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A cautionary tale: Cheap glass window wall is not suitable for our climate




Thermal Window Failure: How it Happens

A Developer's Change of Heart

Engineering Buildings to Perform

Audio and Video Highlights


Many of the glass condominium towers filling up the Toronto skyline will fail 15 to 25 years after they’re built, perhaps even earlier, and will need retrofits costing millions of dollars, say some industry experts.


Buyers drawn to glass-walled condos because of the price and spectacular views may soon find themselves grappling with major problems including:


Insulation failures.

Water leaks.

Skyrocketing energy and maintenance costs.

Declining resale potential.

Glass condominiums — known in the industry as window walls — have floor-to-ceiling glass, so essentially the window becomes the wall. Window walls generally span from the top of the concrete slab right to the bottom.


The slow-motion failure of Toronto's glass condos




Over the past decade, Toronto's building boom has been dominated by tall glass condo towers.


They've transformed the look of city skylines all over the world – especially here in Toronto, where according to Emporis.comwe've built more towers per capita than any other city in North America. But it may be a trend that puts style over substance.


A small but growing chorus is sounding the alarm about the future of these buildings.


Building scientists have known for a long time that glass-walled structures are less energy efficient than the stone and concrete buildings that were put up forty of fifty years ago. But the market demand for glass combined with the relatively low cost of glass-wall construction means the building industry has been happy to oblige.


However, industry insiders warn that as energy costs climb, glass towers may become the "pariah" buildings of the future. In these stories, we explore the hidden costs of building with glass and

the slow-motion failure of window walls.


We also look at why the Ontario Building Code failed to make energy performance a priority, and meet a developer who is reconsidering the construction of such buildings.


Building science consultant and University of Waterloo professor John Straube wrote a paper called Can Highly Glazed Building Facades be Green? View Paper [1MB .pdf] http://www.cbc.ca/toronto/features/condos/pdf/condo_conundrum.pdf


John Straube

John Straube, a building science consultant and professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo says glass condos are a "perfect reflection" of a society that's found it easier to throw things away than to build them to last.


"We have a hard time," says Straube, "thinking five years when we buy a laptop, ten years when we buy a car. With these buildings – both the skin and the mechanical systems are going to have to be redone in a 25-year time frame. The concrete structure will be there a long time but in 20, 25 years time, we are going to see a lot of scaffolding on the outside of the buildings as we replace the glazing, sealants and the glass itself."


Although falling glass from the condo balconies has attracted most of the public attention during the summer of 2011, building scientists warn that the long-term failure of the glass structures – although less sensational – is much more serious.



More: how thermal window failure happens

Window-wall systems

Most of them are built using window-wall systems which have next to no insulation value, except for a half inch of heavy gas between the two panels of glass.


As John Straube points out, what glass does really well is conduct heat. "A little experiment anyone can do at home is get a glass for drinking. Pour boiling water into it, and try and pick it up. You'll burn yourself."


Straube, along with building science colleagues like Ted Kesik at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto, warns that as energy costs climb, the costs of heating and cooling glass towers will increase the monthly fees.


Kesik wrote a paper called The Glass Condo Conundrum (250KB .pdf) on the potential liabilities of glass towers.


The Glass Condo Conundrum

It's not just the energy costs. Glass structures require major maintenance much earlier in their life cycle than a traditional structure made of precast or brick.


Straube warns maintenance costs will skyrocket in 20 to 25 years' time as the buildings age. The windows will begin to fog up, and the cost of replacing entire walls of glass will be prohibitive on highrise structures that can only be accessed from swing stages.


Building scientists talk about the life cycle of a building, akin to a human life cycle, language that encourages people like Straube to see a building as an organism. "It has lungs," says Straube, "it has veins, all of that stuff – it has a structural skeleton."


To Straube, a building is a living, breathing thing, enclosing the people who live inside. Building with glass walls is to miss the main point of a building, says Straube – sacrificing the protection that is a building's first duty for a beauty that is only skin-deep.


"It's almost derogatory in my world," says Straube, "to forget about everything else that's part of experiencing a building. I like to think what is this building going to be like on a dark and stormy night. In our climate particularly, we care about that. It's life and death."





Matt Galloway spoke with Mary Wiens about the series.

