On the Market

Keeping Up with Trends in Multifamily Construction

By Jordan Scott

The multifamily market is booming. The COVID-19 pandemic may have wreaked havoc on the world, including the construction industry, but it hasn’t changed the demand for apartments and condos in metro areas. “Even during COVID-19, 2020 saw a 50% increase in multifamily units, compared to that of 2019,” reads a November 2021 article published by Forbes, “And, rents in multifamily housing markets climbed 10% in 65 of the 150 largest metropolitan areas. The occupancy rate went up to 96.9% in July 2021, surpassing the previous record of 96.5% in 2000.”

“Overall, the multifamily market is experiencing significant growth,” says John McGill, general manager of the Project Center at YKK AP America, based in Austell, Ga. “According to a real estate panel led by We Lend LLC, there are several factors driving the upward trend: ‘fear of inflation, low interest rates and the overall attractiveness of multifamily investment.’ Multifamily properties are significantly more affordable at the moment—and we hope to see that continue with lower interest rates.”

Movement in Multifamily

Major growth is only the tip of the iceberg for multifamily market trends. Where this growth is occurring and how it’s occurring also have implications for the glazing industry. According to Doug Watts, president of the architectural glazing systems business at Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope® in Dallas, multifamily housing was in high demand in large markets, i.e. New York and Chicago. He’s now noticing an ongoing trend of increased demand for multifamily housing in smaller markets such as Nashville, Tenn., and Cleveland.

The conversion of office and warehouse spaces to multifamily units is also a growing trend. Ralph Smillie, vice president of large volume sales for New York City-based Skyline Windows, says it’s buoyed on two fronts: the lack of need for as much commercial space caused by the pandemic and the ongoing trend of millennials and retirees moving to downtown locations from the suburbs.

“We’ve seen the demand for multifamily housing bounce back after the knee-jerk reactions people had at the beginning of the pandemic when many were leaving cities,” says Smillie. “Rates in apartments bounced back last summer.”

However, Watts says conversions aren’t popular in every metro area, but are occurring at a greater rate in areas such as Toronto where there’s more focus on sustainability and reusing existing building stock, especially in popular downtown locations of major metro areas.

This demographic shift has led to increased demand for amenities, especially in competitive markets such as New York City. These amenities can include upgraded glazing, rooftop spaces and accessible retail locations such as supermarkets or coffee shops.

Pre-pandemic, Smillie says the multifamily market skewed toward ultra high-end condos and apartments. Now he’s seeing a mix of high-end and affordable housing being built.

“Some of the exodus from cities early on in the pandemic was from wealthier people. The market for high-end condos and apartments is still here, but not as robust,” he explains.

The pandemic has put emphasis on features such as increased ventilation, enhanced daylighting and seamless indoor/outdoor living.

“Many of the aspects of LEED certification and now WELL certification have come further to the forefront. From YKK AP’s perspective, this means that we are seeing a focus on additional daylighting in the form of larger punched openings and more operable windows for proper ventilation,” says McGill. “There’s also increased importance on the quality of the finish, ensuring that it can hold up to frequent cleaning and sanitization.”

The need for additional daylight and more outdoor spaces, such as rooftops and terraces, as opposed to the selection of than one or two products being used on a project, means McGill is seeing a range of high-performing windows, curtainwall, window wall, terrace doors and entrances in multifamily projects.

Performance requirements and demands also are changing for multifamily construction. While more stringent energy codes have been an ongoing trend, Watts notes there’s been an increase in requirements for acoustic performance, especially in densely populated areas, to provide better comfort.

Product Preferences

In addition to overall market shifts, there are also trends in the types of glazing products being used for multifamily construction.

Smillie says there has been an increase in dynamic glazing, or smart glass, used in multifamily projects, which the owner can use as a marketing bonus, in addition to benefits from increased views and lower energy costs. Vacuum insulating glass, which has been used for retrofit projects due to its thin profile, has potential but hasn’t been a cost effective solution in the past.

He also knows owners and architects moving away from sliding windows, whether horizontal or vertical sliders, and double hung windows to pressure pivot awning or casement windows and tilt or turn windows.

“The air and thermal performance is much better and if we can eliminate a horizontal or vertical member in the middle of a window we can optimize views,” says Smillie.

Conversion Considerations

When converting offices or warehouses to multifamily units, Smillie says it’s important to consider ventilation. Residential buildings often have operable windows, whereas commercial buildings, especially those built with curtainwall in the 1960s-1980s, often do not. Many commercial buildings from that time period also have tinted glass to control solar heat gain rather than the clear glass with low-E coatings that’s used today.

Skyline has been involved in several retrofit projects in which the fixed or tinted glazing was replaced with higher performing, operable units within the skin of the building to provide both upgraded thermal and acoustic performance as well as ventilation. Such upgrades also include the added benefits of improved views and lower energy costs.

Local energy codes will drive frame and glass selection, but Smillie feels it’s a trend in high-end developments to exceed code as a way to market to buyers and renters.

In addition to energy codes, upgrades may be needed to meet current building code requirements. Smillie explains that what was allowed in the past may not be allowed today. A common instance of this in New York City, a major Skyline market, is that windows on lot lines may need to be fire rated. In the past, a deluge sprinkler was allowed but codes have been updated in recent years to require fire-rated glazing and frames.

Code requirements and physical limitations can lead to tradeoffs. Architects are driving the development and manufacturing of larger glass sizes due to the visual appeal, but that may not always be possible in retrofit projects.

“Large glass sizes require large spacing between vertical members of the aluminum framing system, which means there’s an increased windload on both the glass and the framing system. In being able to design for that, sometimes there’s a trade-off. You might have to really over-engineer the glazing system to accommodate an oversized piece of glass and that may be cost or space prohibited. You’d have to make the framing members physically bigger to be able to handle that structural load or windload and you may not physically have enough space in the opening to do that,” says Watts. “This goes back to the design build concept. We need to have those conversations up front so we can let the architect or building owner know what the tradeoff involves. If they want that glass type or size, here’s what that means from an engineering, cost and optimization standpoint. So you do have to balance what can be done physically and structurally versus what the architect is trying to achieve visually.”

While the use of larger glass sizes is also an ongoing trend in many project types, some buildings only have punched openings. Smillie says repairs or modifications may be made to the opening, but it’s unlikely that the entire building skin would be replaced to accommodate larger glass sizes due to cost, time and the increased level of intrusiveness. There are also ways to insulate brick of masonry buildings from the interior to upgrade a building envelope’s thermal value, which would be a more likely scenario than reskinning the building.

In conversions of older curtainwall facades, Smillie often sees curtainwall replacements or added spandrel covers to dress up the building and make it look like it has a new appearance.

Watts emphasizes that it’s better to replace both the glass and framing. If only the glass is replaced, the building will still be left with the performance level of the older framing system. Many systems from 20 years ago weren’t thermally broken and created a high transfer of heat and cold.

“Typically, we see a complete replacement of the façade versus just a replacement of the glass,” adds McGill. “By doing this we can take advantage of higher thermal and acoustical performing framing systems in addition to the improvements realized from the glass. Going to larger size glass units is also an advantage to replacing the framing system. Full floor-to-ceiling glass units are typical along with units broken into two lites high with an operable concealed vent at the lower lite for enhanced ventilation. Replacing the glass and framing also allows the full façade to be brought up to current energy codes.”

Jordan Scott is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine.

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