The Next Frontier

Vinyl Has Commercial Potential

By Jordan Scott

Vinyl is not the first word that comes to mind when glaziers think of curtainwall. While that may not change in the near future, vinyl is being used increasingly in other commercial applications.

Commercial Aspirations

“We’re seeing vinyl used in a multitude of applications such as mixed-use condos and three- to five-story buildings,” says Helmut Grohschaedl, vice president of sales and marketing window solutions Americas for Rehau, a polymer company for the construction industry based in Muri bei Bern, Switzerland.

However, Grohschaedl doesn’t see vinyl as a contender for storefront applications due to the potential for hundreds of openings and closings each day.

“Steel and aluminum still dominate the storefront sector,” he said.

Eric Thompson, national account manager for Quanex Building Products, does see vinyl storefront on the horizon.

“I’ve seen a lot more polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, mostly in low-rise projects,” he says. “PVC is competitive, though, and it’s catching up in the commercial sector.”

Both agreed that vinyl cannot be used in curtainwall and high-rise applications now or in the near future.

“It’s not viable for curtainwall. The structural load requirements are limited. Vinyl is better for punched opening solutions rather than RE curtainwall,” says Grohschaedl.

“There are no limits for vinyl except for cutrainwall,” adds Thompson.“Even ribbon windows, window walls and punched openings are now available with PVC. It’s cost prohibitive for curtainwall. It also could not withstand the structural loads.”

Mark DePaul, director of engineering and innovation at Energi fenestration Solutions, serves as the second vice president of AAMA’s Vinyl Material Council (VMC). He also chairs the VMC Installation Methods (for Vinyl Products) in Commercial Construction Work Group. He sees a number of barriers of entry for vinyl in curtainwall applications.

“These begin with the historical position of the market combined with the channels required to bring product solutions to fruition in this market sector. Vinyl window fabricators would need to align with these channels and become educators to develop in this market,” he says.

However, DePaul says research shows that punched openings, often categorized as shop-built windows, are increasing as a vinyl application.

“Vinyl windows in this commercial market sector represent 27 percent of the total shop-built windows in 2017 as reported in the most recent AAMA market study conducted by Ducker Research. This represents an increase from 20 percent market share as reported in 2015,” he says.

According to the AAMA 2017/2018 U.S. Industry Market Studies, vinyl was not being used in any curtainwall or site-fabricated windows for non-residential construction projects in 2017. It was used for 1 percent of storefronts and 27 percent of shop-fabricated windows. Vinyl is used as a framing material for 7 percent of overall non-residential projects, unchanged from 2015.

The Benefits

One of the major benefits of vinyl that is driving its use in commercial applications is the thermal value compared to aluminum.

“Welded corners are a big topic on the commercial side. They reduce cost because sill pans aren’t needed. There are no leak issues,” says Grohschaedl. “Aluminum is joined mechanically, which means it can contract and expand, leading to leaks and increased costs and construction time.”

He also said that sustainability is a factor. The environmental footprint created to manufacture vinyl is less aluminum. “The product can last 36 to 40 years from what we’ve seen. We’re comfortable saying that its longevity is a positive sustainability aspect. The longer it can be used, the more sustainable,” he says.

“We’re seeing a huge uptick in vinyl use for multi-family housing. We’re also seeing an increase in vinyl over aluminum due to color applications with foil,” says Grohschaedl.

DePaul expects to see further market penetration of vinyl products into the multi-family, hotel, student housing and senior care market sector, as well as in storefronts.

“Design and performance trends lead to increased glass area, dark colors and increased thermal performance requirements. Vinyl products are evolving to address these trends with low-height profiles reducing the visible size of the frame and sash,” he says. “Dark color solutions via integrated cap-stocks, coatings and foil wraps are becoming very popular addressing the needs for color. And lastly, the performance of vinyl fenestration products and, in particular, the thermal performance, is industry-leading. The continued evolution of increased thermal standards throughout North America will provide increased opportunities for thermally efficient vinyl windows and doors in commercial markets.”

DePaul cites durability, low maintenance, longevity and ease of customization as other vinyl benefits.

“And lastly, all vinyl windows and doors are subjected to third-party testing to the AAMA/WDMA/CSA 101/I.S.2/A440, the North American Fenestration Standard. Vinyl products perform favorably to the standard from an air infiltration, water permeation resistance and structural performance perspective,” he says.

The Challenges

According to Thompson, structural strength, bias and color options are some of the major challenges to using PVC in commercial applications. He says PVC must be reinforced in most typical applications.

“Understanding the structural design pressure needs in the geography and for the building type, plus the tested performance of the candidate windows, may require the need for additional structural reinforcements either within the window or where joining window combinations together,” adds DePaul.

Another challenge is that historically, PVC has been perceived as a fire hazard, not “green” and even hazardous to health.

“All of which are untrue,” says Thompson.

While there are many color options available for vinyl, the color palette re-mains more limited than that of aluminum products.

“Similarly, the coating or coloring of windows and doors with dark colors may require additional reinforcements and ventilation,” says DePaul. “This offsets the potential for excessive heat build-up in specific internal chambers contributing to maintaining the window shape and quality long-term operation and great looks.”

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