Green Architects See Fenestration as Green

Focus group session makes clear that energy performance far outweighs other priorities, but other green considerations can't be ignored
John G. Swanson
February 15, 2009
FEATURE ARTICLE | Energy Efficiency, Materials & Components

Most architects involved in the green building movement think windows, doors and skylights are “green.” That view was expressed at a recent focus group sponsored by Window & Door and Velux-America, although it was also evident that definitions and priorities are not yet firmly established when it comes to choosing green products.

Organized by Market Resource Associates, the focus group gathered eight architects involved in residential projects that were attending the Greenbuild Expo in Boston last November. Conducted by MRA’s John Cashmore, the session revealed that the energy performance of windows, doors and skylights far outweighs other considerations when architects design green homes, but other issues and concerns are definitely on their radar. Focus group participants were clearly committed to green building. All answered yes when asked, “When thinking about fenestration products, are you thinking about green every time?” Furthermore, when asked if fenestration makes into the their top five considerations for green products in thinking about remodeling or new home projects, seven of eight said yes, with the other indicating it was close.

The focus group gathered eight architects from around the country who were in Boston last November for the Greenbuild Expo.

While all participants indicated they wanted their projects to be green, they agreed there is no universal definition of green. Table 1 shows the participants’ various definitions, and the discussion that followed clearly indicated green building is still an evolving movement. What makes products green is also defined regionally and can change based on a particular situation, participants also noted.
Nearly all the architects in the group had been involved in designing homes to meet green rating systems—either the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard or the National Association of Home Builders’ Green Building Guidelines. In doing so, they all reported selecting and using windows, doors and skylights to earn points. One called it a “no brainer,” while others noted that fenestration is one of the first things they’ll look at when choosing products. Other participants noted however that state and local jurisdictions and/or energy codes already impact window, door and skylight selection significantly.

That may be one reason the group indicated that windows, doors and skylights in a LEED home are “not necessarily” any different than those in a non-LEED home. A green home might take a more sophisticated approach to daylighting but the design must be careful and precise, participants suggested. Some systems require interaction (such as opening and closing drapes) for the daylighting to work. Participants felt most consumers do not interact with their daylighting systems on a consistent basis and automated daylighting systems might be more popular in the future.

Green Priorities
As part of the focus group session, the architects were asked to name characteristics they look at in selecting green fenestration products. They were then asked to rank the characteristics (named unaided) in order. As can be seen in Table 2, it can be seen that “energy performance of glass” ranked highest overall, followed by several other characteristics related specifically to energy efficiency. It is interesting to note that the architects as a group ranked a theoretically “non-green” attribute—the design/aesthetics of a product—as a higher priority than numerous attributes more typically associated with green—including FSC certification and local production. Cost also scored higher.

In further discussion of product attributes they may look at more closely when designing a green home, the architects noted that while many issues are climate and site dependent, functionality and ventilation are key, and heat gain is generally a concern when looking at fenestration products. Products are not all the same in their level of “greenness,” they agreed. Individuals suggested that skylights, for example, could be greener if they:

  • are operable to provide ventilation as well as light
  • offer better energy performance
  • include a good finishing kit
  • prevent leaks
  • decrease air infiltration
  • are made out of recycled content.

Window and door materials
Within the green building movement, there has been much discussion regarding the “greenness” of various materials. Within the window and door industry, there have been concerns regarding attitudes toward the green movement’s attitude about vinyl in particular, and to some extent wood. The focus group revealed there are definite views out there about various materials and products. Panelists were asked whether they thought particular materials were green, first as “standalone” materials, and then “in application” in windows, doors and skylights. Table 3 shows how each scored, with wood, glass and steel deemed “green” as standalone materials. The overall scores definitely reflect the bias of some against vinyl. They also suggest that wood no longer carries the negative taint when its use was associated with environmentalists’ concerns about clear-cutting and the spotted owl.

Despite the views they held of individual materials, the architects in the panel admitted that the manufacturer or manufacturing process is something they don’t generally try to assess in selecting green products. Often the client will assist in this process; via mission statements, third party verifications, online, and by telephone, it was noted. In the fenestration industry, they suggested “green choices” can be named by consumers. Companies mentioned by the group included Eagle, Hurd, Loewen, Kolbe & Kolbe, Marvin, Pella and Solatube.

The focus group session ended with the suggestion that green may not be much of a differentiator anymore, but rather an expected norm. The architects in the group all stated they were committed to green and the use of green product because of a sense of responsibility. They no longer can use the fact that they are “green architects” as differentiators for themselves, they reported.

As far as changes coming with the green building movement, the group agreed that there will continue to be more demand for higher performance, and a willingness to pay higher upfront costs for homes and building products. Most said their clients were willing to pay more up-front for products which provide long-term savings, but they also noted that “green architects” deal with a “certain breed of people” and not all consumers may think similarly yet.

The green architect focus group report, sponsored by Velux-America and Window & Door, is available for purchase for $39.95. It includes Market Resources Associates analysis, as well as a DVD of the entire session.  It can be ordered online, along with other Window & Door reports, in our online store.