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Fenestration Forum : October 2009

Scratching the surface of Canada’s building stock

October 16, 2009  By Brian Burton

When the Division of Building Research was created in the 1947,
researchers almost immediately began to study fenestration. The name
was changed to the Institute for Research in Construction (IRC) in 1986.

When the Division of Building Research was created in the 1947, researchers almost immediately began to study fenestration. The name was changed to the Institute for Research in Construction (IRC) in 1986.
At the time the IRC was created there were only two other building research organizations in the world. One was the British Building Research Station (BRS) which was created in 1926 and the other was located in Russia. Today there are more than 70. 

Of course construction research goes back a great deal further than 1926. To give you an idea of how long we have been working on the complexities involved, formal testing on construction materials can be traced back almost 300 years.

As the IRC assembled its team of experts and began writing the well-known Canadian Building Digests (CBDs) they covered just about every possible aspect of construction from acoustics to earthquakes. In total they published 250 CBDs between 1960 and 1988 that were intended to provide information to designers. You can still read them on-line today and they are still as informative as the day they were published.


The researchers paid a tremendous amount of attention to windows and glass. In fact windows are mentioned several times in the very first Digest to hit the streets, “Humidity in Canadian Buildings” written by none other than the “father of building science” in Canada – Neil Hutcheon.

Neil was also the first person to refer to the “science” of construction when he explained to attendees at a conference in 1953 that our approach to construction was “based on building practice – as contrasted with what may be called building science.”

Some of the basic principles of building science were understood as early as 1946, however, the term did not really come into popular use until the 1980s and even today it brings a puzzled look from many when they hear it used.

Grant Wilson, a former student of Hutcheon wrote most of the material regarding fenestration. He had been in close contact with counterparts at the Norwegian Building Research Institute, a nation that has always been a leader cold climate construction technology. 

When it came to fenestration many topics were addressed by various CBDs including:

•    Condensation, air leakage, acoustics and thermal performance.
•    Daylighting and glazing design.
•    Sealed double-glazing units.
•    Solar heat gain through glass walls.
•    Characteristics of window glass and glazing units.
•    Fire-resistance.
•    Plastics in glazing applications.

The IRC also gave numerous seminars and published several excellent books including the famous “Building Science for a Cold Climate” authored by Neil Hutcheon and Gustav Handegord,  which is still considered the “bible” of the business.

What never fails to amaze me about Canada’s building stock, aside from the staggering amount of money involved, is that Canadians spend 90 per cent of their time inside our “built environment”– and another five per cent in our cars. The average citizen probably never stops to consider what that would mean if our buildings had no windows or glazing, however, I am quite certain that I don’t have to explain what it would mean to the readers of Glass Canada.

Our approach towards fenestration has also evolved rapidly in response to a long list of changing circumstances.

This list includes demographics, our expectations of the indoor environment, innovations in materials and technology, 12 revisions to the NBC, the tools we have at our disposal and an incredible amount of research activity. 

We have also changed our approach in recognition of available resources and our increasing concerns regarding our impact on the environment. We have also responded to many notable building successes – and some spectacular failures.

To say that radical changes will occur in the next 20 years is an understatement!  

The greatest change will involve digital computer technology – primarily for simulation of performance. For the most part we still operate and manage our industry using paper. When it comes to computers in construction we have just barely begun to scratch the surface.

The trend towards “performative” construction, where long-term performance is the primary concern of design and construction instead of short term economics, will also have a huge impact on the fenestration industry. We can also expect an acceleration of the trend towards the “design/build” approach.

The other side of the equation will relate to what we build, and the materials we will use to build it.

A large percentage of the materials we use to fabricate windows and curtainwalls today were invented within the last 20 years and experts claim that 80 per cent of the materials we will be using in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet!

So here is some practical advice for our dedicated readers – hold on to your hard hat! •

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