Quite the Decade for Contract Glaziers
Last week, we took a look at the biggest business stories in the glass and metal industry in the past decade. This week, let’s take a look at the biggest contract glazing stories of the 2010s. Before we go there, just a reminder that these stories are my take on the biggest ones, pulled from my memory, our archives and statistics. Though they represent my opinion only, they are built from a lifetime in the glass information business. Here they are:
“Top Five Contract Glazing Stories of the Decade 2010-2019.”
- The Internationalization of the Contract Glazing Business 2010-2019
The Great Recession that seeped into the beginning of the decade made contract glazing companies here attractive to foreign buyers. Even more prevalent, though, was the influx of foreign-owned companies that set up shop here in the U.S., including companies from Canada, throughout Europe and beyond. Today, these companies compete on a regular basis for projects that, in the past, would have only gone to U.S. glass and metal contractors.
- The Expansion of Off-Shore Suppliers 2010-2019
Freedom Tower, the building constructed to honor the victims of the September 11 attacks, fell into controversy when it was first announced that much of its podium glass was to be made in China. Though that did not end up being the case, the project showed how the Chinese, among other offshore suppliers, have advanced their glassmaking technology to the point where it is often of sufficient quality to be used on high profile jobs and low enough price—even with the transportation across the sea—to be competitive. Expect this trend to continue, although it is unknown yet what affect the quarantines and curtailment of trade due to the Coronavirus will have.
- The Bankruptcy of Trainor Glass 2012
I mention the Trainor bankruptcy here not to single that company out, but because it is representative of what happened to a number of contract glazing companies in the early 2010s. Like Trainor, many were legacy companies that had functioned for years and years. Some were highly leveraged; others had a bad job or two or had done work for owners and/or developers that went bankrupt themselves. And still others were caught in what I call the “newly discovered” need to enforce lending covenants. This new enforcement led banks to tighten and, in some cases, pull lines from their contract glazing customers, not because of problems with payments but with covenant compliance. “Our company was never in compliance with the bank’s covenants,” a contract glazing owner in the southwest had told me at the time. “And we had a 26-year history of them not caring. Until one day they did, and then we were done.”
Contract glazing is the toughest part of the glass business. It offers the greatest reward in exchange for the greatest risk. Throughout the early 2010s companies like Trainor were there one minute, and filing Chapters 11 or 13 the next. Suppliers and fabricators also faced the same challenges with some high profile ones caught in the same web of reasons why.
- The Coded Battle for the Wall (2013-Ongoing)
In the beginning, building—and fire—codes were a good thing. They helped ensure safety, quality materials and uniformity. The 2010s saw the advancement of a number of other codes including energy codes, green codes and hurricane codes, among others, all promulgated by different groups that, well, decided to regulate glass. None has been more concerning than the codes advanced by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) that improve energy efficiency at the expense of the amount of glass used on a building’s façade. The glass industry has had to work hard to keep a seat at that table and has had some success in battling attempts to reduce exterior glass by as much as 25%. The challenge, though, is that this is a continuing and ongoing battle that doesn’t seem likely to resolve any time soon.
- Changes in Business Practices (2014-2019).
Three important ones come to mind. First, the move from just-in-time contracting to design-build and now to design-assist projects, wherein the conventional model of “if you draw it, we will build it” no longer exists. Instead, general contractors and developers team with a glazing contractor early in the process to develop the scope of work and the budget. The process of taking project bids from a number of qualified companies has morphed into choosing a company to work with, up front. And this is slowly changing how contract glaziers obtain and manage the work they do.
Second is the advancement of technology throughout the decade—from BIM to the use of drones, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, the glass industry is just beginning to grasp the breadth and depth of how these new technologies will change their businesses.
Third and finally, there’s the rapid advancement of building commissioning which adds another voice to which the contract glazier must answer. This business practice too has added another level of scrutiny to the glazing contractor’s work. What is especially egregious to me is the sometimes business practice of paying the commissioner a percentage of the money they save on the job. But more on that at another time.