Is North America Ready for IGU Integrated Glass Shading?

The incorporation of advanced shading into insulating glass units (IGUs) may be more prevalent in Europe than it is in North America, and while market barriers, such as cost do exist, the technology may also present a growth opportunity here, say some experts.

Given the range of the U.S.’s weather conditions, one would might think there would be market potential for the technology in the same way that electrochromic glazing and other technologies have seen increasing appeal.

“I think the big advantage is that IGU shading is geometric,” says Erik Olsen, managing partner at Transsolar Inc., a consultancy that brings engineering expertise to architecture, specifically on energy matters. “Any kind of geometric shading device is always higher performance” than a coating-technology product, he explains.

Viviane Chan, director of sales and marketing at Unicel Architectural, echoed that point. Aesthetics aside, the most effective means of controlling solar impact, both she and Olsen say, is to place the barrier on the outside; the least effective option, meanwhile, would be to place it on the inside (e.g., traditional blinds or shades), allowing heat to penetrate the glass and get inside.

But then there’s the third way, via the IGU. “I’d say those types of products are not extremely widely used [in Europe], but they’re certainly more commonplace and more available than they are in the U.S.,” said Olsen.

External shading is often not a preference of architects for aesthetic reasons. But with IGU integrated shading, designs can maintain a “smooth, glassy skin,” as Olsen says, to the exterior of the building.

The technology, meanwhile, continues to see improvements. MicroShade, a product out of Denmark, is comprised of a thin, transparent layer of micro-perforated metal that’s configured so that sunlight from low angles passes through relatively unimpeded while light from higher angles is blocked—achieving energy-efficiency benefits and unrestricted views at the same time.

Is the North American market simply unaware of the availability of such offerings? “The architects are aware that these products exist, but there are a lot of other ways to control light,” says Chan, citing various options such as diffused daylighting systems and translucent panels.

Much of the barrier, then, comes down to cost. Unicel’s factory is in Quebec, but many of the manufacturers are in Europe right now, requiring U.S. customers to absorb the cost of importing, not to mention the product cost itself.

Nevertheless, Transsolar recently worked on a project at PrincetonUniversity that employed the use of DLS COOLSHADE, a product from Eckelt Glas GmbH, for a skylight—a limited application, thus containing cost. Perhaps not surprisingly, the building will house a program that focuses on sustainability and the environment (the AndlingerCenter for Energy and the Environment).

“We’ve been lucky enough to work on these projects where it’s a high enough budget to import,” says Olsen.

While Unicel developed its systems with energy efficiency and the controlling of light in mind, the company discovered a niche in privacy-oriented products, such as those for hospitals. The company’s fully integrated and mechanical (i.e., no strings or cords) IGU louver system is ideal for that market in that the louvers have the added benefit of being hygienic, requiring no cleaning.

Still, the system also is effective for certain applications that address solar-oriented goals, says Chan. “One of the advantages is that you can use them for overhead glazing and anything in a slanted or angled position such as skylights,” she says.

That’s because basic, older-generation IGU shades can sag, whereas other products that incorporate extruded aluminum louvers never touch the inside face of the glass, Chan says.

So, is there market potential here in the U.S. for these advanced IGU shading products? “The potential for using that kind of product is tremendous,” says Olsen. “The issues are availability and cost—which are always the two issues.”

Carl Levesque is a contributing writer for USGNN.com

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