What Value is Your Curtainwall Adding?
Suppliers of Unitized Curtainwall Face-off
Against Offshore Competition
by Megan Headley
Unitized curtainwall is nothing new. As Arthur Chan, vice
president of design and engineering for Advanced Glazing Systems in Burnaby,
British Columbia, points out, “Unitized curtainwall has been around in
North America, particularly the Northern regions, since the 1970s.”
In fact, John Wheaton, PE, LEED AP, with Wheaton & Sprague Engineering
Inc. in Stow, Ohio, says that in his region, “I don’t see many stick-wall
About a year and a half ago glazing contractor CBO Glass in Alden, N.Y.,
spun-off a fabrication division, Unitized Systems LLC, as a testament
to the demand for these types of systems.
“Right now the major market in of our industry is government-related projects
and designers for sure are creating designs where there are truly monumental
glass projects and that’s where unitized systems [fit],” says Gil DiMaio,
president of CBO Glass and Unitized Systems LLC.
“Unitized wall systems are more applicable where there’s a reasonable
quantity required, the architectural details are friendly to the unique
installation requirements and the glazing contractor is fully engaged
in the unitized application,” says Bill Morris, president of Arrowall
Co. in San Antonio. “In some arenas, stick-erected systems will not be
considered. In other scenarios, the price will be the deciding factor.”
The technology has numerous benefits over stick-built curtainwall, ranging
from minimized field labor to better quality control, due to the fact
that the assemblies are created in a factory and shipped to the jobsite
(see February 2008 USGlass, page 48). The pre-fab nature of these glazing
products means that they can essentially be shipped from anywhere to anywhere—a
potential problem for domestic suppliers.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s the Australians and Americans were exporting
the curtainwall to China and now it’s the other way around,” Chan says.
“The know-how in the curtainwall business has shifted; they learned from
the Americans, the Europeans, the Australians and now they turn around
and make the same thing. Sometimes better.”
It’s important for a fabricator to point out clearly just what value their
unitized curtainwall can bring when offshore companies are easily able
to import this last frontier of complex product.
“As you continue to add value to products and you continue to add labor
to products, you have to continue to pay attention to how big of a threat
low-cost countries pose. I think the World Trade Center is an example
of that. The pre-fab curtainwall coming in is a threat you have to pay
attention to,” Gary Danowski, former vice president of performance glazings
for PPG Industries, told USGlass earlier this year (see January/February
2011 USGlass, page 22).
That was to some degree the case several years ago, at any rate, when
demand for construction services and glass products was at a high.
“A few years ago when the market was already booming the glass companies
in China had to export the product to projects in Las Vegas, some projects
in Chicago, Seattle, etc.,” Chan says. “But that was when things were
booming back in 2005, 2006, and then the market bubble burst.”
Low Costs Stand Out
In a market where few large projects of any sort are being made, many
North American contractors seem to be more than happy to offer the lowest
price available. Still, others continue to see some competition from overseas
based on low costs.
“We’ve been hearing about the attempt by the some of the Chinese unitized
groups to have their products used here on some of the American projects,”
Others have not.
“We have not seen any foreign competition in our market as of yet,” Morris
Those that are seeing the competition see price as the single advantage
on the side of offshore fabricators.
“From my experience, the dominant purchase motive for getting it offshore
is price,” Wheaton says. He adds, “But if it’s just price-based, and it
[the curtainwall system] doesn’t work, it’s of no value whatsoever.”
Even when Chinese curtainwall manufacturers are able to match the quality
of similar North American products (not the dominant perception today),
the price-based model is not a popular one when Americans are struggling
to find work. And many say that the proof is out there that overseas manufacturers
are no match, yet, to the North American manufacturers in this relatively
“To be very frank about it, while there seems to be an initial cost advantage,
the quality of the product that they’re offering does not match the quality
certainly of the American produced products. Now that helps primarily
with sophisticated customers and certainly institutional buyers. But on
the private side, development type products where price is kind of the
driving force, that’s where we’re going to be challenged,” DiMaio says.
Wheaton continues, “[The] owner is always going to want either the best
price or the best value for the price, especially in this market … But
the differentiator in many areas are, of course, quality of glass and
finish, but it’s usually whether they can deliver and meet the performance
criteria—and you can’t do that without the right people and the right
Taking Control of Quality
One of the major benefits of unitized curtainwall systems is supposed
to be that these systems are built in a factory-controlled environment,
where there is much better control over the quality of the system than
in the field.
“You can have better control of the quality in the factory and have all
the components put together so you don’t miss anything,” Chan says. “It’s
a big difference in the quality control in unitized curtainwall in the
factory [vs. stick-built].”
Window fabricators, machinery manufacturers and others long ago learned
the need to capitalize on the importance of customer service, quick turnaround
and high quality in selling products to differentiate themselves from
low-cost offshore competitors. Quality control procedures may or may not
be implemented in overseas facilities. It’s a big unknown.
“As consultants, we have some concerns and reservations about offshore
[manufacturers]—in my experience, you’ve just got to be careful with offshore,”
Wheaton says. He adds, “I’m still cautious and careful to watch out for
substituted glass, substituted fasteners and other substituted components.”
Still, he points out that sometimes the unknown can be properly managed.
“If I were an owner I’d have my representatives or my own consultant rep
in the fabrication shop [in China],” Wheaton says. He recalls an example
in his own experience where a company for which he consulted used a China-based
supplier. “This company wound up having to define the assembly, the procurement
and quality procedures and put their own guy in the shop overseeing every
line just to make sure it met the project and quality requirments,” he
Wheaton adds, “The price must be pretty compelling because I know these
guys have been able to afford to put somebody in that shop to monitor
and oversee everything.”
Timing is Everything
Having a local supplier who can replace broken or wrong products at the
last minute is an additional benefit to buying local.
After all, DiMaio points out, “The benefit of the unitized systems to
the schedule is a driving force.”
“When you start to look at trying to meet the schedules of buildings and
trying to have product at the right place at the right time and manage
around things that break, I think you’ve got to understand that those
build schedules and the service requirements associated with that are
restrictors to some imports,” Danowski says.
“When you do ship and something breaks in a container or something’s mis-fabricated
you’re going to have a hard time getting it over here quickly,” Wheaton
Regarding timing, Chan points out that at this point in time the Chinese
are finding plenty of demand domestically. “With this market now I’m not
too sure they’re actively going to pursue exporting curtainwall to the
United States. In Asia the growth is very, very high right now,” he says.
Wheaton sees plenty of other sources available domestically to meet the
need for curtainwall.
“I think most of what I’m still seeing domestically, at least in our market,
is U.S.-based unitized curtainwall fabricated and assembled and glazed
by the glazing subcontractor, or in other cases by the custom metal supplier/fabricator—but
more of them are going direct, so to speak,” Wheaton says.
Arrowall is one such manufacturer and installer. “We should remain competitive
against a local competitor using an imported curtainwall system,” Morris
says. “Considering the logistical risks and loss of control aspects involved
in delivery of an imported product, based on its track record, Arrowall
would remain a safer option for a construction team.”
Morris adds, “It’s like anything else when there’s increased competition.
One has to be more competitive, provide higher quality and be reliable.”
is the editor of USGlass.
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