Multifamily Construction Offers Opportunities and Challenges

By Ellen Rogers

Not since the 1980s has the multifamily construction market been like this. Dodge Construction Network reported multifamily construction starts reached the highest levels recorded since the mid-1980s in its 2022 year-end report, mainly due to rising interest rates in the single-family market. And for the glass industry, there’s at least one (maybe more) nice thing about a multifamily project: lots of windows.

While the market is strong, contract glaziers still see challenges and have concerns, especially given high interest rates and inflation.

Opportunistic

The economy may be a bit shaky, and some areas of construction may feel elements of a recession in the near future. The multifamily market—at least for now—is doing well. Thomas Cornellier, CEO of TSI Corporations in Upper Marlboro, Md., says the multifamily market, specifically apartments, is one of the few currently experiencing growth.

“The driving factor behind this is interest rates pushing mortgage rates on single-family homes and condos higher,” he says. “With many single-family homes becoming less affordable, more people are renewing apartment leases, and first-time homebuyers are now looking at apartments until interest rates settle.”

He adds that rising interest rates are still hurting developer’s investment models, and the company is seeing more projects shelved, despite the high housing demand.

Marty Trainor, senior vice president of Ventana based in Chicago, says the multifamily market has been strong due to a housing shortage, particularly in mid-tier cities, such as Cleveland and Phoenix. He says the market could suffer due to interest rates in the short term.

Brock West is the president/CFO of Glass Systems Inc. in Stonecrest, Ga., which mainly serves Atlanta and surrounding areas. “Developers are still optimistic, regardless of the economy,” he says. “There is a need for housing in the Atlanta market; it’s very underdeveloped. Plus, development here goes along with the World Cup in 2026 when Atlanta will host at least two of the games.”

Multifamily vs. Nonresidential

For some contract glaziers, the multifamily market is the most important for business. According to Cornellier, his company feels the only market segment that will outperform multifamily is healthcare.

“With our aging population, there is still such a large need for all types of healthcare projects across the U.S.,” he says.

West adds, “Shockingly, the majority of our projects are multifamily. That’s the market driver here. We do not see a lot of offices [or other segments].”

Trainor points out that compared to the non-residential market, residential is competitive.

“The residential market tends to be largely commodity system driven on price. It can be a struggle to be competitive due to that nature,” he says. “In other markets, such as institutional, I think there’s more demand for high-performance wall systems, so when we have those jobs, there’s more profit opportunity.”

Trends and Changes

Just as the aesthetics of apartment buildings have evolved over the past few decades, so have the glazing products and performance requirements. Trainor says energy codes are becoming increasingly rigid.

“It’s harder and harder to meet thermal requirements,” he says. “In Chicago, the energy code has gotten stringent, so you have to find ways to make systems better thermally.” Trainor’s company uses non-traditional components such as high-performance plastics in place of aluminum when fabricating such systems.

“We have developed propriety materials that we can use as nonstructural components of the curtainwall,” he says, explaining these are ancillary parts and pieces to the system. “We can use these because they perform better thermally, and we can get the required thermal performance.”

Cornellier says his company mostly sees unitized window wall in thermally-broken systems.

“We hear about passive house (see sidebar above) coming to the D.C. market, but we haven’t seen much of it to date, only a couple of projects,” he says. “We expect more and more of these products to come to the market as the economy recovers.”

There are two product areas where West sees a shift.

“The Southeast market has been the window wall capital,” he says, pointing to the significant number of window wall projects in the area. “Now, we’re seeing a shift toward larger punched openings.”

The other change he sees is the requirement for sound transmission class and outdoor/indoor transmission class ratings.

“There’s very much [a need] for sound control,” he says, particularly in busy, urban areas where it can get noisy.

Forward Thinking

The multi-family market may be doing well now, but contract glaziers still have concerns about how things will fare over the next few years.

“There is a major housing shortage coming, and with the hit to the single-family homes market, this should continue to push the apartment growth. However, rising interest rates are putting more and more projects on pause. While this may be a short-term hit, it may extend the growth in this market over a longer period of time,” says Cornellier.

Trainor adds, “I think that it will be even tougher to compete and win work due to interest rates and falling rents. There is also pressure on costs related to increased performance, so there will be fewer projects greenlit, and it will remain a commodity market—with a lot of players operating in it.”

West also sees uncertainties. “While there may be a need for a half million units in the next five years, it still feels over-saturated,” he says. “We have seven projects now and have signed contracts for three more in the next year or so. We’re happy to do the work, but a lot of it is happening.”

While they are encouraged to see money coming into multi-family developments, West says it’s not without worry.

“There are concerns things will be like in 2008-2011, and then the financing is gone,” he says. “We are purposely aligning ourselves with healthy clients, and feel the likelihood of that happening is minimal. When others ask us to get involved, we’re gun-shy.

What is Passive House?

Passive house is a building standard that focuses on energy efficiency, comfort and affordability. The Passive House Institute originated in Central Europe. In 2007, Katrin Klingenberg (who designed and built the first passive house in the U.S.) and builder Mike Kernag founded the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS). PHIUS is a non-profit organization that certifies, researches, provides information and sets standards to promote passive house design and building within the U.S. The PHIUS + 2015 Passive Building Standard emphasizes five building-science principles:

  • The employment of continuous insulation through the entire envelope without any thermal bridging;
  • The building envelope is extremely airtight, preventing infiltration of outside air and loss of conditioned air;
  • Utilizes high-performance windows (double- or triple-paned windows depending on climate and building type) and doors—solar gain is managed to exploit the sun’s energy for heating purposes in the heating season and to minimize overheating during
    the cooling season;
  • Uses some form of balanced heat and moisture recovery ventilation; and
  • Uses a minimal space conditioning system.

The PHIUS standard differs from the European standard in that it accounts for the broad range of climate conditions in the U.S.

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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