Volume 43, Issue 1 - January 2008

People with Glass Curtains… 
 Curtainwall Goes Up 
in Residential Construction

by Ellen Giard Rogers

For the uber-rich, money is no object. These are the people who can pay mega-bucks for the same things most everyone else buys at nominal costs. 

Yes, this crowd can buy whatever they want, whenever they want. Just look at their houses: multi-million dollar homes, high-end, top-dollar anything and everything, including windows—windows that come in all shapes and sizes, and in some cases, even curtainwall.

The use of curtainwall, storefront or other traditionally-commercial glazing products in single-family residences may not be mainstream design, but it’s not uncommon. Contract glaziers taking on these jobs say it’s a trend that requires a certain skill level to see the project through to a successful completion.

Look at that House!
A home with a commercial glazing façade can be a real eye-catcher, with its sleek, shiny metal and sparkly clean glass. Though it’s not something specified everyday, the design concept has been around for decades. 

“At least in this part of the country, I’ve seen it used the past 25-30 years,” says Lyle Hill, president of the Chicago-based contract glazing firm MTH Industries. 

The majority of the work in which MTH is involved is in the commercial sector; its subsidiary, Glass & Mirror America, typically handles the residential market.

In the Western part of the country, Atascadero Glass Inc. in Atascadero, Calif., has also been involved with high-end residential glazing projects.

“About 40 percent [of our work] is traditional residential glazing,” says Roger Grant Jr., president of the company. “Then there’s this kind of hybrid [commercial/residential] and that’s probably less than 5 percent, about two a year.”

Beth Trainor-Hockett, who works in business development for Trainor Glass Co.’s Denver branch, says in their experience this type of application is mainly driven by the architect. 

“Homeowners are going on board with these high-end, commercial architects and they [architects] are used to what they can achieve with curtainwall,” says Trainor-Hockett. “The spans they can get, the size of glass they can use and the views they can achieve. Architects want to be able to do something with a certain product that they aren’t able to achieve with traditional residential products.”

Contract glaziers also agree, the number of these jobs has increased in recent years. And the driving factors? 

“Houses have simply gotten bigger and more sophisticated in recent years,” says Hill. “In many cases, these homes are being built on land that is highly desirable because of its location and potential views. Often, the homeowner is desirous of having large expanses of glass to take advantage of the view that is available and it only makes sense that curtainwall type glass and metal systems would be used.”

Aside from the architectural statement the house will make, another benefit of using a traditionally commercial glazing system is the performance level it can offer. Higher performance levels, thanks to improved glass coatings, systems and aluminum framing, can help ensure better energy performance. 

Dave Hewitt, director of marketing with EFCO in Monett, Mo., says as a supplier to the high-rise condo market, single-family residential is a natural extension for the company. “While it doesn’t happen too often, it’s enough that we keep an eye on that market,” says Hewitt. Steve Green, director of sales and marketing for Tubelite Inc. in Walker, Mich., says his company’s level of involvement in this type of job varies, and sometimes begins very early on with homeowner meetings.

“It’s good if we can do that because the homeowner doesn’t always understand what they are getting in these systems,” says Green. Owners don’t always realize that having a curtainwall system in their home isn’t going to have the same appearance as a wood window, for example. He explains that some manufacturers do not offer a concealed-joinery system, so fasteners and screws are visible. “They may not like how that looks,” says Green.

A Different Set of Rules
Curtainwall is curtainwall, but a house is not a high-rise condo. Even though the systems are typically the same, a different set of rules are required when it comes to someone’s home. For starters, homeowners tend to be much more particular than commercial building owners.

“The owners of large, expensive homes want to be involved with not only their design but, in many cases, their actual construction,” says Hill. “Often times, meetings that are typically attended by subcontractors, architects and general contractors will also include the owners.” Grant agrees. 

“Homeowners have standards above what we typically see in a commercial setting.” Bill Trainor, division manager for Trainor Glass, has a slightly different take. In his experience, residential owners are not always more demanding or involved than commercial owners.

“On one job I might see the owner every three days, but on another I might not even know the owner’s name,” Trainor says.

Another difference is that general contractors and architects are not always familiar with commercial products. “Most contractors are not as familiar with commercial products and they are not familiar with shop drawings, project management and the high level of coordination that is required to get the system in properly,” says Jim Stevens, vice president of Atascadero Glass. 

“They are also not as familiar with lead times. So, for us, there is a huge amount of coordination involved, especially when you throw the homeowner’s [unique expectations] into the mix. That is their castle that they are building.”

Some suppliers are particular about this type of work. Hewitt says there are some companies that try and avoid this type of work because it’s not a high-volume job.

“As we see it, we’re still supplying the same product [as we would on a commercial job], just less of it,” says Hewitt. “It’s still revenue, and we’re taking care of our customers; we want to make sure they are serviced.” He adds that the projects may be smaller [than a commercial job], but just as much work, if not more, is often required.

