Volume 46, Issue 5 - June 2011


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 jobs anymore.”

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.”

Adding Value
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,” DiMaio says.

Others have not.

“We have not seen any foreign competition in our market as of yet,” Morris says.

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 new area.

“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 intellectual capital.”

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 recalls.

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 adds.

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.”

Megan Headley is the editor of USGlass.

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