China wasn't on David Brininstool's radar when he was sourcing materials last year for a proposed $100 million high-rise condominium project in Chicago. But after a two-week trip to Beijing and Shanghai to visit glass and window factories, Brininstool, of the Chicago firm Brininstool + Lynch, was so impressed with the products and state-of-the-art factories that he decided to order a captured glass window-wall system from a Chinese manufacturer, debating between two of them, Lead Fu China Co. and Beijing Jianghe Curtain Wall Co.
It wasn't just the attractive price, which was roughly 5 percent to 10 percent lower than what U.S. companies would have charged. What caught his eye were the production technology and the finished product. “Everyone was a little skeptical at first,” Brininstool recalls, noting general concerns that he and other architects often have about quality, standards oversight, and on-time delivery from Chinese companies. But the chosen systems, he adds, were “substantially more sophisticated than those made by any company in this country.”
The production and export of more advanced architectural products like glass curtain-wall systems reflects a new direction for Chinese companies. Over the past decade, China has become a leading global supplier of construction materials such as wood, metal, ceramic, plastic products, and cement, as well as plumbing and heating fixtures, taking advantage of its low production and labor costs. But now, Chinese industry is targeting more design-intensive, value-added products, from specialty glass systems to bamboo flooring and kitchen millwork. In growing numbers, Chinese companies are also offering lighting systems and high-end commercial and contract furniture.
“As the yuan and labor costs have risen, China has had to follow the path of other Asian economies by moving away from a reliance on cheap labor alone, and is now able to compete successfully on a value-added basis as well as [on] price,” says Bradford Perkins, founder of Perkins Eastman Architects, which has worked extensively in China.
China's ability to design and produce advanced architectural products is rooted in the building boom that has swept the country over the past decade. Domestic companies entered the market for such materials to meet the demands of mammoth construction projects, many designed by Western architectural firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Gene Schnair, managing partner at SOM's San Francisco office, has been involved with many large-scale projects in China and became keenly aware of China's growing expertise in this area while working on the Lenovo/Raycom campus headquarters outside Beijing. SOM procured materials for an all-glass roof from a Chinese company, China Southern Glass Holding Co. of Shenzhen. Initially, the architects had concerns about construction quality but later concluded that the glass “met the most rigorous standards,” Schnair says. While Schnair acknowledges that “we are still at the incipient stages of procuring from China,” he doesn't rule out the possibility that SOM will look to China as a source for glass and other materials for projects outside the country.
To be sure, many Chinese products, including commercial and contract furniture, fall in the low-priced range, the kind of manufacturing that first powered the Chinese economy as it emerged as a global producer of cheaply made knockoffs. “We have seen more Chinese manufacturers in a variety of product areas, but they tend to be at the low end of the price–quality range and are not competing with us that much,” says Mark Schurman, a spokesman for Herman Miller. A high-end lighting manufacturer says she has noticed a growing number of Chinese companies competing in the market for screw-in compact fluorescents, spiral compact fluorescents, and low-end dimmers and consumer fixtures.
Bill Van Erp, resource director at Gensler in San Francisco, says the flow of materials from China began with components, like connectors and parts for chairs. Then came inexpensive case goods, which were “one-third of the price [of Western brands] but lacked customization,” he says. “Only two or three finishes were available.” Chinese companies also focused on “fussy” labor-intensive work, such as decorative elements for tiles and wall panels.
Today, architects say stone countertops, interior finishes, and tiles, either bought directly or through contractors, are among the frequently procured products from China. At GlassBuildAmerica, the annual glass, window, and door trade show, the number of Chinese exhibitors has doubled, to around 50, since 2006, most of them selling window and door hardware, according to a spokesperson.
Yet Brininstool's experience with China underscores the country's determination to migrate to more value-added architectural products. While the hook to procure from China is usually price, the biggest surprises are technical prowess and reliability, architects say. Brininstool, for example, visited glass and window factories in Beijing and Shanghai—at the suggestion of the project contractor, Bovis—and found them outfitted with the best European-made equipment. Factory workers were organized and well-trained (compared with what architects say are generally lax working conditions on Chinese construction sites), evidence that large investments are being made to position the country as an equal competitor.