Green says sometimes, if a homeowner doesn’t like the end result, they won’t pay for it, “and they tell you to rip it out,” he says. “The systems perform wonderfully, but the owners just don’t like the way it looks.” With so much involved, making sure the right project management team is on the job is also important.

“We have a mix of glaziers and probably 25 percent are really effective in doing work on a residence like that,” says Grant. “They have to have the attention to detail to make sure they get the work done to the homeowner’s satisfaction.”

Hill agrees. “Because of the nature of many of these projects and the fact that the owners are often intimately involved, the skill set of the project manager has to be such that not only are the technical needs of the job properly addressed, but often the social and political needs as well.”

Negotiate or Bid
Bidding for a job may be perfectly acceptable on a commercial project, but not so when it comes to these high-end homes. Contract glaziers say negotiating is the best—and sometimes only—way to go.

“You don’t want to bid a project like this because [of the level of detail] that can be involved,” says Trainor.

It’s often difficult to bid high-end residential projects involving curtainwall in the traditional manner. “Often because the homeowner is so involved with the details of the project, aesthetic quality regularly becomes more important than either price or timeliness of delivery,” says Hill. 

“The homeowner usually knows exactly what they want the project to look like and they will not accept substitutions or value engineering tradeoffs.” Hill adds that contract glaziers have to keep in mind that the types of people building homes with expansive amounts of high-end curtainwall usually have the financial means to pay for what they want and, in many cases, are used to getting exactly what they want. Stevens says since his company has a good working relationship with architects and general contractors they are often called on for design consultation and assistance.

“It is a bit of bitter pill, though, when we spend a lot of time up front [during the design phase] only to find that [we lose the project],” says Stevens. “We do a lot of the preliminary meetings … and that’s when we try to negotiate the work, which is our preference for this type of job.”

All in This Together
With so much going into this type of work, communication and strong relationships with everyone is critical. This helps to ensure the job stays on schedule and that, probably most important of all, the homeowner is happy.

“We’re all in the same boat,” says Trainor. “And on this type of work, you’re not just getting the commercial glass installer; you’re also getting the commercial drywall installer, the commercial plumber … because that’s who the contractor is used to working with.”

Architects and homeowners also have lots of product questions. So, in addition to the other construction trades, contract glaziers must stay in constant communication with their suppliers. “Often, they [architects/homeowners] are pushing for maximum sizes, so you have to know what the manufacturer is producing and when he’ll produce it,” says Stevens. “And that can become a challenge, because a manufacturer might say he’ll build something, but when it comes down to doing it he might get cold feet.”

Looking Forward
Home trends start at the top and work their way down to the traditional, mid-level market. But, don’t expect to see curtainwall showing up in just any neighborhood subdivision. While massive spans of glass and aluminum are hot in high-end residences, it’s not something that everyone is going to want. “In an up-and-coming, trendy neighborhood, it fits,” says Trainor. “But in other areas it sometimes looks as though it doesn’t belong.”

But there is still that certain person wanting to build a home like no other—and that’s not going to change.

“There will always be residential owners who want that unique project and they are going to look at the entire range of both residential and commercial products available to try and build it,” says Stevens.

For this type of client, price isn’t an issue, but that doesn’t mean the job can be taken lightly; contract glaziers must prove themselves and their abilities. And once they do, rest assured, the high-end client will continually call on them. 

Can Contract Glaziers Do This? 
Whether commercial or residential, architects frequently present challenging, if not impossible, design work to contract glaziers. “Even before you get into the actual project management phase, we’ve found that customers come in with this grand idea of the finished project, and they don’t have a realistic expectation or idea of what the cost will be,” says Shane Payton, chief estimator at Atascadero Glass in Atascadero, Calif. 

“Typically we’ll get a really nice set of prototype drawings and we do some design work, some consultation on it; we’ll recommend the system and then the same set of plans come back six months later scaled back drastically because the owner was blown out of the water by the price. There’s not a familiarity with what these systems cost in the residential market.”

Lyle Hill with Chicago-based MTH Industries agrees. “Sometimes the high-end residential curtainwall customer wants something that isn’t practical or just can’t be built,” says Hill. “There are also those occasions where the architect involved will draw whatever it is the homeowner thinks he might want, throwing reason and practicality to the wind. Without doubt, this adds to the challenge.”

Bill Trainor from Trainor Glass Co.’s Denver division, says contract glaziers have to provide a certain level of education to the homeowner to help them better understand the nature of the products and systems.

“It can’t just be ‘I want this.’ You have to educate the homeowner on the right way to have some of the features they want,” says Trainor, adding that reaching the level of perfection homeowners desire can be tough. 

“They don’t necessarily have the mindset of tolerances that we have on commercial projects.”

Ellen Giard Rogers is a contributing editor for USGlass magazine.

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