Beyond the Label
by Deb Callahan
April 4th, 2021

Despite the Circumstances, Spring Meeting Highlights Optimism

It’s exciting times for the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC). As we closed the month of March with a successful Spring Committee Meeting, we heard about innovative, long-term technological progress for fenestration and short-term anticipation, as the U.S. economy begins to normalize after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to carrying out committee business, our virtual meeting featured promising outlooks for sales of doors, windows and skylights; presentations from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sharing agency plans for the building industry and how it could affect fenestration; and a peek into the future of windows. Tomorrow’s technologies could include windows that adjust in real time to the weather, leaps in insulating ability, and windows that generate their own energy.

One such revolutionary technology is electrochromic and thermochromic windows, also known as dynamic windows, that adjust in real time to sunlight. Those technologies create energy efficiencies in the process, by reducing reliance on heating and cooling systems to maintain temperatures and comfort. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) materials scientist and NFRC Board Member Rob Tenent discussed how these dynamic windows remain expensive and require a complex installation process at this stage in their development. Tenent also shared a success story that highlights their promise and makes clear why investors have spent $2 billion to develop them. In a test case at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, a bank of electrochromic windows led to an 80% jump in alcohol sales at an airport restaurant, because when patrons were shielded from intense sunlight they decided to linger for longer. That’s compelling for airport operators—a group that’s constantly hunting for ways to help spend more time and money in concourses.

Tenent also reported on progress for technologies in insulating glass, such as aerogel coatings, which can block heat from passing through windows. Early versions blurred views through the glass, but newer versions are clear and can be made from recycled materials.

Improvements in photovoltaic windows could also finally transcend technical limitations, and potentially turn large glass buildings from energy sinks to energy sources. Past attempts to integrate photovoltaics into windows make clear that it’s possible, but not without darkening the view. NREL found that using perovskite solves that problem. The material is a compound of calcium and titanium, converts sunlight to electricity, and manages to tint windows without blocking views. To stay abreast of these innovations and others, NFRC is launching an emerging technology webinar series that features Tenent and other scientists from national labs who will share their findings and research on improvements to fenestration products.

Also at the meeting, Nick St. Denis, director of research for Key Media and Research ([DWM]’s parent company), shared his firm’s latest survey data, and addressed industry trends that forecast a slow return to normalcy after the pandemic economy of 2020 and 2021. While still positive, new housing starts for single-family homes are expected to increase by 5% in 2021, though lower than the 8% rate in 2019. About half of new starts were seen in the south. In the renovations market, the spending continues to tick upward as well, projected at 3.8% in 2021, compared with 3.7% in 2020, and 4.8% in 2019.

Most window dealers and manufacturers feel positive, St. Denis said, but perceptions aren’t yet at pre-pandemic levels of optimism. Of those who responded to KMR’s annual survey on the window business environment, 73% expected somewhat or very favorable conditions compared with 85% in the previous two years.

KMR’s data also showed rising costs for door and window projects, even though prices for materials tracked by the Bureau of Labor have been flat since 2018. The overall cost of door and window projects rose 31% from 2010 to 2020. That pace was faster than inflation, which climbed 19% in the same period. St. Denis attributed the rise to the increased quality of products and projects.

Overall, however, St. Denis and KMR’s market research for March 2021 found positive sentiment in particular compared with March 2020, when the pandemic injected a massive dose of uncertainty. “Nearly two thirds of dealers still saw an increase in sales,’’ he told meeting attendees. “We made it through and now we’re looking ahead to next year.”

Doug Anderson from EPA shared his agency’s updates to Energy Star Version 7, which they are planning to launch later this year. It includes improved data sets of all 2,800 product lines, uses EnergyPlus as the energy modeling software, and updates the cost data that was collected from manufacturers. EPA is going to have a comment period for manufacturers to review the Version 7 changes and provide feedback to the agency.

Finally, Marc LaFrance from DOE discussed the need for energy-efficient windows beyond current Energy Star standards, which make up 86% of the fenestration market currently. The agency is considering factors such as comfort as a major selling point for consumers when replacing windows in their homes. LaFrance shared initial plans for NFRC and DOE to work together on the Efficient Windows Collaborative to provide the full value proposition of energy savings and comfort in residential windows. In order to address climate change, which is a priority for the new administration, LaFrance said windows need to be part of the solution. He also said that buildings with low-E glass are here to stay with communities setting net-zero goals in the near future and builders in need of more options for high-performing fenestration products.

NFRC is addressing this need by educating and communicating with the public on the importance and value of energy-efficient windows. As an organization, we are moving to build relationships with allied organizations and the green building community, as well as engaging our members and participants through our committees and task groups.

Helping to ensure NFRC’s sustainability, the board of directors and I worked over the last year to support new areas of opportunity and targeted objectives that help us meet the goals of our strategic plan. We feel confident that NFRC will meet the demands of the evolving landscape in both residential and commercial fenestration. It shows the willingness of our staff to guide us in an increasingly competitive built environment with rapidly changing technologies and often uncertain business conditions. This year looks to be exciting with the events planned for NFRC, as we continue to build upon the momentum of the fenestration industry.

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