Choosing the Right Windows

Feb. 1, 2008

Check out some of the benefits and drawbacks of common window materials

By John Simpson  

Besides letting in light and air, well-designed windows can make all the difference between an attractive commercial building and a mediocre building. Today's windows can also contribute to energy efficiency, saving you and your tenants money while helping the environment.

The right window material can be a deciding factor in how your building looks and performs. There are many choices for what to use; each has its benefits and drawbacks. Following are some benefits and drawbacks to the most common window materials on the market.

Wood/Wood Clad
Benefits: Wood is the original window material. Its versatility means that it can add warmth to a sleek, glass-and-chrome office tower or it can perfectly match the original windows on a historic brownstone renovation. Many wood-window manufacturers offer cladding, an exterior covering that eliminates the need to paint the exterior of wooden windows. Beware of what sort of cladding covers your wood: Roll-form aluminum cladding, not much thicker than a pop can, can be a weaker material and may show marks. Look for cladding made from an extruded aluminum with a Kynar 500® finish to prevent chalking and fading.

Drawbacks: Wood can be pricey, depending on the wood species used, as well as on things like special lite cuts. Wood also requires jobsite painting or staining.

Benefits: Aluminum is a cost-effective, low-maintenance material that can be shaped into various configurations. It can be painted, offering building owners the option of changing colors.

Drawbacks: Aluminum windows are not thermally efficient since the metal material readily conducts heat and cold. This can translate into lost energy efficiency for your building.

Benefits: Vinyl is one of the most widely used, non-wood window materials. It is widely sold and can be the most cost-effective option for building managers who need a quick and easy window option.

Drawbacks: Vinyl is one of the window materials more prone to bending and bowing due to pressure caused by thermal cycling. It may require aluminum or steel reinforcement to meet today's standards for larger units. Like aluminum, vinyl also expands and contracts at a greater rate than glass, which can result in glass-seal failures. Vinyl cannot be painted, and factory coatings won't hold darker colors due to their tendency to fade and chalk.

Fiber Glass
Benefits: Fiber glass windows are a fairly new addition to the window market. They are tough and durable, and often more environmentally friendly than other non-wood window materials. Compared with vinyl, fiber glass can be up to eight times stronger than vinyl and may even be used as a replacement for steel rebar. One of the primary components of glass fibers is derived from silica sand, an abundant natural resource.

Drawbacks: Among non-wood window options, fiber glass can be more expensive than aluminum or vinyl.

Whichever window material you choose, carefully evaluate the conditions under which the window will need to perform. Then, consider the benefits and drawbacks of each window material to find the right one for your project.

John Simpson is new business development manager at Eagan, MN-based Marvin Windows and Doors (

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