Volume 50, Issue 12 - December 2015


Singled Out: Commercial Building Stock Still Short on Multi-Glazing

The current commercial building stock is ripe for retrofit, but will the high-performance glazing industry get to take a bigger bite out of the market any time soon?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office recently released data from its 2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey. Of the more than 5.5 million commercial buildings in the U.S., just 54.2 percent were reported to have utilized “multi-paned windows.”

That leaves nearly half of the commercial buildings in the country without modern double- or triple-glazing. The problem, some say, is that owners aren’t necessarily in any hurry to upgrade.

A Tough Sell?

Margaret Webb, executive director of the Insulating Glass Manufacturers Alliance, says that without major incentives, building owners typically aren’t enticed to change the glazing unless the windows or units have failed. “Even then, it seems that cost of replacement is the prime motivator when selecting replacement products,” she says. And in that case, “you get what you pay for.”

While higher-performance glazing can have a direct impact on energy savings, that’s not necessarily a solid sell for building owners.
“Commercial building owners don’t pay the utility bills of leased space—their lessees pay for heating and cooling costs,” says Tracy Rogers, director of industry relations and advanced technology at Quanex Building Products. “The building owners do, however, pay the costs for building upgrades and retrofits.”

He says that because the cost of commercial glazing retrofitting is high compared to alternative energy improvement options, “there is no practical way for the building owners to get a return on improvements to the building envelope but through higher rental rates, if they can be passed through, or through higher marketability of a more energy-efficient building, if they’ve still space to rent.”

A direct benefit exists for owner-occupied buildings, but those opportunities are less prevalent.

Education Matters

For Jack Williams, director of product marketing at EFCO, it’s all about educating building owners and decision-makers about “the true value of window retrofits.” He says the approach in energy retrofits has been “an inside-out approach,” in which HVAC equipment is upgraded first.

“It makes sense to first maximize the performance of the envelope, then analyze the HVAC demand and equipment needed,” he says. “This ‘envelope first’ approach, as well as factoring in the interdependencies between various building systems, can lead to greater savings in the long run.”

Williams says the industry needs to address the benefit side of the “cost-benefit equation” for the retrofit of windows. He notes that the benefits of window replacements can be grouped into three categories: energy performance that can lead to 20 to 30 percent in energy savings; improved aesthetics that can boost property values; and greater occupant comfort “by improving the interior surface temperature of the envelope and reducing air infiltration throughout the building, [which] in some cases can be shown to reduce the thermostat set point by 2-4 degrees.”

Still, it seems other incentives will ultimately be necessary to get commercial building owners to start investing in higher-performance glazing on a large scale.

“An easy answer is to do so through grants, subsidies, tax incentives, etc.,” says Rogers. “The problem is, who’s going to pay for these? Given the current and long foreseeable political future, this type of support through federal, state or local governments is pretty unlikely—at least to any substantive degree.”

Rogers says that one concept that has been the subject of industry discussions parallels a corporate smoking policy, where a company introduces a new health insurance rate for all employees that is substantially higher than past rates, “primarily to address the added cost of providing insurance to smokers. Discounts are then offered to employees who can demonstrate that they are tobacco free, which enables them to stay at the lower past insurance rate. Can such a program apply to commercial retrofit/replacement?”

He says an option would be to somehow “target a future date at which time-specific rates for building owners will go up substantially (taxes, utilities, etc.). Then, within this time period, allow for specific energy-saving building improvements that would reduce/negate these increases.”

He explains that it isn’t a tax rebate or incentive, as the net rate for those who make the changes remains the same. “It isn’t a tax increase, per se, as only those who choose to not make improvements accept the increased fees,” he says. Rogers acknowledges that he’s not sure how it would be implemented or at what levels, but it’s a concept he’s discussed with some in the industry.

Possible Solutions

One incentive, though not directly related to fenestration, is DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge. This strives to make commercial, public, industrial and multifamily residential buildings 20 percent more energy efficient over the next 10 years.

According to the DOE, partners of the challenge are offered “technical assistance and assistance in the creation of energy-efficiency implementation models … to support their commitment to measure, track, and improve portfolio-wide energy performance.” In addition, DOE and [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] will provide national recognition to partners for achieving program milestones and energy efficiency results, and will also recognize partners who leverage, develop, and share innovative energy-efficiency implementation models and showcase projects.”

“The greenest buildings are the ones that are already built,” says Darrell Cherry, business development manager of J.E. Berkowitz’s Renovate, a retrofitting system that can turn single-glazing into a triple-glazed unit when it is installed on the interior of the window. “By retrofitting an existing building, you can turn it into the most efficient building it can be.”

He notes that, according to the USGBC, buildings consume 40 percent of raw materials and 39 percent of energy in the U.S. alone.
“Focusing on new construction is important, but there is a whole other market waiting to be tapped,” he says. “It only takes a few moments to mention or ask about other buildings in a portfolio and mention that there are retrofit solutions that will once again put them on par with newer buildings.”

Where Has All the Glazing Gone?

According to the DOE’s 2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, the healthcare sector had the highest percentage of multi-glazing. Eighty percent of the 10,000 in-patient buildings used more than just single-glazing, while 68.7 percent of the 147,000 out-patient buildings were multi-glazed.
From a sheer numbers perspective, the office sector leads the way by a long shot. Of the more than 1 million office buildings in the survey, 67.8 percent are multi-glazed. However, that still leaves more than 300,000 office buildings with single-glazing.
Nearly 65 percent of the 158,000 buildings in the lodging sector were reported to have multi-glazing, and the 389,000 in the education sector is just under 57 percent. The mercantile segment was just under 63 percent, as 378,000 of the 602,000 stores in the survey were multi-glazed.
Not surprisingly, the warehouse and storage category had the lowest number of multi-glazing, with the service sector second-lowest. That could be because those buildings often have fewer windows.

—Nick St. Denis

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