Should the Industry Stand Up for Window Walls?

John G. Swanson
November 14, 2011
THE TALK... | Markets & Trends

Arriving in Toronto for Win-Door North America, the industry is getting a chilly reception–at least from the Canadian Broadasting Corp.  This week's headlines from CBC News offer dire predictions of widespread window failures on the many recently-built glass-walled condos here.  

The window walls of the many high-rise buildings constructed in Toronto in recent years are said to be less energy efficient than more traditional materials. The glass-skinned condos are described as "throwaway buildings" that will need to be significantly retrofitted in 15 to 25 years, "but perhaps even earlier." And though window walls have been popular with condo buyers for the views they offer, developers primarily chose this type of construction because of the lower cost, the CBC article also suggests.

With all the construction that Toronto has seen in the past decade, I would not be surprised to hear there have been problems with some of these condos. The CBC report, however, offers what I'd describe more or less as an across-the-board condemnation of curtain wall/window wall construction in high-rise buildings. And in the initial reports, I would note there seems to be no comments from glass supporters.  No architects, engineers, manufacturers, etc., involved in these projects are quoted, and frankly, I find it hard to believe there are not a few out there who would stand by their work.  

So I thought I would use this week's Talk to spur some response. Take a look at some of the CBC coverage, post a comment below and tell us what you think. This is probably more of an issue for those involved in the commercial and architectural markets, but do you think the industry needs to stand up to this type of criticism in the press?  If you're at Win-Door, by the way, stop by the Window & Door booth.  We'd love to hear from you in person too.  

Survey Results as of 11/28/2011 :

Should the industry respond to press reports condemning window walls?

Yes

  

 

81%

No

  

 

19%

We got some thoughtful responses this week, which I hope you'll read. You may also find it interesting to go back to the original CBC reports and see the online feedback from readers there. Most of those responses paint with a pretty broad brush. No one seems to suggest that maybe some of the glass condos of Toronto have been built well or that all building materials require maintenance and/or possibly replacement at a certain point. None of the responses seem to acknowlege any advances that have been made in energy efficient technologies. Some comments seem to think condo owners are ridiculous for enjoying their views.  

Personally, I don't know the industry should necessarily respond to one negative article or series like this, but I think the flurry of reports suggest we need to do some work. Perhaps, we, as an industry, need to do to more to get the message out about the benefits of windows, doors, skylights and glass. It can be energy efficient. We cannot let the benefits of views, natural light, ventilation, etc., be dismissed as luxuries.     

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The doors and walls from the throw away homes will be not much stronger. However it can be recycled and can use it again. Also steel doors can be considered that will be strong and free from rusting. Thank you for sharing this interesting post.
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Although the CBC report may contain errors and generalizations, it nevertheless points out some issues few people and companies are willing to deal with.

We live in a "throw-away” culture. Canada is and the USA are at the top of the world when it comes to producing waste. “Throw away buildings” and “throw away windows" are just an extension of our culture. I have heard various experts from within the industry saying that they have seen these and other window problems coming for a long time.

One of the underlying reasons for the problems we witness is the drive for quick profits (the greed factor certainly plays a big role in this). Lack of consideration and care for short and long term consequences to the people occupying the buildings and the planet we live on is part of the issue.  No doubt there are many good fenestration products out there but from what I have seen in the last 20 years there are more bad fenestration products out there than good ones. Technology is readily available to build energy efficient and durable structures that include energy efficient, high performing and long lasting fenestration components. Good solutions are available but these cost more time and money to implement. Without doubt, in the long run better/advanced technologies always pay off. We have many examples of technologically advanced, well designed, and quality built structures.

A quote by John Ruskin sums up the sentiment: “When you pay too much, you lose a little money - that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought is incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey.--John Ruskin

The window wall in this case is one of the envelope components failing. No question, the window manufacturer is one who can be blamed. But the problem does not stop with the window people. Unless individuals and companies do things different, nobody participating in the construction game can be absolved and claim innocence or ignorance. Everyone across the board, developers, real estate companies, banks, suppliers, insurance companies (and to a certain degree even the end user) carry varies degrees of responsibility to exercise due care and diligence when they decide to enter the construction game. For the twenty odd years that I have been involved with fenestration products for low and high-rise projects as well as single family homes, I have witnessed the persistent failure of windows and doors to perform and do what they are supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is not the exception but a common occurrence.

George Nickel

Innotech Windows

FYI, the following is a response I emailed to Metro Morning, the CBC morning show on which the 'throw-away windows' crap was broadcast.  Items in square brackets [ ] are added fro this posting to WD Weekly to explain some issues that may not necessarily be known south of the border, as we like to say up here.  The email was sent yesterday, November 15, 2011.  No reply yet.

There are many, many errors in the articles that have been posted on the CBC Toronto website regarding the use of window-wall construction for residential high-rise apartment building enclosures in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area].  That form of construction has had its problems but it has come a long way from where it started in the 1970s in the GTA [Canadian window wall practice is different, I'm told, from practice in the US]. 

It is true that such buildings are energy pigs that the owners will have to content with as energy costs increase (some retrofit solutions are possible).  Regrettably, the Ontario Building Code (not the 'Toronto' building code, no such beast exists) does not set meaningful energy performance levels for this type of building construction) which, in combination with the relative low cost of window-wall construction has created - is creating - a legacy of poor thermal control / high energy consumption.

It is also true that the sealed, insulating glass units will eventually need to be replaced when they fog (although your article on 'Thermal Window Failure' is fundamentally wrong in its description of the mode of failure) but unit replacement should be included in a condominium corporation's reserve fund plan and therefore, would not come as a surprise in the future, provided that the units do not fail prematurely [each condominium corporation in Ontario is required to prepare financial plans for capital replacements as the building ages and contribute to a 'reserve fund' in accordance with that plan.  Contributions are made by each unit owner as part of its monthly maintenance fee to the corporation].  The question becomes when and how much.  If a reserve fund plan is so poorly prepared (and some are) that it does not include insulating glass unit replacement at a reasonable cost at a reasonable cycle, that's a problem with the planner, not the windows.  Fogging after a long life span is not failure - it is the end of normal life span.  'Failure' denotes less than expected performance.  That can happen due to material and installation issues but again, the insulating glass unit manufacturing industry and the window manufacturing industry have made tremendous steps forward in extending durability.  15 to 20 years is a drastically short life span, too short I would argue for a reasonable plan given the improvements that have been made. I've studied durability and wrote a research paper for CMHC on field monitoring of ageing units; the method should be considered in condos with extensive areas of glazing but instead, most reserve fund planners rely on experience which tends to be based on experience with failures, not successes.  On the whole, we are successful in the buildings we construct.  They may not be perfect, there certainly is room for improvement with respect to thermal performance (it's coming), there are some traps, failures of one type or the other do occur, but the looming disaster that is predicted in your article is over the top.

Now that you've scared the crap out of condo owners, you should consider following up this article with a discussion of positive actions a condo Board of Directors can take.   What about retrofit options?  Post-applied, low-emissivity films in the short term, replacement with higher-performing units after the existing units have reached the end of their useful life span.  What about tracking the ageing of units and establishing reasonable life span and reserve fund contributions that need not be an unmanageable burden on the unit owners?

And, you should include imagery and examples that relate to high-rise residential construction.  Not pictures of commercial construction which uses curtain wall, not window-wall, such as the photo supplied by Ted Kesik.  The First Canadian Place retrofit has nothing to do with the issue of residential window wall refit.

George Torok, C.E.T., BSSO

Building Science Specialist, Morrison Hershfield Limited