Two weeks ago, I attended the 2013 Building Envelope Contractors Conference in Las Vegas, and was struck by the renewed confidence many attendees expressed. I have covered the annual BEC Conference, hosted by the Glass Association of North America, since the pre-recession boom years when attendance neared 700. The downturn saw turnout dwindle to about a third of that during the toughest years, as industry companies struggled to keep doors open (with several notable companies succumbing to that struggle). The mood at those meetings was a mix of trepidation and tenacity. Trepidation gradually turned into anticipation and cautious optimism as some geographic regions started seeing the light at the end of tunnel. And finally, this year, almost everyone I spoke with said business was officially on an upturn (albeit a gradual upturn).
However, the glass industry that is emerging from the downturn is a new industry. While glaziers and suppliers worked to keep afloat, codes and standards became more stringent, building trends changed, the design and construction process evolved, and overseas competitors entered the market in even greater force.
“In the past five years, our business has changed dramatically,” said John Rovi, business development manager for Sapa Extrusions. Rovi attributed the changes in the industry to the proliferation of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, and the development and adoption of Building Information Modeling. “The way buildings are designed has changed. The players who are involved in the design process, and when they get involved in the process has changed,” Rovi said. “We are moving toward value-added, rather than lowest bid.”
Scott Thomsen, president of the Global Flat Glass Group for Guardian Industries, spoke at length about the changes to the industry, and the new challenges facing businesses, during his keynote presentation, the “Battle for the Wall.” Thomsen offered some interesting data points demonstrating the scope of the downturn. According to Thomsen, the dollar value of commercial building went from $600 million per year to $250 million per year in just 5 years. Looking at the domestic glass industry, “there were 42 float lines running in North America in 2007. Today there are 30,” he said.
A major theme of Thomsen’s talk was the toughening code and standard arena, and the potential threat of the push for stringency on the industry. This message was echoed by Tom Culp, president of Birch Point Consulting. Energy codes have increased in stringency by 30 percent in recent years, and another 5-to-7 percent increase is coming, Culp said. While the glass industry successfully fought to avoid a 25 percent reduction in the amount of glass permissible in the envelope of commercial buildings in the 2010 ASHRAE 90.1 standard, glass is under attack again in the 2013 ASHRAE 189.1 green code, Culp said. “We need to be concerned about this. … We need your help,” Culp told attendees. “We need individual companies to get behind this." (For background on the code and standard updates, you can look to this November 2012 feature from the magazine).
One new addition to the codes will likely be envelope commissioning, and contract glaziers, in particular, need to be prepared. “This will mean closer attention to details at the glazing/air barrier; a focus on quality control,” Culp said.
"It doesn't matter if you like [the code changes]. They are coming. Take it as an opportunity,” Culp said.
The last five years have also seen an increase in overseas competition. An influx of low-cost aluminum imports from China led to a recent institution of countervailing duties on Chinese aluminum products, including curtain wall. Read Glass Magazine coverage of the overall anti-dumping duties for aluminum, and the Department of Commerce’s decision to include curtain wall products within the scope of the duties.
David Spooner, an international trade lawyer from Squire Sanders Public Advocacy LLC, discussed the new tariffs on Chinese curtain wall during the meeting. Ports are currently collecting tariffs of 171 percent on imports of curtain-wall units from China, he said; however, the scope of tariff is unclear as to whether it covers similar products such as storefront and window wall. Spooner provided a word of warning to glaziers to “be careful of transshipment, mislabeling and undervaluation of imports.”
"If you hear of fraud or circumvention, you can report it to Customs,” Spooner said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has established an on-line system for individuals to report illegal import and export activity.
Despite the new challenges and the changing marketplace, attendees at the conference expressed optimism and excitement about the industry as it emerges from the downturn.
Devlin is senior editor for Glass Magazine. Write her at email@example.com.