Closer look: Kawneer’s move into fire-rated steel reflects demand for aluminum alternatives
Back in March, Kawneer, Norcross, Ga., entered into a strategic partnership with Forster Profile Systems, a Swiss manufacturer of steel and stainless steel framing systems for fire-rated and non-rated applications. The move marked Kawneer’s entry into the steel fire-rated market, reflecting increased demand for alternatives to traditional aluminum framing.
“We have seen an increase in architects wanting to build bigger, in terms of elevations, glass and daylight,” says Bob Leyland, vice president, Commercial Operations, Kawneer. “We have also seen an increasing trend to provide more fire-rated systems, and we wanted to provide a package that addresses all of these needs: fire-rated and non-fire-rated systems that meet the design and code requirements.”
Specification of fire-rated steel designs has experienced an uptick in the last few years and will continue to increase, agrees Jeff Razwick, vice president of business development, Technical Glass Products, Snoqualmie, Wash. “Architects are eager for more flexibility,” he says. “Modern designs call for higher performance curtain wall, be it from an aesthetic, energy or structural standpoint. As a result, glazing industry professionals are going to see an increase in the specification of steel. We’re already experiencing this at TGP. Over the last few years, our Steelbuilt Curtainwall systems have proven increasingly popular with designers for many of these reasons.”
The steel framing systems will provide glazing contractors a solution for elevations that are beyond the capability of aluminum, Leyland says. “That is where our new partnership with Forster Profile Systems comes into play,” he says. “Kawneer had not been able to enter the fire-rated market with aluminum, but Forster steel frames now give us the best solutions for this growing market. While aluminum is still our primary material, we have added steel to solve an even broader range of design requirements.”
Advantages and disadvantages
More options are better for both the end-user and the contractor that installs them, says Jordan Richards, president, Glassopolis, Toronto, Ontario. “The steel products tend to be specialized systems that go into locations where aluminum can't go [such as] large spans, fire-rated, etc.,” he says. “It won’t be a wholesale substitution away from aluminum, but rather an increase in the options available, which is good.”
Luther Hudson, president, Glass Systems Inc., Lithonia, Ga., agrees. “I look forward to representing this product [steel fire-rated systems] as it adds revenue to the glazing package, and particularly now, we need all the product we can find,” he says.
However, working with steel is different than working with aluminum, Richards says. “More choice is always better, but they [Kawneer] may find it harder to bring these to market than they expect. Aluminum will be here for a long, long time."
Speaking from experience, Hudson says: “At this time, we have only had one job where we tried to use [steel frames]. It appeared they [Kawneer] had somewhat further to go to really meet all the needs of the architects. That was several months ago, and I believe they were moving to improve that aspect of their business. Also, at that time, the pricing was hard to get, but it was competitive.”
The obvious drawback of steel is maintenance, says Jeff Griffiths, director of business development, Safti First, San Francisco. "Advances in finishing technology have helped to somewhat minimize the issue," he says. "However, galvanizing of any sort introduces the potential of lead and other toxic chemicals entering into both natural and artificial environments. Steel offers better thermal conductivity resistance than aluminum, but that advantage has been reduced through the use of thermal-break materials that are easily incorporated into extruded aluminum shapes. Overall, each type of metal has distinct advantages and disadvantages. I think [Kawneer’s entry into the steel fire-rated market] is more of an indication that foreign steel rolling mills are looking at the U.S. as an untapped market."
Helping glaziers with the new product
“When it comes to fire-rated systems, architects and glaziers need a great deal of support pertaining to code requirements,” Griffiths says. “There’s no doubt that steel systems have been widely used in Europe. However, there are distinctly different fire-rating performance standards in the U.S. The framing system is just one component. Understanding fire-rated glazing options and labeling requirements goes well beyond designing with and installing a different type of metal.”
A thorough understanding of how to engineer and install steel systems is important, Razwick agrees, as they can be quite different than traditional aluminum. “As such, it will be critical for glaziers to partner with a system supplier who can provide the experience and resources uniquely applicable to steel,” he says.
"To help with installation of our various glass and framing systems, TGP provides glaziers with product documentation manuals that include installation instructions,” Razwick says. “We also work closely with the architects during the design phase, depending on the scale and complexity of the project, to help solve engineering challenges and to show how our systems can support their design vision."
Kawneer also has committed substantial resources to training, Leyland says. The company currently conducts classes on the design and application of storefronts, curtain walls, entrances, windows and other architectural aluminum and steel systems, he says. “Most training is conducted in a classroom setting and led by an instructor. Additionally, we recently offered a steel-focused expo education course during the AIA 2010 National Convention, ‘Steel Curtain Walls: Design & Capabilities.’ The course examined steel curtain wall capabilities and design options including increased structural capacity, fire protection and defense against radiant heat. It also discussed specific structural conditions, especially life safety issues, when steel solutions are preferred for their ability to exceed the capability of aluminum.
“To help ease the installation process and provide customers with access to detailed information, we worked with Forster to develop comprehensive installation instructions,” Leyland adds. “In addition, we can also provide direct training support with Forster’s help should any customers require additional assistance. “