Toronto has more condominium towers under construction than any other city in North America, but recently glass-clad towers have been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

It started in the summer of 2011 when glass started falling from the shattered balconies of several downtown condo buildings. No injuries were reported, but Toronto City Council asked the provincial government to consider an emergency amendment to the Ontario Building Code "to better address concerns for public safety when glass paneled balconies may break."

Now University of Toronto professor of building science Ted Kesik has written a scathing report that says, "Much less sensational, but potentially far more damaging, is another problem with the hundreds of condominium tower buildings recently built" in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). He says, "Virtually all of the glass condominium towers feature window wall systems that enclose the entire façade of these buildings. Window walls are thermally inefficient compared to curtain walls or punched windows, and they also exhibit questionable performance in terms of durability, air and water leakage. Industry experts forecast that many of these window wall systems may require extensive retrofit or replacement within 15 to 20 years after they have been constructed in order to remediate these performance problems."

The CBC featured Kesik’s paper in a three-part series about the problem, in which one developer called the condos "throw-away buildings".

"There is no other sector that ranks as poorly as the building industry when it comes to innovation and delivering value to its customers," says Kesik’s paper, The Glass Condo Conundrum. "Today’s glass condo towers are not as energy efficient and (are) far less durable than their 1960s counterparts. Is there any other industry where 50 years later, the products it produces cost more and perform worse than their predecessors?"

An article in Glass Magazine says the CBC News items blamed everything on the glass industry and did not consider buildings that have properly designed and installed glass units. Rob Botman, general manager of Glassopolis in Toronto, told Glass Magazine, "The latest round of stories is about cheap construction practices and portraying these issues unfairly as glass issues…You can get properly designed (glass) systems that are watertight, well insulated and provide excellent solar control and privacy."

Brian Shedden of GRG Building Consultants, a director with the Canadian Condominium Institute – Toronto chapter (CCI-T), says the "window walls used in many of the towers should not be confused with the sophisticated curtain wall systems employed on many commercial towers. They look similar, but their design and service life is dramatically different."

Bill Thompson, CCI-T president and president of condo management firm Malvern Condominium Property Management, says, "As with all construction types, the boards governing condominium corporations with glass-clad towers need to begin planning today to determine the scope of the concern in individual buildings and the best ways to address any issues they identify. They should determine whether a serious concern exists, look at the most cost-efficient method for making repairs, the timing of the work and the most reasonable method of paying for it."

Kesik says performance problems within the windows are usually identified by water leakage, which can be fixed on an as-required basis until the problems become chronic and extensive. "At this time, the least expensive repair is to seal the exterior face of the window wall assemblies over the entire building," he says. Generally repairs of this kind have not been budgeted for in the condo’s maintenance reserve fund, so a special assessment must be levied on the condo owners to pay for the job. This repair will only last 10 or 15 years, and then must be repeated or the entire window wall façade replaced, he says. "Either way, the market value of the condo tower is affected, and its marketability can also be compromised by concerns over appearance and/or durability and performance problems," says Kesik.

Thompson says that revisions to the Ontario Building Code will result in energy performance requirements that should see improvements in new buildings. Tarion Warranty Corporation, which provides mandatory new home warranties in Ontario, has also tightened its requirements for window walls.

Kesik says the real estate industry should be qualified to lead consumer education programs about how buildings work and what to look for when buying them. He also says that condo legislation in Ontario should be revised so condo owners can negotiate improvements with the developer before construction begins. "By the time the condo boards are formed, they are stuck with whatever was built, instead of being able to assess the costs and benefits of various measures that improve durability and performance," he says.

During the last five years, condominium prices in the GTA have appreciated by an average of seven per cent annually, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. That’s two per cent better than the stock market. In just the last three years, condos have appreciated in value by an average of 25 to 30 per cent. Condos represent a quarter of all homes sold in the GTA, up from 20 per cent market share in 2005.

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