Food, gas, airfare, building materials; prices on everything are up. It’s been a concern for more than a year, and there are no signs of improvement. The glazing industry is feeling the pinch. In June, several glass manufacturers and fabricators raised their prices, in some cases up to 40% (see related article on page 18). They blamed inflationary pressures, supply chain disruptions and raw material cost increases. However, it’s not just glass.

All building materials have been impacted. Metals, in particular, are facing challenges.

Aluminum, a common construction jobsite material, is traded on various markets worldwide, but the London Metal Exchange (LME) is its largest market. According to the LME, aluminum prices have been volatile. In March 2022, LME aluminum prices reached historic levels. They’ve since dropped and continue to fall. But the metal market continues to face supply-and-demand challenges.

For the construction industries, business is still good. But companies that depend on aluminum and other metals, such as contract glaziers, are feeling the impact. These uncertainties are leading some companies to explore their options when it comes to metal.

The Struggle

Supply chain issues are plaguing everyone. Thomas Cornellier, CEO of TSI Corporations in Upper Marlboro, Md., has seen the cost for a fully assembled, base unitized curtainwall system up by approximately 20-25%.

“Getting custom curtainwall extrusions has been difficult,” he says. “The backlog at extruders is extremely high, so getting accurate delivery information, even when the order is in the queue, is [a challenge]. That makes it tough to schedule and plan.”

He says supply chain issues have caused schedule delays and cost increases, which have kept some new projects from starting.

“This, coupled with rising interest rates, leading to higher financing costs, makes some proposed projects not financially viable, dampening our outlook,” says Cornellier. He says on active projects, these issues have impacted cash flow directly. “For instance, door hardware has been increasingly difficult to get, and we’ve even experienced shipment delay notices as late as the day the hardware was supposed to ship. Not having this material means doors aren’t getting finished, which means retentions aren’t getting reduced since doors are critical to close out. That means cash flow suffers. A project could have a strong margin, yet very poor cash flow.”

According to Bill Lincoln, vice president of National Enclosure Co. in Ypsilanti, Mich., price and schedule volatility have been the biggest supply chain issues over the past year. That’s true of most all materials—including aluminum. He agrees that the cost of aluminum is significantly higher than before the pandemic.

Surviving the Times

When addressing these challenges, communication is key.

“Communication with the client about potential cost or schedule changes, as well as ways to mitigate the problem [is critical],” Lincoln says. “[We also have] weekly meetings with the vendors to stay informed of any changes or challenges on their end.”

Cornellier agrees. “We’ve had a number of strategic conversations with many different vendors to fully understand how they manage their supply chains,” he says. “Concurrently, we are having similar strategic discussions with the key project stakeholders to understand their needs. Often, simple design changes may be enough to switch to a supplier that may be able to deliver the product to meet a tight schedule. Understanding both sides and putting the right team together has helped get through hurdles in this difficult environment.”

Finding Options

In addition to aluminum, steel is another option. It can be used in some curtainwall, doors, windows and fixed glazing applications.

According to Philipp Klisch-Zumtobel, chief marketing officer at Forster Profilsysteme AG based in Switzerland, steel has also been challenged during the past couple of years.

“Since the end of 2020, the price of raw materials has risen sharply. In our industry, we have been forced to pass on some additional costs to our customers. However, we have reduced the impact to a certain extent through far-sighted purchasing strategies,” he says.

For example, Klisch-Zumtobel says they managed concerns through “far-sighted purchasing planning and moderate price management” and “special consideration of individual markets, customers or projects.”

Steel Variations

Cornellier says his company has worked with steel products, specifically Corten steel panels. He says Corten steel is another term for weathered steel, “so it gives the aesthetic of old steel that has a patina look.”

Working with different metal products when aluminum is the comfort-zone material, can be challenging. Cornellier says it’s essential to understand the product and how it will act in service because sometimes different materials can damage or stain surrounding materials if they aren’t appropriately prepped.

“We learned that on a visual mock-up once, which, luckily, was long before installation. We learned the challenges early,” he says, adding, “We have certainly taken some [bumps] with some of the other metals, but we now have an experienced group that knows how to handle these materials more efficiently. This can give us a leg-up over the competition. It’s important to understand the maintenance of these products when the building is in-service.”

Lincoln says his company often works with steel-backed curtainwall. He explains that some applications involve steel framing materials supporting the glass.

“The thickness and depth of the steel mullions, and the intersection joinery, as well as the finishes, all vary from project to project,” he says. One project example is the University of Michigan Literature, Science and the Arts Building.

“On this project, because the spans were lower, we went with a ¾-inch-thick mullion that varied from 4- to 6-inches in depth. On other projects, this thickness increased to 1.5 inches by as much as 8 inches deep,” he says. “Generally, steel [allows for] taller spans with less visible metal. With a more common aluminum curtainwall, you would need a minimum of 2.5-inch thickness and a depth of 6- to 12-inches. Architects like steel-backed curtainwall when they want to have a thinner curtainwall system for taller spans. It’s considerably more expensive than aluminum systems, but it looks slick.”

Dave Vermeulen, North America sales director, with Technical Glass Products in Snoqualmie, Wash., agrees that steel is inherently stronger than aluminum and can handle greater free spans in similar applications with less reinforcement or smaller mullions, up to 30 percent in some cases.

“Steel also allows the system or structure to support larger lites with smaller mullions,” he says. “Steel is better equipped to provide the necessary support for heavy double- or triple-glazed units. However, when working with or fabricating steel, the margin for error is slim, so machinists, machine programmers and welders need to be skilled in their crafts.”

Lincoln adds that, like aluminum, steel prices have also been impacted.

“Steel also has similar cost and schedule challenges, but not to the degree we are having with aluminum,” he says. “[Aluminum and steel] each have their own different aesthetic and structural properties. So, [working with both] gives us and the architect options to achieve the design intent.”

Klisch-Zumtobel agrees there are some differences in working with steel compared to aluminum. However, “steel opens up a great deal of freedom in design and creativity for architects and fabricators due to the possibility of welding in terms of strength and stability,” he says.

Future Thinking

High prices and supply chain issues will likely be a concern for some time. Exploring material options and alternatives could help contract glaziers, among others, stay ahead of the game.

From A to Z: A Closer Look at Zinc Options

For architectural panels, aluminum is often the metal of choice. However, there are other options. According to Charles “Chip” McGowan, president, Rheinzink America Inc., single-skin zinc cassette panels and zinc composite material (ZCM) panels can also be used in curtainwall applications. Other façade and wall cladding solutions include standing seam systems and flat-lock tiles. It can be fabricated into a variety of panel styles sizes and shapes.

“Today’s zinc material options also offer different colors and coatings, complemented by numerous installation techniques and systems. The majority of architectural zinc in North America is supplied with a pre-weathered look.”

He adds that zinc’s pre-patinated surface is not affected by PVDF shortages, though as a commodity, the price of zinc has increased as other metals have. Supply chain issues with transportation have also caused challenges.

“Energy has affected the cost of zinc, but less than other metals,” he says. “As little as one-fourth to one-third the energy is needed to produce architectural zinc alloys than other metals such as stainless steel, copper and aluminum.

McGowan says he’s also seen more companies open to working with zinc.

“We are hearing a lot of interest. Aluminum composite material fabricators and installers are especially interested in ZCM,” he says. “Glass, aluminum, galvanized steel, stainless steel, painted steel and most solid dry building materials present no known compatibility issues with zinc. Zinc’s inherent metallic properties allow the material to deliver low-maintenance and long-lasting performance in wall cladding applications. No paint, varnish, or sealants are required.

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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