Editorial: History as a circle
The future could end up more like the past.
November 2, 2023 By Patrick Flannery
Reading Carroll McCormick’s latest excellent industry profile on Roberge Windows and Doors (our cover story in this issue) got me thinking about all the changes a company would see in over 100 years of existence. When Roberge was founded in 1917, the facility probably did not have electricity (it’s not in a large city). Just about everyone would have ridden horses or walked to work. The single-pane, wood windows would have been made by hand without power tools. Even if a truck was available for delivery, I doubt you would have used one – the 1917 suspensions plus the condition of the unpaved roads would guarantee a broken load by the time you got anywhere. A photo I saw of the Montreal Technical School in 1917 showed belt-driven lathes powered by an overhead shaft. Things like air travel, air conditioning and telephones were still rare luxuries. The staples of today’s business, like PVC and insulating glass units, were speculative inventions that had not been commercialized.
Now let’s look forward. What will window and door manufacturing look like 100 years from now?
On present trends, it would would seem safe to predict that we’ll continue doing everything we can to minimize carbon dioxide emissions. It’s hard to see where we go much further with the insulating and airtighteness qualities of our products to save operational carbon produced by heating and cooling homes. Doing so would require some really unforeseen invention on the materials side, or at least a radical reduction in cost of today’s best technology, like vacuum insulating glass or aerogels. That’s possible, of course, but I doubt that’s where the big changes will come. Why? Because the push is on to convert our homes to electric HVAC powered by non-emitting energy sources such as hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and solar. When the home’s energy source doesn’t emit much carbon dioxide, the urgency to reduce its power use goes down.
Instead, we’re going to be looking at reducing the carbon dioxide emissions created by manufacturing and installing our products – the so-called embodied carbon. This could be a big one since PVC, aluminum, fibreglass and glass all generate a lot of carbon dioxide emissions in their manufacturing processes. A lot of that could be mitigated by powering the manufacturing processes themselves with non-emitting energy, but converting existing plants to do so would be very expensive and technically challenging. Possible, but will take a long time to execute.
Maybe there’s another alternative. Don’t laugh – it’s wood. Harvesting and processing wood emits far less carbon dioxide than the other materials above, especially if electric-powered logging equipment and sawmills are used. Crucially, wood can be harvested locally, reducing the carbon emissions from transportation. When growing, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Using wood incentivizes planting new trees, so some green building measures actually apply a credit for using wood acknowledging that this is the one material that reduces the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while it’s growing.
We went away from wood frames as an industry because it is easier to make thermally broken frames with PVC. But if the energy supply becomes non-emitting we won’t have to worry about the insulating value of the frames so much any more. Maybe the slightly poorer thermal performance of wood will come to be seen as less important than its superiority in terms of embodied carbon.
Maybe, by 2117, we will come full circle to making windows the same way Roberge did 200 years ago.
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