Are U.S. Windows “Open” for Improvement?

I was helping a colleague work on his Passive House in New Hampshire last fall, and was surprised when he told me that he was going to “buy and try” four windows—each from a different manufacturer—before buying them all from a single supplier. He claimed that he wanted all the important elements of the new home to inspire future occupants with their 100-year details.

I have often heard owners and designers claim they are designing or building a project for a 100-year life expectancy, but it rarely seems to hold true. In practice, there’s always compromise.

This house was different. After installing the four different windows, my colleague and his wife put them to the test, opening and closing them dozens of times. A couple didn’t make the grade; they uninstalled one of the leading high-performance fiberglass windows and tossed it in the shed and relegated another unit to the garage.

Why go to all this trouble? An average home will lose up to 30 percent of its energy (and dollars) through its windows, so a doubling of performance means significant savings for most homes. What’s critical is not just the window’s thermal performance, but also its long-term air-tightness and—for operable units—the quality of its hardware.

Ultimately, my colleague chose a heavy-duty solid wood/aluminum composite window made in northern Wisconsin—yet the technology was originally developed in Norway.

I asked Kjell Hatlehol, president of the H-Window Company, how they came to be making European-designed windows in northern Wisconsin. “We really got started with a pilot plant in Minnesota to see if the fully reversible window concept would be accepted in North America,” Hatlehol said. “That was 25 years ago.”

I often hear (and share) concerns expressed for the price premium for advanced, high-performance windows. But windows need to be considered as part of the larger system: the whole house. When high performance windows are used with a durable, well-sealed thermal envelope, it is possible to completely rethink the heating and/or cooling systems due to significantly smaller peak loads.

BuildingGreen’s recent report on windows is an excellent guide to all of the relevant issues surrounding window selection. The report makes it clear that, when compared to their European cousins, U.S.-made windows leave a lot of room for improvement.

Born in the U.S.A.?

Many of the designers and builders involved in the Passive House movement are using advanced windows imported from Europe or Canada, with some exceptions. And, while it can be less energy intensive to import and use windows from Europe rather than buy poorer performing U.S. made windows, this practice is not sustainable in the long term.

How does this kind of tech-transfer happen? There doesn’t seem to be a for superefficient European product suppliers to connect with U.S. manufacturers or partners. The U.S. needs more tech-transfer opportunities for high-performing products—particularly windows—not just because better windows can save energy, but because it helps to decrease our dependence on fossil fuel, improves comfort, saves money, and creates jobs.

I recently caught up with Bronwyn Barry, a U.S.-based Passive House window specialist, just back from another research mission in Europe. Bronwyn noted there are hopeful signs for the U.S. market. “I’ve been approached by a number of local manufacturers asking how they can both build and certify a Passive House window,” he told me.

According to Barry, the Passive House Institute (PHI) in Germany is eager to help North American manufacturers with the technology-transfer issue because they recognize that local and affordable products encourage greater adoption of the Passive House Standard. To this end, Barry and the PHI have organized a Passive House Window Certification Workshop on November 16th, 2012 in San Francisco directly following Greenbuild.

Details for the workshop are being finalized, but interested manufacturers can email Passive House California at for more information.

With the rapid growth of the Passive House standard in the U.S., it seems to be a great time for window innovation. I know you’re thinking, “Really? A great time for innovation in the worst housing economy in U.S. history?” Believe it or not, in the past 21 months I have signed 3 non-disclosure agreements for innovative window technologies being developed here in the U.S.

Better windows are all I’m looking for. Do you share a similar experience?