Curtainwall Companies Explain the Trend to Minimize Field Labor
by Sarah Batcheler and Megan Headley
Shop fabrication to minimize field labor is becoming more common in the glass industry. Since field labor rates are currently averaging much higher than shop labor rates, the use of pre-assembled curtainwalls, storefronts and windows continues to rise.
“We try to use them whenever possible,” says Dennis Welch, vice president and division manager for the Georgia division of Trainor Glass.
“A significant percent of our work is done as a unitized curtainwall,” says Lee E. Steffens, director of Enclos University, a part of Enclos Corp. in Eagan, Minn.
“Certain fabrication and assembly methods are more efficient than others—unitizing is one of those,” adds Charlie Condit, vice president of Thomas Glass in Columbus, Ohio.
As a result, aluminum companies are offering their customers options in pre-assembled units as a way to stand out from the competition.
“Customers are going to want to buy products that incorporate screw-spline joinery, which allows them to pre-assemble the frames,” says Eddie Bugg, director of production for Kawneer Co. of Norcross, Ga. “They will take the pre-assembled frames, erect them and then put glass in it. If the customer wants to put the glass in the frame in the shop, we call that unitized construction.”
Doug Penn, director of marketing for aluminum building products manufacturer YKK AP of Austell, Ga., notes that the use of pre-assembled units is not necessarily a new trend. He says that many of his company’s products are designed to be easily assembled.
“It’s been our goal since we developed our first system in the mid-1980s. It’s a founding principal [of our company],” he says.
Largely behind the trend toward minimizing field labor is the limited availability of quality field laborers.
“I think that, in the construction industry as a whole, the labor force continues to erode in quantity and quality,” says Welch.
“The labor pool is not as big [as it used to be], so even if you have the money, you might not be able to find someone to do it,” says
Glaziers have noted labor shortages for years, but pre-assembled units are helping them to address this problem by shortening the amount of time spent in the field, and thus the amount of laborers needed.
According to Welch, using pre-assembled systems leads to “better control of the labor hours on the project” as well as “quicker dry-in of the building envelope.”
“With the labor shortage of qualified glaziers, it’s incumbent on them [contract glaziers, to use pre-assembled systems] if they want to be competitive,” says Penn. “Our customers are looking to transfer the outside labor to the shop.”
Some manufacturers are responding to the needs of the glaziers by offering different levels of completed units.
“We, along with many of our competitors, give our customers the luxury of choosing the level of pre-assembly they want to take advantage of,” says Bugg.
According to Bugg, Kawneer offers different forms of supply, ranging from stock links to fabricated or fully-assembled for curtainwalls, storefronts or windows.
“It is up to the customers as to how much field labor they want to minimize,” Bugg continues. “Most of our customers prefer to buy the products in stock link or prefabricated kits.”
“We try to simplify the anchoring of the system so the glaziers don’t have to do as much anchoring. We also try to minimize the amount of sealant work they have to do,” says Penn.
Adding to the ease of installation is the addition of detailed instructions guiding glaziers in how to install the large units.
“We try to design all of our systems from our customers’ point of view,” says Penn. “We try to make them very easy to put together and our instructions are lengthy and in detail.”
Penn adds that YKK AP was one of the first manufacturers to offer online installation instructions, and that many other companies have now followed suit. This means glaziers can find answers to questions they may stumble upon in the field quickly and at any time.
Another advantage of pre-assembled products is that customers are paying shop labor rates, which are traditionally lower then field labor rates.
“The cost of labor has gone up across the board, but in most cities or jurisdictions, the cost of field labor has gone up faster than shop labor,” says
“Depending on the type of job, you might have a shop that is prevailing wage in the field and your shop labor is a different rate,” says Condit.
“Labor is one of the more expensive parts of a project so anything you can do to reduce the labor costs is nothing but a benefit,” adds Steffens.
“It’s less expensive to fabricate and glaze in a controllable shop environment,” says Gary Taylor, marketing coordinator for United States Aluminum of Waxahachie, Texas.
Steffens agrees. He says that better inventory control, available when assembling units in the shop compared to in the field, can also help keep prices down.
“You can picture, if you’re doing this as a stick wall, the magnitude of pieces you’d have to keep track of during the installation process,” he says. “In a shop environment your pieces are all in one shop. Generally you have a very good inventory control process.”
“Particularly out in the field you don’t have as many parts and pieces, you don’t have boxes, you don’t have to sift through things,” says
Because of that, Steffens points out that it’s easy to “make sure that they [components] don’t get lost during the installation process, which could be very expensive.”
Creating Quality Products
Beyond just saving time in the field, some manufacturers and glaziers argue that pre-assembled products increase the quality of the overall product and of the installation, giving glaziers additional competitive advantages.
“There’s better quality control since the framing assembly … is installed in a controlled environment,” says Welch.
“You’re closer to the quality control issues in the shop than in the field,” says Condit. “We do everything that we can under controlled conditions.”
“Typically, your quality of installation is going to be better in the shop,” Bugg says.
Bugg notes that a controlled shop environment isn’t disturbed by disadvantages such as weather or the stress of assembling a unit high in the air, both of which can lessen the quality of field labor.
Quality control is the primary reason Steffens says he uses unitized systems.
“The possibility of contamination of surfaces by dust or dirt on the job site doesn’t exist there [in the shop],” says Steffens.
He adds that silicone manufacturers feel “more comfortable” with preassembled units, knowing that contaminants won’t interfere with the product’s performance.
Challenges to Pre-Assembled Units
Although glaziers are quick to praise the pre-assembled units, they do acknowledge that there can be disadvantages—or at least, that these units require some extra efforts on the part
of the contract glazier.
