Curtain Wall Conversations Episode 1 featuring Phil Parker

By Peter | Blog

February 28, 2022

Curious what kind of conversations happen behind the scenes at one of the world’s leading curtain wall manufacturers? In our new video series, GlasCurtain Managing Director Peter Dushenski will share an inside perspective on this fascinating industry through a series of in-depth conversations with industry leaders. Together, we’ll explore new ideas of what’s possible with glazed facades. Join us for Curtain Wall Conversations!

In Episode 1, Peter dives deep with Phil Parker, who many of you in the Western Canadian building envelope community will know well. Phil is originally from British Columbia, where he graduated from UBC in Civil Engineering before joining the nationally renowned Building Science consultancy RJC. Working with RJC for over 20 years, Phil would go on to become Principal and Group Leader of the Building Science team in Calgary, Alberta before retiring in 2021. We had a great time chatting with Phil about adaptive facades, durability, upgradeability, the challenge of innovation, and so much more. We hope you enjoy this wide-ranging conversation as much as we did!

Still curious about fibreglass-framed curtain wall systems? Check out our other videos on our YouTube Homepage. Previous topics include Passive House, Embodied Carbon, “Combustibility”, and Installation Partner FAQ, and more!

 

TRANSCRIPT:

  1. Intro [0:00]
  2. The Basic Premise of Adaptive Facades [1:09]
  3. Adaptive Facades with Fibreglass Framing [5:09]
  4. Cross-Industry Inspiration [10:06]
  5. Stick-Bult vs. Unitized [21:06]
  6. Facade Upgradeability [23:50]
  7. The Challenge of Innovation [31:29]
  8. Evolution vs. Revolution [33:53]

Hi there, I’m Peter, Managing Director of GlasCurtain. We’re a Canadian manufacturer of fibreglass-framed curtain wall systems for triple-glazed applications. Today we have the first in our new video series called Curtain Wall Conversations. Where we talk to industry experts to explore new ideas to explore of what’s possible with glazed facades. In our inaugural episode, we’ll be talking to Phil Parker. Phil is originally from British Columbia where he graduated from UBC in Civil Engineering before joining the nationally renounced building consultancy RJC. Working with RJC for over 20 years, Phil would go on to become principal and group leader of the Building Science Team in Calgary, Alberta. Before retiring in 2021. We had a great time chatting with Phil about adaptive facades, durability, upgradeability, the challenge of innovation, and so much more. We hope you enjoy this wide-ranging conversation as much as we did. Without further ado, here’s Curtain Wall Conversations featuring Phil Parker.

2. THE BASIC PREMISE OF ADAPTIVE FACADES

PHIL: Can we have a series of parts, that we can plug and play that we can upgrade and supplement things. So, it’s that kind of philosophical thinking…

PETER: That’s interesting. Is that when you mean when you talk about “adaptive facades”? When I first read your note, you’re like “Pete, let’s chat about “adaptive facades”. I think a lot of people when they hear the term “adaptive facades”, they think of double facades, or Le Corbusier, or whatever just German ones, that have automatic opening and these kinds of things with motors that always break and then no one maintains them and they end up sealing them shut later. I guess I just want to make sure that we’re talking about…

PHIL: Well, we get there eventually. Right? The ability to take a facade and very quickly partially deconstruct it to add insulation or to add a new component without having to do an awful lot of labour-intensive disassembly without having to throw away parts Can I take out a part and put in a new part? Can I add a part to it? That’s the basic premise. And then, it’s: what are those parts? Are those static parts? Are those dumb parts? I can take off my facade, add in, because I’ve designed it for this already and I already own this part. I’ll bolt on a new adapter, I make my facade two inches deeper, and I add in two inches of extra insulation, and I put my facade back on. This concept of deconstructability, I’ve taken that one step further in my philosophical thinking Looking at some writings from the US National Institute for Building Sciences “NIBS”, is this concept of resiliency. The other major thing that’s happened is this concept of climate change. If we look at the way we design buildings, and the way the national building code is built, the national building code relies on, for design standards, Environment Canada who has been looking back, doing statistical regressions for as long they’ve had data Which means today wind load I design a building for is based on a statistical regression that went backwards. And that was reasonably fine when the line was pretty much a straight line. Or even if it was a shallow curve, you could approximate with a straight line you could project it out. Not sure we can do that anymore. The rate of change is too great Society’s expectations are changing at a high rate. Weather and climate is changing at a high rate Technology is evolving at a high rate. Our sources of energy and the costs of energy What’s going to be acceptable sources of energy is changing at a high rate. We now have to have an adaptable façade. The skin on our building has to be able to change and respond rapidly.

