Volume 28, Issue 1 - January/February 2014

The New Glass Condo
Condos Are Back in a Big New Way
by Megan Headly

If certain economic predictions ring true, 2014 could just be the year of the condo. Although apartments have been leading the multifamily construction upturn of the last few years, condominium projects are poised to pick up steam, according to recent data from Robert Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw Hill Construction.

In its 2014 forecast, McGraw Hill Construction suggested that multifamily housing will rise 11 percent in dollars and 9 percent in units in the year ahead. While growth continues, the construction forecaster predicts that the percentage gains will be smaller than the previous four years, reflecting a “maturing multifamily market.” However, because the group sees these structures still being favored by the real estate finance community as investment targets, McGraw Hill says this should, in the near term, lead to more high-rise residential buildings in major cities.

Indeed, Mic Patterson, director of strategic development for the Los-Angeles-based glazing contractor Enclos, finds, “Improvement in the tall building sector continues, largely focused in select urban markets such as New York City and Miami, where high-rise luxury condo projects lead construction activity. In the West, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles also are in the midst of an uptick for this building type.”

“High-rise is coming back,” agrees Tim Nass, vice president of national sales for Safti First in San Francisco. “We are seeing a combination of office building, mixed-use as well as hotel development. The bulk of the exterior high-rise applications are in the population-dense Northeast.”

“The difference in the glass performance now compared to the last big high-rise boom is worlds apart. We actually study the energy coefficients with the high-performance soft coats now to where before just tinted glass was good enough.” –Michael Downs, Downs Glass

Quality Reigns
While the cycle of up-and-down demand for condos may be a familiar one for many glazing contractors, this upswing seems to be bringing with it a number of changes compared to past building booms. Chief among these changes seems to be a welcome conscientiousness about quality.

TSI Corp. in Upper Marlboro, Md., is one contract glazing company that is finding that builder interest in quality has improved over previous condo development cycles. “Condos have a lot more glass and metal panels than previous markets. Condos also are using better grade window wall and curtainwall products,” says Peter Cornellier, vice president, exterior walls, for TSI.

According to Joe Marks, director of business development for Architectural Glass and Aluminum in Livermore, Calif., this is, in part, because glass is playing a noticeably bigger role in quality projects these days.

“Glass plays an extremely large role, specifically on the mid-level to high-end residential units with view potential,” Marks says. “Lower-end or affordable housing units tend to use a higher ratio of solid materials (i.e. plaster, precast concrete, etc.) than glass. The quality of the glass is also critical because regardless of the AAMA standards, buyers of seven-figure condominiums will literally stand inches from the glass and object to the slightest imperfection.”

The shift in quality may be most noticeable to those subcontractors who saw the “just get it done” attitude of general contractors in previous condo building booms. “At the end of the last boom the quality we saw was going down and down toward the end,” recalls Glen Greenberg, president of Elmont Glass in Garden City Park, N.Y. “I remember one particular job where they [the general contractor] wanted us to install shower enclosures but they had no supports in the walls and no blocking like they’re supposed to have. They said ‘when you glue the glass to the marble that will hold it all together.’ We said ‘No, no, that’s not the right way to do it. It has to be done safely or we’re not interested.’ So they ripped all the stuff out and put in the proper blocking, etc.”

Changing Demands
That shift toward higher quality could be at least in part because of a shifting interest to high- (or multi-) performance glass products.

For example, Michael Downs, president of glazing contractor Downs Glass Co. Inc. in Sarasota, Fla., says his company is seeing a world of difference in product demand during this construction upswing. “The difference in the glass performance now compared to the last big high-rise boom is worlds apart. We actually study the energy coefficients with the high-performance soft coats now to where before just tinted glass was good enough,” he says.

“The evolution of the building code has driven energy performance to higher levels,” Marks points out. However, he adds, “Sound attenuation and control also has become more demanding. Though enhanced sound control has long been a requirement, the base level of performance has continued to increase.”

In the south Florida market where stringent hurricane codes truly dictate product selection, Downs is finding that more customers are looking to balance this performance with high visibility.

“When doing a high-rise retrofit, glass is huge in terms of making the visibility as clear as possible,” Downs says. He notes, however, that it sometimes falls to the glazing contractor to educate designers and unit owners on how that balance is achieved. “Window mulls and stile bars are a little larger [for] hurricane impact and insulating [requirements]. Not only is the glass insulating, but the frame is usually thermally-broken, which is truly as important as the glass makeup because it is part of the energy factor.”

This new balance makes sense to Patterson, who says, “The buyer of a high eight-figure luxury condo, after all, expects both unrestricted views and comfort.” Still, he agrees, “Optimal access to view, daylight and natural ventilation are waxing trends, with view and daylight certainly favoring the continued extensive use of glass in the façade, although this must be carefully balanced with energy efficiency, as well as thermal and acoustical comfort.”

Product manufacturers are seeing this interest in visibility and performance being translated into demand for large lites of multifunctional glass.

“The focus is on larger lites of glass. Our products show up on the podium or mid-levels of the building that are dominated by pressure wall systems,” Nass says of his company’s fire-rated offerings. “Natural daylighting in common areas of the building is pretty typical, and we have to provide that like the non-rated manufacturers.”

According to Robert Salzer, president of Mannix Windows in Brentwood, N.Y., “Everything today is a high-performance glass.”

