At the Intersection of Economics and Peak Performance

The California Energy Commission’s Building Energy Efficiency Standards make up some of the most forward-thinking (and demanding) building codes in the United States. Also known as Title 24, an updated version of the California code will go into effect on January 1, 2020, requiring that all newly constructed residential buildings achieve net zero energy levels by 2020. New commercial buildings will need to do the same by 2030.

How to achieve such ambitious goals? One option could be “skinny triples,” or triple-paned insulating glass units with a very thin center lite that can deliver outstanding energy performance. Earlier in July, California Energy Commission officials held a meeting discussing the technology’s potential in the California market under the updated Title 24. You might have heard some chatter about the meeting already. USGlass provided a recap here, and my colleague Ric Jackson discussed some implications in the residential market for DWM Magazine, too.

It’ll be interesting to see the impact. In more general terms, I’ve sensed that multi-cavity units and some of their challenges are becoming a bigger part of the conversation in the U.S. architectural glass market. The appeal of skinny triples lies in part that the unit is approximately as compact and lightweight as a traditional double-paned unit. Therefore, there aren’t as many installation or architectural challenges to be overcome due to triples’ extra weight and thickness.

But a few significant challenges would remain in the U.S. market for multi-cavity units to gain traction, skinny or otherwise. Conventional triple-paned units aren’t new, of course. They’ve been used extensively in the Canadian market and throughout Europe, but comparatively, U.S. building codes haven’t driven their adoption here, like they have in those markets. And because that kind of code-related demand hasn’t existed, most U.S. manufacturers aren’t set up to run triples like their European or Canadian counterparts. Additionally, there’s always cost to consider; adoption of new technology must be cost-effective for the value that it brings to applications where it’s applied.

I wrote earlier this year about how the commercial glazing industry can balance high performance with cost using a combination of viable, cutting-edge methods and materials that might not necessitate a move to triples just yet. High-performance vinyl framing for commercial applications can eliminate the need for thermal breaks where aluminum might typically be used. Low-E coatings continue to be effective, and newer electrochromic technology can further enhance how glass keeps interior environments efficient, comfortable and up to code. And warm-edge spacer technology can continue to be applied to drive performance higher and U-factors lower.

Codes will continue their inevitable march forward, as evidenced by some of this news out of California, and I expect that triples will be part of the larger commercial glazing conversation in the coming years. Will they supplant doubles as the standard U.S. commercial unit of choice in the next five years? Ten? Will they become a more economical choice for manufacturers, architects, installers and property owners? It’s possible—but I think we’ll continue to see other technologies gain greater traction before we reach that tipping point.

Joe Erb is a commercial sales specialist for Quanex Building Products.