Existing Buildings are in Crisis; the Glazing Industry Can Save Them

By Ellen Rogers

Buildings aren’t the root of all climate evils, but they do their part. The built environment is responsible for an estimated 40% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. Building operations account for 27% annually, while materials and construction (i.e., embodied carbon) are responsible for an additional 13% annually. Many are quick to point the finger at glass and windows as a critical reason buildings are poor energy performers—despite studies and research proving otherwise. Because clear, single-pane glass offers little to no energy performance, but clear, single-pane glass doesn’t go into new commercial buildings.

So what’s a building industry to do? Fix the existing buildings or build new, more efficient, better-performing buildings? There are reasons for both, but when you factor in the monetary and environmental costs associated with new building versus renovation, the odds are highly in favor of the latter.

“The staggering energy inefficiency of windows and facades in existing buildings is a major problem in the U.S.,” says Anas Al Kassas, founder and CEO of Inovues in Houston. “Experts estimate that as many as 70% of all buildings have inefficient glazing, contributing to over $57 billion in energy loss in U.S. commercial buildings alone each year.”

And that represents a huge opportunity for the glazing industry.

What’s the Problem?

Carbon dioxide is the simple answer to “What’s the problem?” According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these emissions, predominantly from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation, are a primary driver of climate change. So where do the buildings fit in?

Kyle Sword, business development manager at NSG Pilkington in Toledo, Ohio, says the U.S. has an estimated 327 billion square feet of building stock.

“It’s a massive, massive, massive amount. Roughly 40% of that is single-glazed, and upwards of 70% of it doesn’t meet current code,” he says. “If you look at where the glass goes in the U.S., about half goes into new construction and about half into restoration. Whether it’s replacement windows for commercial or residential, it’s about an even split and has been for some time. I think restoration will start to grow [giving us] an opportunity for high-performance products.”

Al Kassas adds that with rising energy costs and growing carbon-emission-reduction requirements, buildings face increasing competition from newer and more sustainable properties.

“This is a challenge but also a great opportunity for the building envelope/facade industry to look more into retrofits. Existing structures will still account for roughly 95% of buildings in the coming years. To remain competitive and profitable, owners cannot ignore investing in the facades to better manage energy use, curb emissions and cater to rising occupant demands for thermal and acoustic comfort,” he says. “Multiple studies have shown that the best path to sustainability and energy efficiency in existing buildings goes through the envelope first, before undertaking mechanical upgrades.”

One of the biggest issues, though, is a lack of understanding and education around the problem.

“If you look at any one part—embodied carbon, materiality, the operational costs—they are all interconnected. You have to solve this holistically, or you’re potentially causing more problems than you’re solving,” says Sword.

He continues, “We need to do a better job of creating and promoting education about our products. Restoration opportunities can create real solutions. Tearing down an energy inefficient building and putting up a net-zero building might sound like a great idea, but how long does it take to payback the energy used in demolition and construction? The data
varies, but it might take 20-80 years and it might never pay back. It really depends. A better, more time-based carbon solution can be deep retrofits. This doesn’t require as much upfront carbon as it uses less material than new construction and you get almost immediate savings because the building starts performing better. Build new high performance buildings as needed, but fixing the existing infrastructure is actually a bigger savings in terms of overall carbon usage and time.”

Paul Bush, vice president of technical services and government affairs with Vitro Architectural Glass in Pittsburgh, agrees.

“It’s all tied together. You have to look at the whole picture, from the embodied carbon of the products going into a building to the operational carbon that’s involved in using those products to operate and occupy the building,” he says. “The key on the building side is to improve the efficiencies of the buildings, both new and existing buildings, and reduce  the energy use to the extent possible. For whatever amount of energy you’re still using after you’ve made the efficiency improvements, you need to use renewable power to handle that remaining load. And that gets you, or at least closer, to the net-zero operating philosophy.”

Bush adds, “When you’re adding embodied carbon to the process, such as going from a dual-pane to a triple-pane [glass], the payback on that embodied carbon is very quick in terms of the operational carbon that the building uses. Every situation is unique, but it wouldn’t be uncommon for that payback to be in months, not years.”

Payback Dilemma

Updating existing buildings with higher-performance windows isn’t a new discussion. The glazing industry has been talking about it for years. Homeowners might be quick to update their windows, but it’s a tougher sell on the commercial side. For one, when homeowners invest in performance upgrades, such as new windows, they know precisely where the payback will go: into their wallets. That’s not always the case when it comes to commercial buildings.

“If I’m a homeowner, and I put $100 into this [upgrade], and it saves me $10 a year, then I get my money back in 10 years; maybe it’s a bit longer, but eventually, I get my money back,” explains Sword. “If I’m a developer, I’m putting this money in but can’t raise the rents. Why am I going to spend the money? If somebody else benefits, and I’m the one spending the money, there’s a disconnect between who’s spending the money and who gets the value. We have to reconcile that. In reality, energy is pretty cheap in the U.S. So when you look at payback in terms of putting in better windows … what’s the payback? Is it five years, 10 years or 15 years? If you think about where you would invest your money if it’s more than five years, many people won’t spend it, even if it’s still a pretty good payback. It’s pretty cheap to crank up the gas and spend a little more on the monthly bill.”

Codes and Regulations

Changes in regulations and building codes may be the key to pushing owners and developers toward higher-performing buildings. New York City is leading that effort with its Local Law 97 (LL97), which requires most buildings over 25,000 square feet to meet new energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emission limits by 2024, with stricter limits arriving in 2030. The goal is to reduce the emissions of the city’s largest buildings by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. In 2024, non-compliant buildings could be fined $268 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide above the building’s limit. That could total hundreds of millions of dollars for some buildings.