For instance, Welch says that although pre-assembled units do require fewer laborers to install, those laborers need to have some degree of expertise. And as he argues, it’s not just a shortage of labor that is a problem for glaziers, but a shortage of qualified labor.
“From a field perspective, when installing a pre-glazed, pre-built window system … you have to have a higher level of technical expertise in the field from the perspective of rigging and layout and sequencing,” says Welch.
“Sometimes unitized systems can become pretty complicated and harder to install,” adds
Steffens agrees that the pre-assembled units require a bit more know-how. He says, for instance, that contract glaziers have to be more “equipment-savvy” when it comes to installing preassembled curtainwalls.
“It could weigh well over 1,000 pounds or in some instances more than 2,000 pounds,” Steffens says. “You really have to take a hard look at the equipment that you’re using.”
And when installing such a large single unit, precision, coordination and communication are keys to a well-done installation.
“It requires more upfront coordination on the part of the contract glazier, coordination with other trades,” says Welch.
“You’ve got to make sure that all of the dimensions are correct.” He adds, “Tolerances can become an issue.”
“The bigger issues are the logistics,” adds Condit. “Sometimes if you’re trying to [install] big units you have limitations with regard to size.”
However, Condit adds that when making a decision between handling a heavy unit and handling numerous pieces of a unit on the job site “weight is easier versus the number of pieces.”
A Look Ahead
Pre-assembled units help both glaziers and manufacturers to stand out for there savings in labor and money, and the quality of their installations.
“On a whole [when you look at curtainwall systems], they’re all generic in nature, so we’re providing a competitive advantage for ourselves and our customers,” says Penn. “If we give them a competitive advantage and they get more work, then we’ll sell more aluminum.”
“It is very important in our effort to take the next step,” says Taylor of United States Aluminum’s pre-assembled options. “The architectural aluminum market has a certain parity that is hard for an individual manufacturer to break out of sometimes. Most companies have similarly-engineered systems and products; it’s efforts like customer service and customer-friendly products that can help give us a competitive edge.”
Taylor thinks products such as these will continue to infiltrate into the industry.
“There is a growing need and growing requirement for these products given today’s market dynamics,” says
“I would say probably nationally, on larger projects … unitized is ruling the marketplace,” says
Condit explains that large-scale, high rise projects are setting more unitized units.
“In our marketplace if it’s driven at all it’s driven by the individual glass companies to utilize unitized construction,” says
Considering the ongoing challenge glaziers face in finding competent workers, these products that aim to minimize field labor will likely continue to appeal to contract glaziers.
Spotlight on the Products that Minimize Field Labor
Weathering the Storm Front™
The IG500 and IG600 Storm Front systems from United States Aluminum of Waxahachie, Texas, have been tested to exceed the stringent requirements of the Miami/Dade County protocol for maximum protection from high winds and wind borne debris. The Storm Front entrance incorporates a patented one glazing bead design ensuring maximum protection at the entrance area, according to the company. The 2 ½- by 5-inch framing accepts 9/16-or 1 5/16-inch glazing.
Fast Installation Meets Performance from Kawneer
Kawneer of Norcross, Ga., has developed its new 1600 SS™ screw spline curtainwall system. The company says the system provides fast installation without sacrificing performance, and that the screw spline joinery allows for pre-assembly and joint sealing in controlled shop conditions.
Offering narrow 2 ½-inch profile shapes and both 6- and 7 ½-inch overall frame depth options with concealed fastener joinery creates a smooth monolithic appearance. Options include vertical mullions that can be captured or structural silicone glazed (SSG). Both the captured and SSG systems integrate with Kawneer’s standard window and door products. The unique front load interlocking two-piece mullion design creates a strong vertical assembly without the need for additional engagement clips.
For added performance, infill options are available up to 1 1/8-inch as well as silicone compatible glazing materials for long-lasting seals.
Wausau Window and Wall System Introduces Two New Products
Wausau Window and Wall Systems has unveiled its 7250 U-Wall unitized curtainwall system. Installer-friendly, this high-performance system allows for system components to be fabricated and assembled in panelized frames. The unitized curtainwall also provides pronounced sightlines, operating vents and aluminum feature panels.
The panelized frames usually span vertically, from floor-to-floor, and reduce dependence on field weatherseals as well as accommodating dynamic movements without placing undue stress on glass, sealants or other infills. Pre-glazed units typically are off-loaded at the project site using the main construction crane.
The units are erected by stacking individual panels vertically and horizontally, resulting in a four-way-stack-joint design. Using this method, there is less handling needed for each unit, which decreases the number of opportunities for a mishap and saves time overall.
The company has also introduced its new RX Series window walls that can be used for almost any punched opening, a continuous, vertical strip of windows, a horizontal ribbon of windows or a low-rise
Suitable for demanding structural and environmental conditions, the RX Series meets performance standards for water resistance, air infiltration and thermal efficiency, as well as accommodating seismic and inter-story differential movement, according to the company. Products in the series can be ordered as factory-assembled and glazed units, factory-assembled frames, factory fabricated knocked-down components or stock lengths. To meet a full range of installation needs, these window walls are available with receptors/starters and a variety of anchorage options.
Vistawall Offers prw System
The Performance Window System (PRW) from Vistawall Architectural Products of Terrell, Texas, was designed for use on projects with punched or ribbon window openings that demand high performance and tight schedules. The system features preassembled frames, and has been tested to high levels of air and water performance. It includes features such as secondary water control, molded corner gaskets and dual-finish capabilities. The system offers 2 ¼-inch by 4 ½-inch framing for 1-inch glazing.
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