Volume 16, Issue 6 - August/September 2015


Trends in Residential Glass
by Trey Barrineau

From Production Problems to New Technologies, Here’s What You Need to Know

The residential glass industry in mid-2015 could be viewed as the proverbial window into the entire fenestration business. It’s a mix of hopeful news, ongoing innovation and some serious long-term challenges.

Thanks to the housing recovery, sales are growing—and so are lead times. Consumer demand is driving technological changes related to energy efficiency—and is inspiring truly dazzling advances. While the future of glass looks positive on most fronts, a basic economic issue—scarcity—has taken on greater importance since the Great Recession began to fade. The ongoing construction rebound is happening as float glass producers struggle to keep up, which may mean shortages and longer lead times.

Housing Boom, Production Bust

Thanks to a big jump in multi-family production, nationwide housing starts rose 9.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.174 million units in June, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Commerce Department. Multifamily production was up 29.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 489,000 units, while single-family starts edged down 0.9 percent to 685,000 units.

Of course, greater demand for housing means greater demand for windows. The Window and Door Manufac-turers Association’s (WDMA) recently released Window and Entry Door 2015 U.S. Market Study shows that the overall residential window market should grow 6.2 percent in 2015 and 3.9 percent in 2016.

Meanwhile, prices for float glass in June were 4 percent higher than the previous June, according to the most recent Producer Price Index Report (PPI) from the U.S. Labor Department. But Brad Boone, the residential segment manager for PPG Industries in Pittsburgh, says that small bump conceals long-term pricing problems for the industry.

“Price is always a challenge, especially in the float-glass industry,” he says. “If you look at glass prices and compare them, we’re at about the same pricing on a per-ton basis as we were 18 to 25 years ago. That’s better than where we were a couple of years ago, when they were the same on a per-ton basis as 40 years ago. From health care to regulations, our costs have done nothing but increase. We continue to do everything we possibly can from an efficiency standpoint. We’ve seen prices come up, but they’re still nowhere where we need to be for true re-investment economics.”

The growing demand for glass is also straining production in an industry that lost several float glass facilities across the country during the housing downturn. “As those market segments pick up, with reduced capacity on the float side, now everybody is running the float tanks harder and trying to get more capacity out of what we’ve had,” says Boone. “Once you shut down a float line, it’s sometimes impossible to bring it back up. It’s typically a 14-month process. And you get into permitting issues, especially in California, which caused a couple of the shutdowns to occur. They’re not coming back because of those strict requirements.”

The situation might be even worse for coated (low-E) glass, where demand is being driven by tougher energy codes for residential, commercial and specialty glass.

“All three segments are seeing a higher demand on coated glass than we’ve ever seen before,” Boone says. “So we’re actually seeing capacity tighten more quickly on the coated glass side than even on the float side.”

Whatever the product, it means longer lead times and delays for manufacturers and, eventually, for builders.

“Lead times are going to lengthen,” says Boone. “We’ve already seen lead times lengthen by 20 to 25 percent. We’ll probably see those lead times increase as much as 40 percent depending on the product.”

“Lead times are increasing with most of the manufacturers,” says Nate Yoder, the marketing director at Mullet’s Aluminum Products, an installation contractor in Sarasota, Fla.

To offset that, he says it’s important for installers to maintain good communications with manufacturers so employees and customers have realistic delivery expectations.

“If you are aware of a large project award coming up, engage in early project coordination details with your manufacturing trade partner with respect to anticipated order submittal, delivery timeline and staging,” he says.

Very Exciting Concepts

The present might be dominated by pricing and production worries, but the future of glass looks bright on the technological front.

First, of course, is ever-improving energy efficiency.

“Energy certainly is going to continue to drive improvements,” says Boone. “With Energy Star 6.0, the northern tier is going to focus more on improved thermal conductivity. The southern tiers are going to be more concerned about solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC). That’s leading to some new product roll-outs. You get into some things in the northern tier where you start to talk about more surface products such as warm edge and how you can combine those to improve thermal conductivity.”

Lisa Green, the product manager for Guardian’s ClimaGlass, agrees.

“We see an increase in popularity of regionally targeted low-E products to meet unique needs and weather conditions,” she says. “The Energy Star Version 6.0 Northern Zone criteria will be effective January 1, 2016, and window manufacturers are currently settling into their solutions. Many are going after the high SHGC alternative paths using surface No. 3 products with high SHGC, or incorporating glass with the coating on surface No. 4, to meet the requirement that Northern Zone windows be at or below a 0.27 U-factor.”