“Jurisdictions are creating new policies to drive energy efficiency and reduce carbon,” says Bush, referring to LL97. “You’ll see areas like Boston doing the same or similar things, and that’s just going to expand across the country over the next several years. It will drive these changes to upgrade the existing building stock.”

Bush adds that the federal government also sets an example of how it wants these things done by approving funding to upgrade its own buildings. In late 2022, the Department of Energy and the White House proposed a new Federal Building Performance Standard and clean energy rules that are expected to save millions of dollars annually and decrease long-term carbon emissions. The proposed Federal Building Performance Standard seeks to cut energy use and electrify equipment and appliances in 30% of the building space owned by the federal government by 2030 using energy-efficiency and building-system technologies.

“That’s going to set the example for the rest of the commercial world,” says Bush.

Sword says there are other positives about regulations like LL97 in addition to environmental benefits.

“[LL97] is like a job creation bill. Think about the loss of skilled trades in the U.S. Restoring existing buildings brings those jobs back. You can’t outsource them. You’re bringing in glaziers and tradespeople and skilled crafts. That is so great for the U.S. economy, our industry and our workforce.”

No matter how promising regulations such as LL97 may be, they won’t get buy-in from everyone. Attila Arian, president of Schüco USA, says in some cases the rent an owner currently collects in New York is so high that “they are just going to pay the penalty and not do the retrofit.”

Arian, however, is very much a proponent of renovating over building new—when it makes sense to do so.

“The retrofitting of existing buildings is the way to go as long as the building is useful with the new intended use,” he says. “We have a lot of vacant offices right now because people don’t want to return to work in an office. About 30% or more want to work from home, so demand for office space is greatly reduced. What do we do with those [buildings]?”

While renovating an office building into apartments is possible, it’s not always practical.

“You would have to knock out a lot of the building to make that work,” says Arian. “Still, improving the skin will improve a lot. Retrofit where you can and only build new where you have to.”

While legislative efforts can be good, there are still some concerns. Sword says legislating products and procedures can result in potentially negative consequences and only solve part of the problem.

“What worries me is that you start fixing part of the problem [or you’re] legislating only part of the problem … then suddenly there’s a cap on Global Warming Potential (GWP) for glass manufacturing (see sidebar on page 42). That incentivizes you to decarbonize, but it’s also rewarding those who make commodity products—high volume, low cost—because the net GWP is lower,” says Sword. “If a company goes from making a triple silver to a quad silver, that takes R&D trials, takes time. That time, trial and investment ultimately is more carbon intensive (higher GWP) than just sticking with commodity product production. Focusing only on lowering the carbon impacts of manufacturing can overstep the larger gains related to performance improvements.”

All or Nothing

The situation with existing buildings represents what could be a multi-billion dollar problem.

“The staggering energy inefficiency of windows and facades in existing buildings is a major problem in the U.S.,” says Al Kassas. “Experts estimate that as many as 70% of all buildings have inefficient glazing, contributing to over $57 billion in energy loss in U.S. commercial buildings alone, each year.”

But this problem is not without solutions, and the products that can fix the inefficiencies of existing building stock are readily available. However, it will take an all-or-nothing effort from the entire industry.

“Glass is complicated, and there are no simple solutions out there,” says Sword. “The carbon we can save in building use is an order of magnitude larger than the carbon generated in manufacturing. We have active programs to decarbonize, but the focus should be on holistic carbon improvements.

What is GWP?

Global Warming Potential (GWP) measures how much energy the emissions of one ton of a gas will absorb over a given period relative to the emissions of one ton of carbon dioxide (CO2). The larger the GWP, the more a given gas warms the Earth compared to CO2 over that period. The time usually used for GWPs is 100 years. Recently, some jurisdictions have started mandating GWP limits for building materials, including glass. California was
the first state to establish a maximum acceptable GWP for each category of eligible materials.

“We Have What it Takes”

Code changes and new regulations for higher-performing buildings create a significant opportunity for high-performance glass products that have yet to penetrate the mainstream fully. Vacuum insulating glass (VIG) is one example. Paul Bush, vice president of technical services and government affairs with Vitro Architectural Glass, says VIG represents a huge opportunity for high-performance facades.

“Before VIG products, you had to go to either a dual or a triple construction, and for older buildings, there was no way that the thickness of the unit would fit into the existing framing. So the project would involve tearing off the entire framing system on the building and putting up a new one. That’s disruptive, and you can’t do it while the building’s occupied,” he says. “[With a traditional renovation], there’s a significant cost and time that the building will not be usable. But with products like VIG, that will change because you can do those upgrades without tearing the old framing off and do them at night when the building isn’t occupied.”

Anas Al Kassas, the founder and CEO of Inovues, agrees. His company offers insulating glass retrofit solutions that enable existing building facades to be upgraded without removal, replacement or disruption.

“There is a lot of innovation happening in the industry, from advanced building envelope energy auditing using thermography and drones to smart glass/glazing technologies like transparent photovoltaic and self-powered electrochromic glass,” he says.

Pointing to his own company’s product, he adds that they, too, are working to enable new technologies to be integrated into existing building facades without costly and disruptive demolition and replacement.

“There is a noticeable momentum from the industry to develop cost-effective facade retrofit technologies to improve building energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions while providing an attractive return on investments,” he says. “We are moving to a point where significant improvements, such as the facade and windows, are finally economically viable and eligible for easy financing options.”

Ellen Rogers is the editorial director of USGlass magazine. Email her at erogers@glass.com and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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