Energy, Aesthetics and Occupant Comfort Drive Existing Facades Toward New Directions

By Ellen Rogers

If you’re not sure where to find your next commercial glazing project, go downtown to any big city and look around. The answer may be right in front of you. As Stanford Chan, senior principal, existing buildings, roofing and waterproofing with Vidaris in New York, points out, “There will always be more existing buildings than new construction work, whether for maintenance or enhancement. So the potential for existing building construction is always higher than new.”

Faced with an aging building stock and accelerating demand for energy efficiency, a number of cities and municipalities are starting to adopt increasingly stringent energy codes and requirements. Combine that with the dip in new construction over the past year, and a solid stash of renovation work awaits. In New York City (NYC) alone there’s an estimated 50,000 buildings in need of renovation or retrofit solutions—that could translate to hundreds of windows per building, which also means significant opportunities for the glazing industry.

Why Change?

Commercial buildings, particularly those lacking high-performance glazing, have long been viewed as energy wasters. Energy, however, isn’t the number one reason building owners decide to upgrade.

“No. 1 is making sure the building is economically viable. Maintaining tenants and attracting new tenants [because] as newer buildings come along the competition gets stiffer …” says Steven Kraus, CEO of Skyline Windows in Bronx, N.Y. “Some owners are very proactive … they’re ready to invest to keep their building competitive. It’s toughest when they’re having trouble seeing how the investment will pay for itself. It’s an economic proposition and it’s got to provide a payback and leasing is the easiest way to do it.”

He continues, “I think owners are looking at buildings, particularly early post-war buildings, that not only don’t meet energy code, but their façades are tired and they’re looking at their options. They can knock down the building and rebuild; they can strip the existing façade and put on a new one, or they are looking at how they can upgrade the façade without ripping it off. These projects are primarily commercial with a mix of some residential buildings.”

Francis O’Neill, account executive with Apogee Renovation, part of Minneapolis-based Apogee Enterprises, adds that his company is told repeatedly by owners that aesthetics and the health and well-being of occupants are essential to the decision to renovate.

“One positive from the pandemic is there’s now a real emphasis on the health and wellbeing of building occupants,” he says. “That means health/safety, but also employee retention, recruitment, increased production and engagement. Well-being is really front and center, in addition to aesthetics and energy efficiency.”

He adds, “What we see, where it’s not mandated, is the owner has to upgrade because the business that will occupy the building is demanding it for their employees. If they don’t have a great workspace, including wellbeing and health options, they won’t have the great employees.”

Another critical driver, Kraus adds, is acoustical mitigation—which is mandated in New York.

“Single-glazed, older buildings are too noisy, and many parts of the city are mandating meeting acoustic attenuation requirements. This, combined with electrochromic or conventional IG and proper high-performance framing can be used to meet the requirements.”

He adds, “I don’t know if energy alone does it, but combining that with acoustics and aesthetics and what the leasing people are telling [owners] they need to do” is helping push the upgrades forward.

Chan agrees, “A main driver for the owners to upgrade is ultimately to make the building more marketable … to make the building more valuable and competitive with new towers—especially in New York where we have areas of real estate growth.”

Energy Woes

The U.S. building stock as a whole accounts for about 40 percent of all energy produced in the U.S. As a result, more and more major cities across the U.S. are tightening their energy codes. O’Neill says much of the focus on energy performance and renovation is happening in energy benchmark cities—those adopting strict energy codes and regulations—as well as cities with an old portfolio of buildings.

“For example, in NYC alone it’s estimated that 50,000 buildings are required to be renovated by 2030,” he says. “So that renovation market is estimated [to be] $18 billion by 2030.”

He says in the Big Apple this demand stems from Local Law 97 (LL97), which affects buildings greater than 25,000 square feet. The law sets increasingly stringent carbon emissions caps for energy use in NYC’s large buildings starting in 2024 and in 2030.

Renovation Solutions

The work is out there, and the high-performance glazing products necessary to meet energy requirements are readily available. But renovations can be expensive and disruptive to occupants. Fortunately, various options are available, depending on the project and the budget. Knocking down and rebuilding is most expensive. Another option involves stripping the old façade down to the slab and essentially installing a new curtainwall to the existing structure.

“It’s the second most expensive option,” says Kraus. “The other question that generally comes up is how do you maintain occupancy during this process? It’s doable, but challenging and requires careful planning.” He says they often get involved with projects where the building owner wants to maintain occupancy, while also upgrading aesthetics and preparing itself for today’s and future code changes.

“We have developed a pretty sophisticated system where structural components remain and are sometimes reinforced if not up to current code. And with that we can change the look … with a combination of new thermally efficient framing systems coupled with today’s high-performance glass options.”

Kraus says one benefit of their system, is the work can be done at night so they don’t disturb the occupants.

“People lose only a few hours [of office time] on two consecutive days and by the next morning everything is put back together.”

Chan says it’s also important to make sure the existing structure can accommodate the added weight.

“When working with an existing structure, the first task is to understand the structural capacity, field tolerances and substrates to establish the options of the upgrades, the applicable codes that the upgrades would trigger, and the return on investment … for the thermal upgrade … This forensic/feasibility phase is crucial to establishing the best path forward for the owner,” says Chan.

He continues, “The site logistics of working in an occupied building has to be taken into account when calculating the upfront collateral costs and impact to schedule for construction and for turning space over to tenants. One option for thermally improving the performance of an antiqued curtainwall is installing a new high-performing glass unit from the interior, leaving the existing glass in place, creating in affect a triple glazed unit in
the field. The advantage to this approach is no exterior access is required, therefore no public protection is required, and the work can be performed at night, so tenants aren’t disturbed.”

New Opportunities

When you combine the aging building stock with increasingly stringent codes and the declines in new construction from the past year, it could mean more work for the glazing industry. Not every company, however, may be ready. As Chan explains, not everyone is equipped to do it.

“Some glaziers have the experience, but it’s a bit of a niche because you’re dealing with an existing structure rather than a blank piece of paper,” he says, explaining that the exposure to unforeseen conditions is higher than with new construction and it may be necessary to engineer throughout the process. “Those are challenges and the first thing is to know the building and get as much experience as you can with it,” he says. “You have to understand the tolerances so you are familiar with it.”

Companies must also be aware of how the design and building trends are evolving.

“Building owners don’t want cookie cutter,” says Kraus. “They want uniquely designed solutions. Companies need to be prepared to meet with the design team to prove their solution; building owners will pay more for it and they will get more.”

O’Neill adds, “The market is demanding it and good companies should be out in front of the market demands. Renovation is providing an opportunity for growth in an overall down cycle. Growth in renovation looks like a promising indicator for the commercial market segment.”

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

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