Volume 40,   Issue 10                          October  2005

ABC's of Aluminum

How Aluminum Building Products Hold Their Own
by Brigid O'Leary

The average consumer associates aluminum with soda cans and foil used for cooking, but the average contract glazier knows that it can create some useful buildings. But just what do contract glaziers need to know about aluminum and why does it continue to be a viable option for the building industry? 

Nothing Compares
First of all, it’s long lasting, no matter how temporary the rest of the world seems to think it is.

“Aluminum has been around for a tremendously long time in the architectural community. It is tried and true. It has been used in a wide variety of applications in a wide variety of locations around the globe,” says Roger Reed, A. Zahner Architectural Metal’s architectural liaison. “How it has performed in those applications, in those locations … there is a lot of information that has been compiled as to what makes it work and what makes it not work. There’s lots of information at people’s fingertips with the web today as to what works and what doesn’t work. I think that’s a big plus for a lot of people.”

The ease with which people can access information about aluminum and working with it may be one plus, but there are others as well, including flexibility—both physical and metaphorical—in designing.

“[Aluminum is] the best by all means,” Bruce Olszewski, district sales manager for Alcan Composites says with a chuckle. “All materials are good materials, but each has its own use. From my perspective, [aluminum] is the best thing going, but it comes down to the designers and what they are trying to achieve aesthetically.”

It’s versatile, too.

“How does it compare to other substitute materials—masonry, steel, wood, vinyl—that’s the question. The strengths of aluminum are that it’s lightweight compared to those things and the finishing options are more flexible. You have more flexibility with design. You can do a lot of things with aluminum that you can’t do with the other materials. My company loses twice as many proposals to design or redesign as we do to pricing. Competition from substitute material is very real,” says Penn McClatchey, vice president and marketing manager with Southern Aluminum Finishing, an aluminum metal distributor, fabricator and finisher.

Soda Cans to Soda Cans
As with any building material, there are pros and cons to working with aluminum. 

“I think that when most people think of aluminum today they are thinking of composite systems, such as Alucabond®, rybond systems, not so much plate systems,” says Reed.

“The advantage, of course, is that it is a recycled material as long as it’s not a composite, as the aforementioned rybond or Alucabond systems. So, as tastes and aesthetics change, over time, material can be removed and melted back down and come back to us as pop cans [for example]. If it’s painted aluminum to begin with, of course, or even some other aluminums, it doesn’t have to be painted —it starts as recycled material. Of course, its big advantage, I believe, is that it’s environmentally-friendly.”

When working with aluminum, A. Zahner tends to stay away from the composite materials because of the recyclable aspect, but that doesn’t mean that composite systems are bad—they’re just different. 

“One thing I want to emphasize is that I’m talking about aluminum composite panels and the biggest advantage of aluminum composite material (ACM) is the physical flexibility of the product,” says Olszewski. “It allows the designer to use his or her imagination to achieve a desired look. You can bend it, shape it and do all sorts of things with it. It comes down to what you’re trying to achieve aesthetically.”

Aluminum isn’t perfect, though.

“Aluminum does tend to be more expensive than say, vinyl,” says McClatchey, who at first couldn’t think of any drawbacks to the product, but realized as he spoke with USGlass magazine that there were aspects of the product that might be considered hindrances. 

“There’s also a thermal barrier. Aluminum has very good thermal conductivity. That’s bad if you’re trying to keep the extreme temperatures outside of the building. There are different solutions to that, but wood has better insulating properties,” McClatchey added.

Past, Present and Future
Despite—or in light of —the advantages and disadvantages that come with using aluminum, the market remains strong, though like anything else, it is continuously changing.

Olszewski, who is still fairly new to the industry, sees the changes in available finishes as the driving trend over the last few years and expects it to continue, but McClatchey has noticed more changes in the market with regard to competition for jobs.

“The competition from substitute materials is more intense than it was ten years ago. One of the reasons is that the whole IT revolution has made it easy for people to compare and contrast different designs. Design-build is a more important part of the market than it used to be. It’s a practical thing for an owner or builder to look at five different building materials and pick the one that’s right for them. It’s a lot easier now than it was ten years ago,” he says.

But will the market stay on that course or will it go somewhere new? That’s another hard call to make, and one that varies depending on place, time and personal experience.

“I used to think the market was going toward pre-engineered materials, but I’m not so sure anymore. Every building site is different. Owners and architects want to make an individual statement, to make their mark. Pre-engineered materials tend to block them in. If someone could come up with a customizable, pre-engineered solution, maybe that’s the way to go … develop customizable, yet pre-engineered solutions,” says McClatchey.

However, for Reed, who tends to stay with the raw material (as opposed to aluminum composites), he sees the market staying on that course.