3. ADAPTIVE FAÇADES WITH FIBREGLASS FRAMING 

PHIL: So I’ve been thinking about this concept of adaptable facades and I looked at your product and with the fibreglass back section and then there’s kind of an adapter piece. So I’m popping into your basic product thermally broken stick-built. You’ve got a back section with the nosing and you’ve got a piece that inserts into the nosing and then there’s two bolsters on either side, then the pressure plate, etc.

PETER: Yep, there’s the fibreglass back body, a shoulder, and neck that’s also in fibreglass. Then there’s an aluminum screw chase that’s chemically and mechanically fastened into that joint and then the fibreglass pressure plate, and aluminum snapcap on top of that all triple-glazed.

PHIL: What I don’t see in your sections because you show glass, and glass, and glass, and glass which is lovely, what do you do in a spandrel condition?

PETER: So, there’s a few different things we can do there. In terms of what’s actually happening at the frame juncture where ideally we have PVC anti-rotation channels to again eliminate thermal bridging there and then we can actually add insulation into those channels as well.

PHIL: The industry standard has been, and continues to this day and I don’t know if you’ve done something different but for spandrel condition there’s a sheet metal back pan with insulation

PETER: Yep

PHIL: And every time I’ve done thermal modeling the limiter is the sheet metal back pan.

PETER: Yeah, we can thermally isolate that pretty well with those PVC C-channels on the sides. We’re able to get between R12 to R14.

PHIL: Wow! Really? That’s great stuff!

PETER: From the spandrels with the sheet metal back pan still and with single glazing. I mean you could do a double glazing to improve that even further. You could do vacuum, you can do lots of things on the glass side But, just with the single glazing and sheet metal, we’re still able to get…I’m trying to remember how many inches of insulation that actually is a standard amount of it: 3 inches, 4 inches, whatever that standard amount is. But just because of the thermal performance of the fibreglass plus the PVC anti-rotation channels Cause everyone else is kind of using metal anti-rotation which is obviously very conductive

PHIL: Yeah

PETER: Whether it’s steel, whether it’s aluminum or whatever they’re using but PVC’s a great material for that application.

PETER: What does resiliency mean? Especially with the way supply chains are right now. If we’re not manufacturing these things in Canada or even North America And whether this is vacuum glass, whether this is electrochromic glass whether this is solar PV glass or batteries or switches One of these things has an issue and it’s great if the building has made an investment and has a shop or a warehouse full of extra parts and things like that. Moving from just in time to just in case They have a whole wack of stuff that they’ve invested in early on, spare components for this and that. But if we’re not making these things available, we can’t always rely in the long term… And it only takes a small hang up in the port or a larger trade dispute. If we’re having a lot of this stuff made in Asia, China specifically, I don’t know that we can rely for the next 30 or 50 years indefinitely on these things being available whenever we want them Just add to cart, click, click, click. We have to think about, again, that adaptiveness of not just upgrading but also even where are these parts coming from for replacement, just for normal maintenance items

4. INSPIRATION FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES

PHIL: Just looking at technologies from other industries

PETER: Right

PHIL: So then I get on an airplane and I’m putting stuff in the overhead bin. And I think to myself: that overhead bin is made of plastic And I’m sealed inside a metal tube with 137 of my close personal friends at 40,000 feet. If there’s a fire, I suspect it would go poorly. So I reasonably infer that in some point in time somebody’s come up with a fire-resistant plastic

PETER: Yeah, and we have additives for our frame as well

PHIL: Okay

PETER: I mean fibreglass is half resins, call them plastics if you’d like

PHIL: Yeah

PETER: Fibre-reinforced plastics or pultrusions (FRP) is half resins and half glass.

