us, it sounded like the beginning of a bad joke, but it was a lot of fun and demonstrated that the beneficial properties of natural light and luxury glazing can sit comfortably alongside space travellers and one of the biggest and best car brands on the planet.”

 

With sustainability and stricter rules around net zero housing, how do you see glazing as rising to meet the challenge?

 

“Five years ago we were asked by a quality assurance accreditation company whether we have a net zero policy. We didn’t then but we do today. As part of that policy, we aim to go carbon neutral – including our whole supply chain – by 2030. As I said before, there is a move towards recycled glass, but incorporating this ‘cullet’ can introduce impurities into the design, increasing the likelihood of nickel sulphide inclusion and spontaneous shattering. This might reduce the size of individual panels (smaller sized glass is less likely to break) and bring Brooklyn-style framing more into popularity. Personally, I think that we should be improving energy efficiencies wherever possible, rather than simply prioritising a reduction in emissions.”

Cantifix are known as innovators within the industry, but how do you keep up to date with the latest developments and trends in glazing design and technology?


“As well as requisitioning inspiring concepts, we also spend a lot of time speaking to different parts of our supply chain. For example, Cantifix is a tiny part of the market, but we can speak to glass companies about what they might be considering. 

 

A lot of developments are captured by our innovative clients – such as The Newt – who push the boundaries to achieve excellence. Our biggest push at the moment is to maximise engagement with a project right from the word ‘go’. If you are a client who can point out possible problems, we can tell you how we have already solved 90% of them.”

Matthew Sharman

Are there any architectural glazing projects you wish you could have worked on?

 

“It would have to be Hugh Sexey’s Hospital. Originally built in the 17th century – and tastefully added to over the years – the hospital provides sheltered accommodation in beautiful surroundings. Several specialist glazing companies were asked to tender for a glass enclosure, but sadly we weren’t picked. It’s annoying because the company that did win the contract did a really excellent job.”

 

What projects (either yours or by others) that you are excited about?

 

“It would have to be the planned Maggie’s Centre in Northampton. There are centres across the country, providing walk-in support for anyone who is touched by cancer in architecturally and horticulturally beautiful surroundings. Previously, we have provided our bespoke glazing to the Maggie’s Centre in Southampton, and we truly believe that the ethos of Maggie’s ties in perfectly to the solutions that we offer.”

“Another example, much smaller, would be the Sainsbury’s Art Gallery at the University of East Anglia. It was built 50 years ago – an early Norman Foster building – and features a glass frontage supported on two sides by 7.5-metre tall glass fins. One of the fins broke, so we were approached to find a solution. We did, but it took a lot of hard work and research – because the annealed glass used is a very specific shade of green (due to the incorporated minerals). The beams had to be absolutely exact. We found one place that could provide what we were looking for, they sent some samples and they were a perfect match! We ordered plenty of extras in case the gallery had any more breakages in the future!”

 

“Sometimes, looking back can be much harder than innovating because glazing technology has changed so much in such a short space of time.”

 

What do you see as the future of architectural and structural glazing?

 

“One thing resonated with me recently. During Clerkenwell Design Week, someone came into the office to speak about Scottish Building Regulations (we have the most interesting visitors!). North of the border, if you are the principal architect, you need to make sure that the building has been built exactly as it was designed – no alterations along the way when it was being constructed.”

 

“While it is a thing in Scotland, I believe it will soon arrive here too. How will Cantifix respond? Cantifix never deviates from a design unless the architect signs it off. Perhaps, as a result of the rule, glazing will become a bit more uniform, or – alternatively – it might become more creative as designers try to navigate the additionally regulated industry.”

Cantifix employee

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in this field?

“The people who thrive in the world of structural glazing – or architecture in general – are those who are able to juggle six balls at once. They are not just experts in one particular area, but dip into lots of different ones. For example, a great salesperson should also understand when the use of a crane is appropriate and even how you might deploy one in a built-up city. Likewise, a great designer doesn’t just make a building look great – they also know the engineering requirements back-to-front.” 

 

“There are a huge number of exciting opportunities out there – my advice is simple: it’s better to be a jack of all trades than a master of just one.”

 

Our chat with Matthew Sharman is part of our interview series, in which we speak to a number of people in and around Cantifix to understand their perspectives on a number of key topics and trends.