Trouble Finding Labor? Go Unitized.

How unitized curtain and window wall systems can help overcome the challenges of insufficient field labor and strict project schedules
Joe Schiavone
February 18, 2019
COMMERCIAL, FABRICATION : INSIGHTS

Unitized curtain wall, Encore Condos, Nashville
Glaziers install unitized curtain wall at the Encore Condos in Nashville. Photo courtesy of C.R. Laurence Co.

It’s no secret that the shortage of skilled labor has been a significant, ongoing problem in the construction industry. According to the 2019 Construction Outlook Survey from the Associated General Contractors of America, 78 percent of contractors reported having a difficult time filling positions. Unfortunately, the issue is not expected to subside anytime soon. 

Insufficient skilled labor can be detrimental to a glazing business and will ultimately affect its ability to remain competitive. Associated disadvantages include prolonged project completion times, missed job opportunities, and higher costs that are passed down to the customer.

The good news is that there are ways to offset the shortage of skilled labor. One such method is to select easy-to-install glazing systems. When it comes to the building envelope, unitized curtain and window walls are rising in popularity for this reason. Understanding their function and application will let contractors take full advantage of their labor-saving benefits. 

Key benefits

Unlike standard curtain and window walls, unitized systems are assembled and glazed in the shop environment. The shop setting allows for efficient installation of all required setting blocks, water deflectors, end dams and gaskets. It also provides a controlled environment for improved supervision of quality and production without the disruptions related to onsite assembly.

The key benefits of adopting a pre-glaze fabrication method over a traditional approach are twofold. First, unitized systems can reduce the amount of skilled labor needed in the field. Stick-built systems require erection and glazing of aluminum members onsite. Because unitized systems arrive pre-glazed, less manpower is needed for installation. This can reduce labor costs by up to 25 percent. Field labor is essentially shifted to a more cost-effective factory workforce.

The second key benefit of unitized systems is that they can reduce time spent on the project site by as much as 35 percent. Units can be installed in a third of the time of a typical stick-built system. In short, the building envelope can be closed faster—a significant advantage in the face of tight construction schedules.

From an aesthetic standpoint, unitized systems can deliver the seamless, all-glass visuals of stick-built curtain walls using slab edge covers. They also offer the same high-performance benefits without the engineering and load challenges that stick-built systems present. This makes them ideal for high-rise projects.

Unitized systems offer architects the same performance and aesthetic benefits that standard curtain walls do. They also let the general contractor start work on interior finishes earlier on in the schedule. These factors create a win-win scenario for all major stakeholders.  

Logistic and installation considerations

Unitized curtain and window walls are typically transported to the jobsite using A-frame racks that can be obtained from the local glass supplier. Another method is to secure the units in specialized box crates, which can be reused to save on material costs. 

Glazing contractors should install unitized systems from the exterior when the structure is six stories or less. Units can be picked directly from the delivery trailer and raised to the appropriate floor using a hoisting device. When a structure is taller than six stories, units should be installed from the interior. In this case, a modified electric pallet jack can help get the job done quickly and safely. 

With unitized systems, glaziers will typically have to get on the outside of the building to seal the perimeter joints. Utilizing a head can may reduce the requirement for exterior sealing of the system to just the jamb condition. 

Glaziers should be sure to work with a reputable manufacturer that can help specify the right unitized system, transportation method and installation equipment for the job. 

Today's skilled labor shortage and fast-paced construction schedules pose a serious problem to glazing contractors. Unitized curtain and window walls can go a long way in alleviating some of the corresponding stress that’s placed on their operations. 

Joe Schiavone is director of sales for C.R. Laurence Co., crl-arch.com, crlaurence.com. He can be reached at joe_schiavone@crlaurence.com.