PHIL: Yep

PETER: And we have additives for our resins that allow us to pass CAN ULC-S134.

PHIL: Yep

PETER: So that we can be used on combustible building envelopes So, there are solutions there.

PHIL: Yep

PETER: But the shapes of back pans from what we understand from what we’ve learned in the past decade plus of fibreglass manufacturing is that there’s, broadly speaking, two ways to make fibreglass. So let’s take that fibreglass back pan idea even through broadly speaking there’s two ways to make a fibreglass product. There’s the layering, the papier-mache style

PHIL: Yep

PETER: like what you would do for a cast or something or for your kid’s school project. And then there’s the pultrusion method

PHIL: Right

PETER: and what we do is pultrustion. But it’s limited to sizes that you can do but we make really some of the largest pultrusions you’ll ever see 6-inch back section standard or a 10-inch back section as optional for larger spans. But like hollow 10-inch pultrusions these things look like a 3-inch high school binder. Like you’ve never seen, they look crazy in-person But a back pan has to be a couple feet wide, a couple feet tall you’d have to do it with a layering methodology I would think I don’t think you could pultrude that shape, it would be quite large. It would be very, very, very large for a pultrusion

PHIL: You wouldn’t pultrude it

PETER: Yeah, I don’t think so either

PHIL: I don’t think that it needs to be necessarily fibreglass specifically

PETER: Sure

PHIL: But somebody’s making some form of fibre-reinforced composite plastic that forms the overhead bins in airplanes. So my thought here is: There’s these leaps you’re making with your product Taking curtain wall into the 21st century. But there are lessons from other industries we get to capture

PHIL: I put together my facade and now maybe I want some things in my project and I can’t afford them. So, maybe a client can’t afford it initially, but what if they could do it later? The way we design facades nowadays, once you kind of make that choice, you’re done. Most building facades, whether it’s alucobond, or whoever Kieth panel system, Rhinobond, whatever those are. All those systems with their hidden fasteners. The only way to get them off is to know where they finished because it’s like a stack of LEGO blocks, you can’t take out the middle one. You have to take them all off one by one If you want to change out that middle one for the colour So you’d have to unzip your entire façade. Now, the good news is you could probably put those panels back on. But what if we started putting facades together like IKEA? The entire facade goes together with the same godforsaken Allen key. These other industries have figured this out. Whether it’s a desk, or a bookshelf, or a wine rack IKEA’s putting it together with that same fastener

PETER: They’re only one company mind you. We don’t see a lot of other companies that are leveraging that. Is that kind of crazy or interesting that we don’t see a lot of other furniture manufacturers being like, “wow, IKEA has this great foundation, why don’t we just start building on top of that?”

PHIL: But, again, grabbing on to that idea as well as saying okay, “well, what if I only want to upgrade a portion of my facade?” I go in there again with the big Allen key. I pop all my panels off Maybe my facade has got some sub-girts in it or like the nosing on your curtain wall. We can pop off the old nosing, leave the back section in place, and put in a new nosing, which now buys us another inch and we can now upgrade our insulation by another R6 or R8 or whatever. Everything else stays the same. Maybe we design this way in the first place Say, “well, that’ll be a deeper moment arm, maybe a slightly increased weight. Fine. We design those things for the client on the basis that 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now, they want that

PETER: And I think that kind of vision is totally possible with institutional clients and that’s why 99% of our business is with institutional clients because they’re the ones who are looking ahead They’re okay with the payback that fits outside of some arbitrary parameter of a lease period or something

PHIL: Yeah

PETER: And they can look ahead and say, “We want the best building for the next 50 years, 60 years, 80 years, etc.”

