Aluminum: Future Material of Choice or Out of the Mix?
Industry Experts Weigh in on that Million-Dollar Question
by Alan B. Goldberg
The question about the future of aluminum has more to do with where it is used rather than whether it will be used, and reports of its death have been exaggerated greatly. While many have various opinions about this material—its characteristics and practical use—most seem to agree that the outlook for aluminum windows and doors in the residential market is quite different than the commercial segment. Regardless of the application, aluminum has certain characteristics that are superior to other materials and that could be its salvation for the future.
Commercial Versus Residential
“I do believe aluminum is going to be around in the commercial fenestration business for ten years or more although it will diminish in popularity,” said Raj Goyal, director of business development for Graham Architectural Products.
Goyal said it is the only metal that will meet the requirements in the commercial world for curtainwall and large windows.
This assessment contrasts with the situation in the residential market.
“Those reports that predict the demise of aluminum have been blown out of proportion because of the energy requirements and growth of fiberglass, PVC and composites in the residential market,” he added.
Some have concluded, according to Goyal, that aluminum is not going to make it.
“I don’t believe aluminum will ever get back into the residential market,” he said.
Not everyone shares this view.
“There is a place for every material—vinyl, wood and aluminum. Each has its special characteristics and applications,” said Jim DiBacco, executive vice president for Astro Shapes. He pointed out that aluminum has been the right choice for many of his customers and disagreed with articles that were predicting its demise. Durability and the ability to accept virtually any color makes aluminum ideal in commercial and residential applications, particularly in coastal regions. Also, its uniqueness as an extrudable material is a factor in meeting codes and standards.
“Durability is a critical factor when windows are going into high-rise residential and commercial buildings and aluminum windows are a necessity for this type of application,” said Bill Deuschle, vice president of quality and testing for Traco.
Although other materials can be used in place of aluminum, these do not have its structural integrity or durability. Subjecting other materials to conditions where they do not have the strength could present safety issues. As an example, Deuschle explained that a vinyl window installed in a high-rise structure where pressure and the force of wind are high and can be influenced even more by high-speed elevators, there could be glass displacement and breaking.
The Price of Energy Efficiency
Is safety being compromised by codes that are driven by energy efficiency?
“Although codes are taking factors like energy efficiency into consideration, one must look at the entire picture and part of that is safety,” said Deuschle.
He pointed out that until aluminum can meet some of the energy efficiency requirements, its market share will continue to drop to vinyl and wood, even though neither has the same level of structural strength.
“Energy consumption is being made the highest priority and I think that safety should be given the same priority,” he added.
Deuschle is not alone in his views about the influence of materials based on energy efficiency.
“The greatest challenge facing the aluminum window and door industry is one of vigilance and education of those governmental bodies and coding agencies which, due to a lack of understanding, can make decisions and regulations, based on faulty information, as to what is necessary to promote true energy efficiency in window and door products,” said Greg Patzer, director of communications and government relations for the Aluminum Extruders Council.
He added that the strength and rigidity of aluminum are what make it “most often the superior and preferred product for commercial and residential applications.”
Also, recyclability makes it an environmentally responsible choice.
“We still see aluminum (in commercial applications) as the material of choice for retail buildings, hotels, motels and office buildings,” said Bob Leyland, vice president of customer operations for Kawneer.
“We have not seen any decrease in the use of aluminum from architects, except where codes mandate the use of other materials (i.e. fire-rated products). And even in these cases, there are enhancements that can be made to aluminum systems to achieve the desired result.”
“The most important thing about aluminum is its strength-to-weight-
ratio. There is nothing else that is stronger. If I am working on a high-rise, I want a material that is known for its strength,” said Dave Miller, president and CEO for Azon.
In the commercial market, it is the only material that has such flexibility with finishes. It accepts any finish, he said.
Miller explained that the residential market is a different story.
Vinyl entered the market at a good time because aluminum was reaching that point where it was perceived as being of poor quality. He described aluminum screen doors as junk that contributed to the poor image of aluminum in windows. In spite of the reputation aluminum earned, Miller said it is still used in certain applications where materials take a lot of abuse, such as schools. Vinyl, which offers aesthetics and lower cost, will not last under demanding conditions. As examples, he mentioned apartments that originally had vinyl and have since switched to aluminum. Vinyl also offers limited colors.
“Aluminum will never have the position it once held in the residential market, but, like vinyl and wood, it will continue to have its place. I think it could garner 5 to 8 percent of the residential market,” said Miller.
For one window and door manufacturer in Chicago, the cycle of aluminum has had a significant impact on its business.
“When we began, the company name was Republic Aluminum Window & Door and we were a primary exclusively replacement storm window and door maker. In 1988, Republic added aluminum windows to its line-up. In 1997-8, the company dropped aluminum replacement windows and its storm products (with the exception of one line of storm doors and windows) because prices were very high, we couldn’t deal with the fluctuations and we saw that the market was shifting to vinyl,” said Amy Zimmerman, vice president of marketing for Republic Windows and Doors. “There is no question that aluminum represented a significant portion (more than $5 million annually) of our business. I must say, looking back, there will always be a place for aluminum because of its strength. There are applications where vinyl, in spite of its aesthetics, will not perform like aluminum or work in the same sized openings. Aluminum offers quite a choice in colors where vinyl is very limited.”
“The aluminum industry is beginning to see the light. The fact is, they went to sleep and slept for a long time,” said Goyal. “They didn’t understand what was going on with energy issues and they didn’t adjust thermal breaks to current high-performance needs. Today, companies are looking to make significant improvements in thermal break to meet future requirements of energy codes.”
“In the next five years, we will continue to see strong use of aluminum,” said Leyland. “One of its appealing features is that it is
considered a green product. We extrude it from billets and in many cases,the billets themselves are created from recycled aluminum. As a result, aluminum is a good product to consider when sustainability and environmental friendliness are concerns. From a thermal performance standpoint, it is a conductive material, but recent improvements in thermal break technologies enable aluminum systems to perform very well, thermally.”
“State-of-the art aluminum window and door products can, with the use of the latest glazing and thermal break technologies, meet and exceed realistic energy efficiency standards that we desire,” added Patzer. “When product durability and total life cycle are taken into account, aluminum products should be the products of choice for total energy.”
“I think it is safe to say that the use of aluminum is returning to apartments because longevity and durability have worked in its favor,” said Miller. “Five years ago, vinyl was the material of choice because of cost and aesthetics. We sell to the residential market including Florida. Based on its hurricane-resistance, aluminum is coming back. In retrospect, I would say aluminum has proven to be cyclical in nature.”
Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM. He has more than 30 years of experience in the insulating glass industry.
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