Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported a commercial glass shortage, specifically for curtain wall, the non-structural, metal-framed glass that covers the exterior of many high-rises and other commercial buildings. According to The Journal, the shortage is driving construction costs up and has the potential to stall projects all over the country. So is there really a true glass shortage? Or can the tight supply be chalked up to the cyclical ups and downs of the construction industry?
Factors to consider
"I do not believe there is an actual shortage of glass," Lyle Hill, former president and CEO of MTH Industries, an Illinois glass and metal contractor, told Construction Dive. "I do believe there are delays at the fabrication level simply because of a large demand for certain higher-performing products that not all fabricators produce."
Low-emissivity glass, commonly referred to as "low-e," is one of those higher-performing products in such high demand, according to Jim Hall of All-Phase Glass and Mirror, a large West Florida glass contractor.
Coated with a thin, transparent layer of metal or metallic oxide, low-e glass reflects heat while allowing natural light to pass through. Because of their energy efficiency, low-e windows are often used to increase a building’s score toward LEED certification and have become more popular industry-wide.
Hill, who has spent his career in the glass industry and now heads Keytech North America, a glass and metal industry research and consulting firm, believes that much of the buzz about a shortage resulted from the combination of high demand and a PPG float glass production line in California unexpectedly going offline. Hill said that plant is now back up and running at full capacity.
And delays at the float glass level are at the center of most shortage concerns. The Journal reported 11 of 47 North American float-glass manufacturing plants, the source of all window glass, closed between 2007 and 2014 in response to the economic downturn, and PPG Industries told The Journal that restarting an idled plant can take months.
Hall said that each major manufacturer has its own low-e line and that if a project’s specifications require a certain brand, one plant shutting down, even for a brief period, can create a logjam for that product. "If you’re using a specific type of glass," Hall told Construction Dive, "you could be pigeonholed into a problem."
But even when taking the high-demand of specialty products into consideration, Hall said there seems to be "plenty of glass to go around," and his suppliers tell him they are fully stocked.
When demand for material increases, project managers at Manhattan always allow for any additional delivery lead times in their scheduling, said Gordon Knapp, a senior vice president at Manhattan Construction Co., a national commercial builder.
“We don’t need the glass on a 20-story building until probably the end of the first year," Knapp told Construction Dive, "so we have enough time to take action through early procurement of the material."
Stephen Weidner, vice president of NSG Pilkington North America, told The Toledo Blade, "I won’t call it a shortage, but there certainly is a very tight supply of flat glass in the North American market, both on the architectural side and the automotive side."
And just what is the high demand for glass costing builders? One builder reported to The Journal that his company's costs were up 35% to 45% during the last 18 months.
Hill said he has found that since 2013, the price for basic, non-fabricated glass is up 9-12%, depending on the type, thickness and quantity, while some coated, high-performance glass is up 15-20%. "I am not aware of any standard glass products that have had 30%-plus price increases since 2013," he said.
Knapp said that glass may end up costing his company 5-7% more in the current climate of high demand, but he hasn't seen any evidence yet of the price increases reported in The Journal. "I have not and our people have not seen that kind of an increase."
As to what the future holds, Hill said he believes that delays at the fabricator level will be "short-lived, and all will be back to normal in a few months," as long as demand remains steady and none of the major float-glass manufacturers have to shut down unexpectedly or have other production issues.
"This is not the first time issues like this have come up in our industry," Knapp said, "and it goes in waves. Now it’s glass' turn."