“We see more architects moving away from composite systems. They do have their place, but dealing with LEED issues and LEED certification, that’s becoming a lot more prominent in government work but large corporations are also looking at lifecycle costs and are finding aluminum to be a more attractive solution to their client needs,” says Reed.

But that’s not all he sees, of course. 

“From an architectural standpoint, we’re starting to break down the corners and edges of what constitutes an edge form. It’s easy to shape and a wide variety of forms and shapes can be achieved with it. The public has become more accepting of fanciful forms that each generation of architects has started creating. I think it’s going to be good for the aluminum building component industry,” he adds.

Put ‘Em Up, Partner
With architects, builders, general contractors and owners wanting aluminum in more and more radical designs, issues can arise. The key is knowing how to get through them.

“Some [contract glaziers] tend not to understand the thermal properties or the coefficient of expansion and contraction of the material. Aluminum does absorb heat and does have a tendency to move. You have to allow it to do so. You can’t confine it or restrain it, otherwise it presents problems,” says Reed.

How should you determine that aluminum is the right product for the project you’re anticipating?

“Give us a call,” Reed says, chuckling. 

He’s certainly not the only metal fabricator who encourages contract glaziers and builders to consult a fabricator, though.

“One thing I would say is that a professional respects a second opinion. I would recommend they talk to a variety of suppliers. Getting second and third opinions is something a professional should respect. Work with several suppliers and learn as much as you can by working with them,” suggests McClatchey.

Working with others, including metal fabricators, is not an admission of defeat or ignorance; it can help you learn more about a product than you may have realized you needed to know.

“I would say if you have a contact glazier utilizing ACM on a project, he should work with a qualified panel installer. The biggest thing is that it’s like any other material, there are nuances with ACM that an experienced installer can go through and save time and money that a person who has not used the product will do … and ACM can come in a separate package from the glass and glazing,” says Olszewski, who points to the fact that sometimes working with a metal fabricator can ensure that the job is not only done correctly, but doesn’t get evaluated beyond what it is intended to do. 

“You also need to use a tested and proven system. The biggest problems come in when a system that hasn’t been tested is being utilized. One of the ASTM standards includes a requirement that a system has been tested for structural integrity and depending on the type of system, for air and water infiltration. If you have an open viewing system, obviously the air and water system testing isn’t applicable,” he says.

Sometimes it just takes the right mindset to get into the groove of working with someone.
“You have to invest in thinking and you can’t just jump into a building type or a form or shape you’ve never dealt with before and expect to have fantastic results without investing in the tools and equipment necessary to complete the job or make other tools and equipment not designed to do that task. 

You have to invest in the thinking [to learn] what it is going to take to really complete this job, and invest in the brainpower and the tooling necessary to get the job done. Or, you recognize that it is not your field of expertise and find someone who can help you and create partnerships with companies who can help you with that kind of work; don’t think of that as a negative, think of it as a positive,” Reed adds. “It’s great when everyone works as a team.

The primary goal is to make the general contractor happy on the job so the architect and owners of the building are happy and … that’s a good thing.”

Little Glitches
Making everyone happy is one thing, but keeping everyone happy is another. Sometimes there are communication breakdowns during the course of a project (who hasn’t experienced that?) and sometimes problems can arise before projects even begin. This is true particularly if one or more members of the team come in with preconceived notions about what others do and what role each party plays in the process. For example, a supplier does not play the same role as a subcontractor, nor does it assume any responsibility for jobsite conditions or risks associated with the project. Though that example is an extreme, there are definitely some misperceptions that architects, builders, contractors, and even some contract glaziers, have about working with aluminum. 

“Recently we’ve had people asking for custom forms and shapes out of aluminum that aren’t available and they—architects, in particular, at least—are surprised that the tooling costs so much to change something out and create something custom. Really, the tooling isn’t that expensive if you’ve got a lot of material, but if you’ve only got one of an item or 100 feet of custom extrusion, the tooling gets expensive. It’s not the material, it’s the tooling,” says Reed. “I think one of the biggest challenges is to educate the architect, builder, whomever your customer is as to what can and cannot be achieved and to help prepare them for what aspects of the design are going to be significant costs. You don’t want to scare someone off by saying ‘oh, you can’t afford to do that.’ 

That’s not helping them solve their problem. You want to be able to say ‘what you’re currently doing is costly or an expensive item, but here’s another item that will allow you to achieve the results with a less expensive …’ so that you don’t drive the product [aluminum] off the project. You don’t want to hear ‘well make that brick or stucco, because that will take them away from the job,’” says Reed.

What it boils down to, really, is understanding the material.

“The biggest [misunderstanding] is the reality of what goes into it and how complicated it is; the complexity of the installation,” says Olszewski.

So don’t forget to ask for help.

(Photos except those on page 65 courtesy of A. Zahner Co.)

the author
Brigid O’Leary is an assistant editor of USGlass magazine.

© Copyright 2005 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.