PHIL: You’re right, you’re talking about, universities, hospital boards, municipal governments Municipal government’s kind of hard. Provincially, it’s good news that the bureaucracy insulates us from the political cycle to a degree. Right? Cause the political cycle’s four years. By the flip side, you look at large commercial buildings and you think to yourself oh, and the lease thing, yeah but they’re owned by pension funds So, these people do actually have very long horizons they’re socially responsible.

PETER: Totally, I just don’t see that they’re as involved in the construction phase and that’s maybe where there’s a disconnect. Maybe that’s potentially what we’re talking about.

PHIL: To an extent I think, and I think you’re right and I think that there is some apprehensions. But I think providing the client with an opportunity to upgrade in the future. They may not buy the upgrades, but you could convince them, potentially, to pay 10% more for a product that has the potential for future upgrades

PETER: And then, and I totally see what you’re saying, and I think the challenge for our industry is that we don’t make a commodity product as it were.

PHIL: Correct

PETER: There’s an increasing amount of commodification, which, has it’s own set of challenges you know, it has trade-offs, it has advantages in terms of speed, economies of scale. Has disadvantages in the sense that it centralizes a lot of manufacturing production, fragilizes it potentially as well as we’re seeing with our current supply chain situation Which can lead to long-term problems as well if those single points of failure have issues down the road. We don’t have that commodification. We don’t make a million F150s a year. Right?

PHIL: Right

PETER: Ford does. There’s not two buildings that are the same. Especially in single family homes, you see a lot more of this copy-paste, copy-paste. Where it’s like, oh well, you’re a homebuilder, you make eight kinds of homes and you make each of them 100 times, or something like that

PHIL: Yeah

PETER: Then, you can have a lot of standardization you can build, it’s easier to build in a foundation for future upgrade cause you have decent economies of scale, you kind of do it over and over. But you and I working on institutional projects, commercial projects, it’s like, what two govermnet buildings are the same? Even these Net Zero RCMP Detachments that we’re working on a couple of them they’re different climates! One will be on Vancouver Island and one’s in Fort St. John and one’s in Northern Ontario and they don’t always even have the ability to share lessons learned between those there.

5. STICK-BUILT VS. UNITIZED

PETER: And just so we’re clarifying some of the differences between opaque assemblies and transparent assemblies for a curtain wall let’s say we only do stick-built curtain wall at the moment I know you obviously have a lot more experience with unitized facades than we do.

PHIL: Actually, yep, maybe I’m more experienced than you I’m an old-school stick-built guy.

PETER: Okay, well I just wanted to pick your brain then maybe that you have some more exposure to both. If you were to use one, is one superior in terms of upgradeability? Are there advantages for stick-built in that regard? Or, do unitized offer some advantages when it comes to upgrading something? I can already envision that for our stick-built system it would be super easy to take a triple-glazed unit with maybe one Low-E coating that was only okay performance and insert a triple-glazed vacuum glass unit. We could just pop off the pressure plates caps, change the gaskets even that’ be easy to do, you wouldn’t even have to touch it at the frames at all hardly, strip off the gaskets, punch the new gaskets, put in these new and you’d have like 50% better centre of glass value right then and there basically But with unitized, I guess they typically are four-sided structural silicone. So we would just strip off the structural silicone and then pop in a new peice of glass and re-glaze it? Or like what would be the other differences there?

PHIL: Structural silicone is preferably done in the shop than in the field.

PETER: There’s that too, right?

PHIL: So, I think unitized has a number of advantages in initial manufacturing. In re-purposing, upgrading in the field, not as sure. And I think… you’re on this evolutionary path. Right? There was windows, you know, the first windows were holes in the cave.

PETER: Sure

PHIL: and then we ended up with windows, and then we ended up with stick-built curtain wall, and then we ended up with unitized curtain wall and in some branches of the evolutionary tree, we know, kind of peter out. Is this a hole in the gain of unitized curtain wall? Maybe. Is it a solvable one? Maybe. But right now I think that stick-built might be more adaptable.