Listen (runs 6:11)

Part One

Mary Wiens introduces us to people concerned about the hidden costs of glass walls. Listen (runs 6:48)

Part Two

A developer of glass towers tells us why he will never put up another one. Listen (runs 6:28)

Part Three

Mary Wiens asks engineers about the rise, and repair, of the glass towers. Listen (runs 6:38)

Part Four

Mary Wiens tours a new condominium with a young couple and their real estate agent. Listen (runs 6:50)

Part Five

Mary Wiens tells us about a solution that has helped produce more efficient cars and appliances, an approach that may have potential for condominiums as well. Listen (runs 6:59)



Part One: How glass fails

John Lancaster talks to David House about the potential problems facing owners of glass condos in Toronto.

Watch (runs 3:16)

Part Two: Hidden costs

Kamela and Jason Hurlbut are looking for their first dream home but there are hidden costs to living in Toronto's glass condos.

Watch (runs 3:19)

Part Three: The ripple effect

If I can't sell my condo, I can't buy your home. John Lancaster looks at the possible ripple effect in Toronto's real estate market.

Watch (runs 3:48)

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Très très bon article et fort pertinent. Cela me fait penser au scandale des condos de Vancouver des années 80-90, mal adaptés au climat très humide de la côte ouest. Ou plus près de nous à l'Ile des Soeurs. Malheureusement on leurre les acheteurs avec des projets tape-l'oeil qui éventuellement risqueront de coûter très cher avec le temps. C'est symptomatique d'une société gaspilleuse et insouciante qui tente de profiter du présent sans tenir compte de la vulnérabilité de ses constructions à plus long terme. Pourtant la technologie nous permet d'assurer la pérennité de nos bâtiments. Mais qui veut payer pour garantir la qualité, puisque la plupart des consommateurs revendent leurs condos ou maisons dans les 5 ans. Ils pellettent alors le problème an avant.

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Et bien, de quoi nous faire un peu plus apprécier les murs plus opaques de nos tours d'ici! De quoi auront l'air les nouveaux quartiers de Toronto dans 25 ans, si la plupart de ces bâtiments sont pris avec des frais gargantuesques pour la rénovation?

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Humm pour être sincère, je crois que l'appréciation de ces quartiers dans 25 ans sera la même que nous avons aujourd'hui pour ceux construits il y a 25 ans...

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Humm pour être sincère, je crois que l'appréciation de ces quartiers dans 25 ans sera la même que nous avons aujourd'hui pour ceux construits il y a 25 ans...


Pour ce qui est des quartiers construits pratiquement entièrement avec ces tours en vitres depuis les 10 dernières années comme City Place et ce qu'ils appelent South Core sur SSP, tu as malheureusement fort probalement raison.. Que va-t-il arriver lorsque toutes ces tours construites à la même époque devront toutes êtres rénovées? Vont-elles recevoir l'investissement nécéssaire ou si elles vont lentement tomber en disrepair? Ça va être un phénomème intéressant à regarder, qui n'arrivera certainement pas juste à Toronto en passant.


Sur une note à part, c'est pas la première fois que je lis un article parlant de la mauvaise isolation des tours en vitres résidentielles étant donné les récents gain en popularité de celles-ci partout au Canada. Ce même problème ce retrouve-t-til aussi dans les tours en vitre mais à vocation commercial?

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I think the problem of cheap construction arises whenever you have a major boom. Think of all the crap that was built here in the 60's-70's (around Concordia in particular). Developers rush to build as much as they can as quickly and cheaply as they can. Once it's sold, the problems are off their hands as long as it lasts until the various warranties run out. They just flip the property and let the new owner worry about any problems that may arise.


As far as commercial buildings are concerned, most bank and office buildings are constructed using curtain wall as opposed to window wall. Curtain wall is much more effective and, of course, much more expensive. Banks need their buildings to represent them well into the future and won't cut corners- that would be a bad investment. Developers are driven by greed and don't care what happens after they've sold their crap buildings.


I would never buy into a building made of window wall- unless I intended to sell it quickly.


City Place is already starting to crumble. Walk around there some time, it stinks of cheapness:


Condo owners file suit

Complaints and lawsuits have already begun.


Condo owners in a tower off Front Street are suing the developer, Concord, claiming the window-wall system in the nine-year-old building near the Rogers Centre has defects and water is seeping through.


CBC called Concord to discuss the lawsuit, but there has been no response as of Monday.

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Thx for the response habfanman! The irony is that more luxurious development like the 4 Seasons, the Shangri-La and the Ritz Carlton have high quality curtain walls. The rich will end up paying less for heating (per sq./f.) than less wealthy people!

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Thx for the response habfanman! The irony is that more luxurious development like the 4 Seasons, the Shangri-La and the Ritz Carlton have high quality curtain walls. The rich will end up paying less for heating (per sq./f.) than less wealthy people!


Oui mais ils ont probablement payé leur condo plus cher au départ.

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