The Architectural Significance of Unitized

Unitized curtain wall systems meet design goals and logistic challenges
By Chris Giovannielli
November 1, 2016

A team installs Kawneer Unitized Curtain Wall at Drexel University. Photo Courtesy of Kawneer Co.

Architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris was right when he called architecture a “learned game.” It’s also an evolution. Design trends change, products advance and the ability for manufacturers and contractors to contribute to the game’s progression is greater than ever before.

Architects and building owners are driving the industry to reduce costs and the time it takes to close buildings. However, the need to balance aesthetics, performance and budget cannot be met solely by an architect or contractor. Manufacturers are tasked to constantly improve products to make them increasingly versatile, while glazing contractors are often faced with more variety or customization in the installation.

When it comes to choosing curtain wall for a project, manufacturers must consider budget, timeframe and available job-site real estate to determine the best framing systems for the job.

Stick-built versus unitized

Stick-built curtain wall systems are commonly installed on low-to mid-rise applications, with most installation and glazing done on the job site. For façades with more complex designs or shorter product lead times, these systems may be an ideal solution. However, more labor is required on the jobsite and fabrication and installation can take longer to complete. They are a challenge in space-constrained urban environments as more space is required on the jobsite to fabricate and store materials.

Unitized curtain wall systems help balance the need for rapid close-in with design aesthetics, durability and structural integrity. Rather than employing more equipment to perform the glazing portion of the project in the field, the industry is looking toward in-shop glazing (within manufacturing facilities) where labor costs are typically lower than in the field. Subsequently, at the jobsite, the need for a large capital investment to fabricate and assemble these systems is significantly reduced.

Architects and building owners are also looking for more single-source suppliers that can handle the complete process. They are in need of someone who can act as a single point of contact to communicate design/application guidelines, assist with developing the “look” the architect is aiming to achieve, maintain appropriate lead times and ensure quality control measures are satisfied.

Setting up for unitized

For single-source suppliers, the layout of the shop is key to producing quality unitized products. When it comes to assembly, aluminum manufacturers typically provide several different fabrication options. No matter which method is selected, shop layout is essential to the process. Ideally, a large facility will have outlets for incoming and outgoing materials, as well as room for the materials to be easily moved between each assembly area and crated for shipping. A staging area, which could take up as much space as the fabrication area, is typically required for panels to cure.

Glazing contractors have the flexibility to provide fabrication and pre-glazing under controlled conditions in their own shop facility. However, when there is a lack of manpower or equipment, factory-fabricated units can help meet construction schedules. In addition to easing timeline pressures, pre-assembled and pre-glazed units ensure quality control and increased throughput for most any size or configuration.

There is also an increasing demand for transportation equipment that can help crate and ship the units both short and long distances. Because timing is critical, contractors must pay close attention to logistics, including arranging transportation and staging once the units arrive at the jobsite. Based on the limited real estate at some urban jobsites, offloading unitized systems can sometimes present a challenge.

Like any “learned game,” determining the best way to win involves an understanding of the parts and pieces as well as the players.

Chris Giovannielli currently serves as product manager, Curtain Wall and Sun Control, for Kawneer North America. In his current role, he is responsible for managing the curtain wall and sun-control product portfolio and accountable for product road mapping and product management efforts.