The $33 billion worth of damage to insured property wrought by Hurricane Andrew a dozen years ago left insurers, Florida politicians, and building inspectors determined to avoid any repeat. Because windows smashed by airborne debris were a cause of much damage, the statewide building code introduced on March 1, 2002, mandated that new windows either be impact-resistant or feature an exterior covering, typically shutters. New or renovated buildings can forego either of these if they're engineered to withstand sudden, rapid pressurization.
Replacement contractors in Florida, and particularly in coastal areas, have seen all sorts of ramifications. “It's affected us in many ways,” says Steven Field, president of Invincible Associates, a Tampa Bay company that specializes in single-ply roofing and replacement windows. Invincible switched suppliers when the Ohio-based manufacturer it had done business with for years couldn't meet Florida's testing requirements. Tests measure wind load and impact resistance and are described by Dave Olmstead, public affairs and code compliance officer for window manufacturer PGT, as “brutal.” Invincible switched to a Pennsylvania maker that had obtained Florida approvals.
Most major window producers are marketing impact-resistant products, which use a sheet of plastic sandwiched between layers of glass to blunt the force of impact. The difficulty is that consumers sometimes balk at the prices.
“I'm getting call after call from homeowners,” Field says. “They say, ‘Can't you do this without a permit? We don't want storm shutters and we can't afford to pay for hurricane-resistant glass.'” Field says the use of impact-resistant glass “doubles” the retail cost of the window. That might be a difference in price, per opening, of $550 vs. $1,000.
“It killed me,” says Stan Udele, owner of Pasco Window & Door in the Tampa Bay area. Udele, who manufactured his own windows prior to enactment of the code but couldn't afford the cost of testing, says that at that time his company was generating $2 million in sales of vinyl and aluminum windows.
Sales have since fallen to just under $1 million. Udele says that when presented with the choice of impact-resistant windows or shutters, some coastal homeowners arrange for unlicensed contractors to install noncode–compliant windows. “It's funny but it ain't funny,” he says.
Demand for windows with impact-resistant glass is nonetheless rising. Driving it are contractors like Robbie Buckley, owner of Buckley Window Corp. in Fort Lauderdale, who specializes in condominium buildings, where shutters are impractical. Buckley says he's seen sales leap from less than $1 million five years ago to $5 million today. “There's not a lot of guys in it,” he explains. Condo owners take the costs in stride, because changing out windows in a condominium was always more expensive. “More expensive products, more expensive labor, more expensive sealants,” Buckley says.