Will We See Fewer Windows Per Home?
Survey Results for 08/12/2009:
Will there be fewer windows per home in the new construction market?
No, the overall number of windows per home will be stable.
Yes, both trends will contribute to fewer windows per home.
Yes, trend toward smaller homes will have negative impact.
No, the average should actually increase.
Yes, demand for energy efficiency will have negative impact.
Added to the fact that fewer homes are being built, it looks like much of the industry sees a challenge ahead. When builders do start building again, they may be buying fewer windows for their homes. There's certainly no great consensus here. Nearly half our respondents think the average number of windows per home will stay the same, while a few see the average increasing.
But over half of our respondents do see the number going down, either because homes are getting smaller or because of more demand for energy efficiency or both.
Michael D. Fischer, technical services manager for Kellen & Co.'s Building Products Group, a longtime code consultant involved with window and door issues, offers a number of insights into this issue:
Up until the 2006 International Codes, there were no requirements in the codes that had a limiting effect on window area. In fact, the opposite dynamic was at work: natural light and ventilation requirements and emergency escape and rescue (EER) opening requirements for all sleeping rooms set minimum window areas for dwellings. When the IECC changed its approach in 2003 and eliminated window-wall ratios in the prescriptive requirements, builders, who were no longer 'penalized' when substituting window area for R-19 wall systems, were free to increase the number and size of windows in each home.
There are several factors on the horizon that could result in fewer-and smaller- windows:
- Minimum sill height requirements aimed at reducing child window falls could result in smaller windows
- Residential sprinkler requirements may lead to elimination of required EER openings, and result in smaller windows
- Performance-based whole building energy design trends may lead to reduced glazing area
On the flip side, opportunities remain. Supporting technically sound home design incorporating solar gain and shading could help, along with window design improvements that increase efficiency. A continued emphasis on the role windows play in EER is critical.
In fact, the 2009 IRC includes a change in its scope that added the following consideration: the intent to 'provide safety to fire fighters and emergency responders during emergency operations.'
Fischer concludes by suggesting, "The window industry should step up efforts to educate the building industry about fire safety."
At least part of the problem here is that the window industry relies to much on U-Value, suggests Stephen Thwaites of Thermotech Fiberglass Fenestration Ltd., a manufacturer based in Ottawa, Ont., Canada. "The best windows will never insulate as well as the best walls, so logically then one way to make a building more energy efficient is to reduce window area."
That's "not just bad marketing, but also bad science," Thwaites continues. "This is especially true in heating climates and also for south facing windows in nearly every climate–particulary when combined with summertime shading. The reality is that in a heating climate a house with a high SGHC and low U windows will use less energy than a house with no windows."
This fiberglass window manufacturer continues to note that "at least part of the answer to selling more windows per home is focusing on windows as suppliers of energy rather than consumers of energy." Concentrating on incremental improvements in U-values only makes windows "less of a problem." Talking about solar gains says "we're part of the solution," he concludes. "This more thoughtful approach would help push builders in the direction of more windows per house rather than less."
In response to this Talk, I also heard from Wayne Gorell, president of Gorell Windows & Doors. His company, a vinyl window maker based in Indiana, Pa., is primarily focused on the retrofit market, and he notes a similar trend in that segment, but points to a different culprint. "For the last 40 years I've tracked units per order and it has been consistently 7.2 to 7.3. It fell as low as 6.9 during the first quarter of this year, but has now stabilized for the last few months at 7.1. The only other time this happened was the recession of the early 1980s," he reports.
"In talking with our customers, the problem is limits with financing. It seems that there is a limit of about $7,000 per job able to be financed consistently, although the financial institutions don't admit it. That does not mean the average window is being sold for $1,000, but most jobs have other products included, such as patio doors which carry a much higher price tag than windows. There is also commonly some siding work, gutters, or other modifications to the home when windows are being sold," Gorell explains.
His observations, by the way, are confirmed by an article that recently appeared in a Concord, N.H., newspaper article. Although focused on the impact of the energy tax credit, the newspaper quotes Matthew Logan, owner of The Logan Boys, a local window replacement firm. "I've got a number of jobs right now where we're doing just four or five windows at a time," Logan told the Concord Monitor. "People will parcel them out through the year, as they come up with the money, instead of doing them all at once. Or they might do half their windows this year, half next year."
While it may not be good news, Gorell, at least sees the "fewer windows" trend as a temporary situation. "I do believe we will go through a cycle of less windows per home being built for the next couple of years, but people ultimately like windows and light in their homes, so I don't believe it will be a permanent situation," he predicts.
Looking forward, I can't help but suspect there will be fewer McMansions. Everything I read about trends in home building suggests to me the square footage of home will be smaller. I agree with Gorell, however, that people will continue to want windows–and I would add doors. I think the opening glass wall door systems we've seen gain in popularity in upscale homes demonstrates the appeal of letting light and air into homes and connecting indoor spaces with the outdoors. I don't see that diminishing.