Unitized Curtain Wall – The Power of Prefab

Unitized Curtain Wall – The Power of Prefab

After years of working as a building envelope consultant, I am still fascinated by curtain wall systems. The technology surrounding unitized curtain wall systems allows for higher performing and sleeker systems, more of which are being introduced each year. Curtain wall systems are being manufactured with higher R-values, lower profile aluminum mullions, and greater ability to move in articulate ways to accommodate seismic drift.

Many are not familiar with the term “curtain wall”, but anyone who has visited a major downtown area has seen the all glass exteriors that comprise many modern mid-rise and high-rise structures. These all glass exteriors hang like curtains from the exterior slab edges of the building structure and are popular design elements, as they transmit ample natural light, provide a modern and sleek exterior, and many other aesthetic and functional benefits.

However, these are complicated architectural systems and are rife with challenges. Glazing systems are often bound to tight construction tolerances, access for downtown construction sites is often extremely limited, and protection during transport and during construction is critical to prevent breakage prior to building occupation. Proper installation of these glazing systems is also critical, as errors can result in thermally induced breakages, water or air intrusion, or other costly repairs.

In order to reduce the strain of these challenges, more and more shops are embracing prefabricated glazing systems. Using unitized curtain wall systems reduces the installation time on-site, which in turn shortens the time to dry in a building and allows interior work an earlier start. Unitized curtain wall systems are also assembled in warehouse, streamlining the assembly processes and tightly controlling the interior environmental conditions and boost overall quality. These unitized curtain wall “modules” then can be quickly anchored and field sealed.

Prefabrication is powerful. The scope of different trades often experience a steep learning curve at the beginning of each project. Although there are differences in the design that vary from project-to-project, many of the differences between systems are subtle and one can see huge gains in efficiency by adopting processes from manufacturing and applying them over and over. Why experience the same delays and bottlenecks for each project? Why not invest in learning to leverage industry leading tools on the front end of one project to reap the benefits of efficiency on multiple projects over several years? This is one of the benefits of incorporating LEAN construction concepts to apply learning from past projects in order to inform future projects.