6. FACADE UPGRADEABILITY

PHIL: Now, the question is: what are these upgrade parts? Again, are they just dumb upgrade parts?

PETER: Better glass, better gaskets Presumably you’re not changing the frame. Right? I mean once you’re taking the frame apart you’re taking the whole facade apart at that point, you’re not upgrading anything.

PHIL: Yeah, I think that’s the point. Do you want to take the frame apart? No.

PETER: No.

PHIL: What if the frame isn’t strong enough? To take the additional weight or the eccentricity of a deeper facade? Again, all solvable. You just have another fibreglass extrusion that you bolt on to the existing one as long as the anchors can take it, you could probably figure that out too. As long as the two are connected for shareflow, they behave as a composite. So, no problems. I’m trying to remember, 700 West Georgia? It’s probably got a different name now. It had this old PPG Canada curtain wall system. I don’t know, it was like 28 storeys And 700 West Georgia was on this side of the street. And I think 701 was on the other side of the street They were sister buildings. Single-glazed with lockstrip gasket glazing

PETER: Sorry, lockstrip? For the folks at home?

PHIL: Lockstrip is a type of gasket that you pressed in and when you pressed it in and when you pressed it in it retained the glass and it kind of snapped into place. It was like co-extruded Part of it was neoprene and part of it was like a hard vinyl to provide the rigidity PPG Canada stopped making curtain wall 10 or 15 years ago we were looking at this building, trying to figure out what to do with it Well, nobody made those gaskets anymore. So every time they had to do any maintenance on re-glazing on this building PPG Canada got out of the business of making curtain wall so they would have to Tremco or somebody like that and say, “can you please make us some of this?”And of course they’d make you some But there was a minimum order to put together, and so they would re-glaze their buildings, you know whatever was broken or whatever, wherever the gaskets had shrunk or gotten loose. They were still single-glazed! The good news is it’s Vancouver. But big buildings in Vancouver are cooling dominated. You know, the internal gains of the lights and the people and the computers and everything. And cooling is by physics, without getting into it, a less efficient process than heating is. So this was costing them a ton of money and the question was how to re-glaze the building And what we realized was that the mullions were fine and that the mullions, we did the math and with the exception of a few locations on the building, a few anchors. So what we actually conceptualized was leaving the existing glass in place, bolting on a veneer rafter, so it doesn’t use the back section, it’s just the part that supports the glass, and putting double glazing on the building. And then you would come back at night, go into the tenant’s suits, office spaces and remove the single-glazing from the inside. Put a filler in, and no one was the wiser. The only thing that would make this even slicker, was if we made this veneer system as a cassette. So that it could be done in the shop, brought out to site, and simply clipped and hung on the building Kind of like so many LEGO pieces

PETER: And then, and so to take it one step further then, if it is a cassette system, if it is factory-assembled, what does that mean for upgrading that, again? In 2050?

PHIL: Point well-taken. At the time, I was looking at that narrow process saying, “we’ve gotta get rid of this”. If we had thought about it even further, it’s a cassette system that we set it up the whole double-glazing, but can we set it up the whole triple-glazing?

PHIL: Another issue around adaptive facades and climate resiliency is the brise-soleil and I kind of like the French better than…

PETER: Louvers or shades, yep

PHIL: Another U of C building I had to look at a while back is the Taylor Family Digital Library. And interestingly enough, only on the lower portion they have this metal-mesh brise-soleil And it was actually pretty easy to inspect because it was this huge space between the facade and it. It was a ridiculous amount of steel! To support this lightweight fabric. Which I think in and of itself is quite attractive, but the space was ridiculous I mean it was great because I could just get in there and the window washers could get in there and window wash, I could get in there and inspect It was easy. But it had a huge amount of structural steel The good news is most structural steel is now all recycled, but there’s still embodied carbon associated with taking the old structural steel, old cars, whatever, trucking it, putting it on ships, taking it somewhere, grinding it up, melting it down, right? Forming it into whatever structural shape you need, and then putting it on a ship and a bunch of rail cars and taking it back to where you need it. Don’t use any more steel than you need to use, that’s the smart idea.

