Glass shortage putting brakes on US building projects

America’s current commercial building boom is being affected by a shortage of architectural glass.

In many cases, this is adding millions of dollars to the cost of new skyscrapers and putting the brakes on some projects during construction. Apartment buildings and new office towers are rising in major markets like Manhattan at the fastest rate seen since the early 1990s.

Property developers say the current shortage could last well into next year, if not longer, as restarting disused glass factories is a costly and time-consuming process. Producers shut 11 out of 47 float-glass manufacturing plants in North America between 2007 and 2014, according to PPG Industries Inc., as demand for glass of all kinds, from building facades to automotive glass plummeted during the downturn. Building a new plant can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, PPG says, and restarting an idled line can take months because workers have to jackhammer thousands of kilos of hardened glass to remove it from melting tanks.

Builders are reporting that curtain-wall prices, which have risen more than 30% in the past 18 months, are setting records. Glass accounts for roughly one-quarter of a construction project’s budget, so the extra expense can add tens of millions of dollars to a building’s cost. Delays are also a problem: Several towers in San Francisco’s trendy Rincon Hill neighborhood, home to some of the city’s most expensive apartments, are standing bare while their builders wait for glass.

“Nowadays, the glass guys are dictating the timetables of a project to us, instead of the other way around,” said Ralph Esposito, who oversees commercial construction by the New York office of Lend Lease Corp. one of the country’s largest building contractors, with nearly 30 high-rise towers under way.