“The biggest focus specific to residential fenestration products is overall thermal efficiency, with low-E glass being a significant driver of total window performance,” says Sal DiGregorio, North regional sales manager at AGC Glass Company North America. “With this in mind, we continue to see demand for higher-performing low-E coated glass, as well as a growing demand for fourth-surface technology—utilizing a pyrolytyic low-E coating on the No. 4 surface in addition to a low-E coating on the No. 2 surface. Of course, fourth-surface technology is the most cost-effective method of improving U-values 15 percent or more, avoiding the need to go to a triple-glazed window.”

Green says manufacturers must balance current production demands with possible energy code changes down the road.

“The longevity of the chosen solution is also a concern,” she says. “Many window manufacturers are trying to strike a balance between a long-term solution that meets anticipated future code changes and a solution that more cost-effectively targets today’s requirements.”

Green says interactive glass could be a game-changer.

“Dynamic glazing and potential integration of window controls into a home system are very exciting concepts,” she says. “There are still some significant challenges for this type of technology to be widely adopted, but a move to make windows more interactive will generate a step change in the value windows bring to a home.”

Yoder foresees the same thing.

“We’ll see automatically adjusting tints that can be set and programmed based on individual owner preferences by room and manually or remotely switched to opaque for privacy,” he says. He also says photovoltaic glass could become a big trend, especially in large multi-story applications or in homes that have a lot of windows in sunny climates. That’s a technology in which glass is used as a solar energy collection system. It can cut costs associated with building energy consumption and operations.

“When the price points become more affordable for the majority of residential customers and/or builders—and the retrofit applications are less complicated with power supply connections and/or energy collection storage—this could become a desirable option, especially in multi-story applications,” he says.

Any advances that would yield lighter glass products would also be a huge help, especially at the jobsite, Yoder says. “For the installation contractor, a reduction in the weight of products would be extremely beneficial,” he says. “As energy efficiency and wind storm protection requirements increase, the weight of the product does as well. This can result in increased labor costs and/or workers compensation claims.”

Energy Savings vs. Dollar Savings

It’s a constant question for those involved in the residential-window industry: What matters most to customers—affordability or energy efficiency?

It depends if you’re talking about homeowners or manufacturers.

“We’ve done some recent work with homeowner surveys, and cost is still top of mind either when replacing windows or going in with new construction,” says Boone. “But with a lot of the dialogue in the marketplace being more and more about energy conservation, energy certainly continues to grow, at least in surveys we’ve done.”

Yoder says it depends on the type of homeowner.

“For the custom homeowner, appearance, interior comfort and performance (wind storm and thermal/energy performance) are typically the most important options,” he says. “Price is important, but it’s seldom their primary focus in the decision-making process.  For the majority of residential homeowners and many of the multi-family home builders, energy performance and improved interior environment consistency is desirable, but cost of product/installation continues to be the most significant determining factor in the decision making process.”

Green suggests that glass replacement can be an easy and affordable energy-efficiency upgrade for consumers.

“Energy efficiency is king, but cost is not out of the picture,” she says. “There are many ways to improve the energy performance of a window, and updating the glass package is one of the simplest and easiest changes to implement since it doesn’t require costly changes in frame redesign.”

Millennials often demand more energy-efficient homes, says Alice Dickerson, the building products marketing manager at AGC Glass Company North America.

“Energy efficiency is important to all of us, and there is evidence that it is becoming more and more important to homeowners and new homebuyers,” she says.

“Here is just one example. Earlier this year, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) released a study revealing that 84 percent of millennials are willing to pay 2 to 3 percent more to purchase an energy-efficient home—if they can quantify the savings on their energy bills. So, while homebuilders are required to meet specific code requirements, many of the larger players are making energy efficiency and sustainable building materials a key focus.”  

The picture is a bit different for window manufacturers, who often promote their product features.

“Most remodeling guys are always in a battle over who has the best product they can offer,” says Boone. “Window manufacturers will try to offer the total package, and that’s true whether we’re talking remodeling or new construction. But what will happen is the new-construction guys very quickly will be beaten back to a discussion on price, whereas the remodeling folks can start to combine different options and keep the cost a little more under control for what the final consumer will see.”

Trey Barrineau is the editor of DWM Magazine

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