PETER: And we could probably say that about all materials, right?

PHIL: Absolutely! You know everyone’s got their knickers in a knot about recycling. Reduce, reuse, recycle is your third option.

PETER: Yeah, yeah, yeah

PHIL: Start with reduce, that’s the big winner every time

PETER: The aluminum industry likes to talk a lot about how they have recycled content in their frames. And fibreglass doesn’t like to talk about this, it’s not really what we do. We reduce the carbon footprint, right? There’s 60% less carbon embodied in a fibreglass frame, relative to an aluminum frame. Just by the recycled amount, right? The recycling isn’t a magic wand to make all our worries go away.

7. THE CHALLENGE OF INNOVATION

PHIL: My thought process is that there’s a whole bunch of innovation that’s out there that isn’t getting captured.

PETER: Yep, it’s hard to do innovation, I’ll tell you first hand, you can be as bright as you want, but it’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. And It takes decades to get these kinds of innovations, and big, strong, well-funded teams. And there’s an opportunity to improve the world for sure but I tell you, it’s a challenge in a world where it feels like we’ve often privileged like either Internet kind of tech companies, or like financialized solutions. To do the hard tech, the hard science, is definitely, unfortunately, it feels a little less glamorous sometimes. Although, when you tell people you’re in manufacturing, they’re like, “Oh wow, people manufacture things in Canada?” We’re like, “yeah, some people still do”.

PHIL: Yep

PETER: But it’s a huge amount of effort and I’m grateful for this increasing shift towards being made in Canada or even made in North America kind of are ideas that are starting to gain more traction because I think too long we optimized, and you know, we’re like “your CFO with an MBA can make it look like” or “well we can be more efficient if we manufacture overseas “and then that discourages local entrepreneurs and local innovators.

PHIL: Yep

PETER: from seeing opportunity and I think that hopefully, we can be part of the solution, part of the way forward there but you’re right, there is a huge amount of innovation opportunity and ideally it would be as domestic as possible

PHIL: And I think a lot of this innovation has happened and it exists in certain industries

PETER: Okay

PHIL: And what we haven’t done is we haven’t leapt across industry boundaries

8. EVOLUTION VS. REVOLUTION

PHIL: If we could take our existing building stock, and make them 10-15% better if we can make our new builds 10 or 15% better, and provide people with the step-wise way over the life of the building without having to throw away a lot of stuff, I don’t want to thow away 16 inches of roof insulation, I don’t. Can we come up with a philosophical approach and then distill it down into some practical tools by providing an upgrade component for the ability to add, elegantly, enhancements whether it’s solar shades, or security screens, or the ability to generate a fraction of your energy on-site. If we provide the capacity, the capability for that, so the client can make that rational choice. To incrementally move their buildings forward If you can shave the peaks off of your cooling loads, your cooling equipment becomes smaller the capital cost of it went down. It spends more time operating closer to its optimal efficiencies. Which saves you over the entire lifespan of the equipment. Can do the same thing, can you downsize your heating equipment? And again get away from having to size for extreme peaks because you got an adaptable facade that can shave your peaks off then everything starts to get more efficient.

PETER: Yeah! I mean, what you’re talking about is evolution rather than revolution

PHIL: Yeah!

PETER: And that’s something that, you know you’re preaching to the choir here for sure. But maybe we’ll wrap up our conversation here, Phil. I want to thank you very much for your time today and for the chat, and for allowing us to record and share a piece of this conversation with our audience and of course your audience as well, we’ll definitely send that your way but thanks again, Phil. We’ll talk to you soon.

PHIL: Thank you, you got it. Bye-bye.

PETER: Cheers.

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