However, like Downs, Salzer finds that designers of this new batch of multifamily residential towers need help understanding how to balance the benefits, and potential challenges, of working with glass. “The problem [for designers] is you can’t get the thermal performance out of the glass that you can get out of an insulated wall. That’s a negative, but they’re still using more glass in the high-rise buildings,” Salzer says.

“Improvement in the tall building sector continues, largely focused in select urban markets…” –Mic Patterson, Enclos

Evolving Aesthetic
While designers are beginning to better appreciate the performance value of today’s glass, condo owners still first want an aesthetic that speaks to them.

“While performance requirements continue to gradually escalate, particularly with respect to thermal and acoustical behavior, aesthetic considerations remain the predominant driver. The trend toward greater geometric complexity in the building skin is sometimes accompanied by an increased use of opaque materials that more easily accommodate curvilinear form,” Patterson says.

Marks sees increased complexity as well, primarily in developers’ demand for a smooth, fully integrated façade. “Although we see projects with typical design elements, architectural design aesthetics continue to vary and challenge our curtainwall designers,” he says.

Cornellier also sees the look of today’s condos evolving. “Condos in the current market have gone with the glass and metal panel design for a more modern look. The glass industry definitely benefits from the current design,” he says.

Marks adds,“We … see that the higher-end projects tend to prefer the design flexibility and superior performance of curtainwalls versus window walls.”

There is also a trend toward interior glazing. Diane Turnwall, market segment director, interiors, for Guardian Glass in Auburn Hills, Mich., says, “We’re finding our customers are using more interior glass in condominiums for several reasons: one is the trend for a modern aesthetic, another is glass helps make small spaces seem bigger and the third is increased daylighting throughout the residence,” she says.

Diana San Diego, director of marketing for Safti First adds, “Designers choose to put as much glass in the building envelope to maximize the amount of natural light that comes into the building. By incorporating clear fire-rated glass in interior fire walls, fire barriers and exit enclosures/stairwells, natural light can penetrate further into the building, and artificial lighting can be shared between spaces, all of which can contribute to reducing energy consumption.”


The East Coast Boom

According to McGraw-Hill, during the first ten months of 2013, the leading metropolitan areas for multifamily construction starts (ranked by dollar volume) were New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Miami and Los Angeles.

According to Joe Marks, director of business development for Architectural Glass and Aluminum in Livermore, Calif., the comeback is “concentrated in the high density urban areas.” He adds, “The market activity is similar to the 2007 levels, but with an increase in apartments versus condominiums.”

Elmont Glass in Garden City Park, N.Y., is one glazing contractor experiencing the action increasing in New York. “Business is coming back nicely in New York,” says Glen Greenberg, president of Elmont Glass. “Across the board we hear good things: condos, high-rises and colleges, hospitals, too. Glass seems the current choice of architects and designers these days.”

Greenberg sees this as just the start of a good thing. “I think we’ve started to see the beginning of a nice little growth cycle because the prices are starting to inch their way up a little bit, which is good for the glaziers,” he says.

While New York may be seeing a resurgence of high-rise construction—Engineering News Record (ENR) notes that the residential sector dominates tower construction in the city, with many under-development buildings in “prime locations” being advertised as luxury condos—it’s not the only city in the Northeast where builders are rushing to put up condos to meet new demand.

Among the bigger projects under development is Boston’s upcoming 645-foot Millennium Tower. Handel Architects is behind what’s gearing up to be the tallest residential building in the United States west of Chicago, set to include a mix of condominiums, retail and other amenities. More to the point, glass is at the heart of the design team’s vision for the 60-story tower. According to information from the firm, “The exterior is designed to create the impression of a translucent crystal, with materials that incorporate a variety of glass and metal fins to craft a sense of lightness and transparency. The tower’s slender proportions, combined with clean lines and a sleek profile, visually reinforce the elegance of the crystalline character. The exterior profile has been sculpted with chamfered corners and faceted planes creating a perception that the building’s silhouette shifts as the light changes throughout the day.” Glazing contractors also are seeing the action further down the East Coast.

“The condo market has stayed busy in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area and remains the hottest segment in the market going in to 2014,” says Peter Cornellier, vice president, exterior walls, TSI Corp. in Upper Marlboro, Md. Among TSI’s recent projects is the capital’s CityCenterDC, a mixed use center that includes, among other things, more than 200 condo units.

High-rises also are picking up pace further down the East Coast, according to some reports. Developers in Miami are breaking ground on new towers for condominiums as foreign investors seek new pre-construction units, according to an October 2013 article in ENR. Despite the fact that Florida was among the handful of states that suffered from the brunt of the recent construction downturn, brokerage firm Condo Vultures told ENR that an estimated 22,000 condo units are being developed in South Florida, more than half of that in downtown Miami.

Yet Michael Downs, president of glazing contractor Downs Glass Co. Inc. in Sarasota, Fla., says most of the condo work his glaziers are seeing in that area has to do with renovation work. “We have seen an influx of activity in the high-rise market, with the existing buildings needing new windows, having held off during the recession because unit owners could not afford an assessment. The new high-rise market here is still holding tight,” Downs says.

Marks points out that it’s hardly surprising condos are back in demand. “One of the shifts our markets have been experiencing is that the younger professionals, the Millennials, want to live in urban environments, not the suburbs,” he says. “This is particularly true in San Francisco where high paying jobs are being created in the tech sector and the young tech workers can afford the new housing being developed in downtown San Francisco.”

Hopefully this is a trend that more glazing contractors will be able to take advantage of in the year ahead.


Megan Headley is the special projects editor for Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine. She can be reached at


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