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August  2004

Driving Toward the Future
Fenestration Industry Similar to Automobiles: 
Major Shift Taking Place

by Wallace Bromberg

The fenestration industry is due for a change. Those in our industry who are not willing to adapt do so at their own risk.

Fenestration Similar to Automobile Industry? 
More than 20 years ago, David Halberstam wrote The Reckoning, a book about how the U.S. automobile industry lost dominance in its domestic automobile market to Japan. During the 40 years following World War II, the domestic manufacturers perceived themselves as invincible. The focus of the industry was not on safe, effective transportation that met the needs and desires of the consumer. Instead, the focus was on converting raw material into something the market could buy. Not only could the market buy the product, but they would buy it, having no practical alternatives.

This thought process was so entrenched, that automotive sales organizations referred to selling cars as “moving iron.” Indeed, money was made by converting iron into automobiles. The end of this perspective began when foreign producers, lacking the availability of natural resources, put their focus on the desires of the consumer. They then found ways to use available materials to meet and exceed the desires of the market. In fact, they began to drive the market by offering features and options that had previously never been considered.
At the same time, regulatory agencies and litigation forced changes in the automobile industry. Better braking and handling systems evolved, more efficient and cleaner power plants developed and found their way to the market and better, longer lasting tires became the norm.

Over a period of a few short years, automobiles evolved from basic transportation, with luxury options available and exotic performance being the norm. Concurrently, the cost of an automobile rose at a rate well ahead of inflation. 

Major Shift Taking Place
The fenestration industry is not unlike the automobile industry between 1945 and 1980. Traditionally, we were divided and driven by the primary raw material in our products. We have been wood window producers, aluminum window producers and in recent years, vinyl window producers. The economic model has been conversion of raw materials into finished products. Wood window companies have been in the business of processing wood fiber into windows. The same concept goes for aluminum ingots or vinyl compounds being extruded into shapes and cut into parts.

Whether we like it or not, a major shift is taking place in fenestration. Regulatory agencies are affecting energy performance and structural requirements. The free market is expressing the desire for less maintenance and greater aesthetic appeal. 

These demands require windows that are not made of wood, aluminum or vinyl. The vertically integrated raw material conversion model will no longer satisfy the market, nor is it a recipe for economic success. By combining elements of wood, vinyl and aluminum windows, as well as materials that have traditionally not been used in fenestration, we have the ability to provide products that out-perform, out-last and look better than those of the past. 

Energy performance requirements are having a major impact in many geographical areas. For example, the state of Georgia recently adopted the International Energy Conservation Code. Overnight, the market shifted from using clear insulating to high-performance low-E glass. This took high-performance low-E glass from being an exotic option to being standard. 

The Dade County, Fla., requirements, generically referred to as “hurricane codes” have affected the way window companies view the structural integrity of their products. Traditional air and water infiltration testing is no longer adequate in order to meet the new requirements, and new structural materials and concepts are being developed, tested and released to the market. Meeting these requirements may require using aluminum and steel to reinforce vinyl or wood windows.

The market demand for low maintenance windows is driving up the use of vinyl and synthetic components in what have been traditionally wood windows. Exterior components, manufactured out of expanded foam polyvinylchloride (EPVC), are replacing traditional wood blind stop, sill, sub sill and casing. In some cases, EPVC is being used to make sash components. Although the lines are not as crisp, the products are aesthetically appealing. They can be painted, but lacking paint, they will not rot. They are more expensive, but they satisfy serious demands in the market. 

Future Trends
So where is the industry going? 
First, we can expect regulatory influences to drive sweeping changes in the market’s demand for energy saving products as well as products that will withstand the elements. This will require new design concepts, as well as the use of new, more energy efficient components. If a regulating entity can assign a number to measure a products performance, and they cannot figure out a way to tax it, they will demand that the performance improve. This will happen even if the improved performance produces no measurable, positive economic impact for the consumer. We will have to get better, even if the consumer market doesn’t want it, and doesn’t care.
Second, the market does want products that will last, even if not maintained. This will require the use of synthetic products and finishes that are superior at resisting the elements over extended periods. At the same time, the consumer market wants products that are aesthetically pleasing, and will fit well into many architectural styles. 
Third, we can expect the lines between conventional aluminum, wood and vinyl windows blurring. The best elements of all segments will blend to build superior products that will meet regulatory demands, as well as the demands of the consumer marketplace.

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