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September  2004

AAMA Analysis

Does the Future Belong to 
Fiberglass and Composites?
by Carl Wagus

In the residential market, the present belongs to wood and vinyl, while the future may belong to fiberglass and wood plastic composites (WPCs), according to early conclusions of some industry experts.

The 2003 AAMA-WDMA National Statistical Review and Forecast, which predicts annual window sales by market and framing material, sheds light on how the residential pie is likely to slice up by market share for the primary framing materials, and for the new players vying for a seat at the table.

Vinyl Takes Lead in New Construction
In new construction, vinyl windows are expected to supercede wood as the market share leader for the first time by 2006 with 45 percent of the market, capping a long trend in that direction. Industry leaders credit the fact that vinyl has become an accepted product that is finding its way into the higher-end residential market where it was once shunned.

Largely due to vinyl’s inroads, aluminum and wood should continue the slow decline in share of the residential new construction market that they have been exhibiting for some time. Although wood–still the preference of many for its thermal efficiency and aesthetics–should slide only slightly to 43 percent by 2006.

“Wood’s main long-term problem is that it is becoming scarce, which has an impact on price as well as sourcing,” said Dave Koester, brand manager for Weather Shield of Medford, Wis. “We, like many wood window producers, have diversified, or are in the process of diversifying, into vinyl and composite product lines.”
Aluminum, although still king in the commercial and architectural markets, is posting market shares under 10 percent in both new construction and remodeling/replacement sectors of the residential market. However, aluminum may not be down for the count on the home front after all. Many see something of a resurgence based on acceptance in niche applications.

“The traditional benefits of aluminum–strength, fit, low air infiltration, color options and longevity –serve well in applications such as contemporary houses where there are glazed wall sections with multiple operators mulled together,” said Jerry Schwabauer of Azon in Kalamazoo, Mich. “Aluminum frames are recommended for use in hurricane-prone areas such as Dade County, too. Thermally-broken aluminum frames may also see renewed interest for energy efficiency as the Energy Star® program comes to support performance-based criteria that take into account air infiltration and long-term efficiency.”

Vinyl Rules Remodeling … for Now
In the remodeling and replacement sector, vinyl continues to pull away from the pack, approaching a predicted 60-percent market share by 2007. As in new construction, wood and aluminum face a continued slow decline.
Still, the long-term future portends a rougher road for vinyl. Although still increasing share at a healthy pace, vinyl windows are beginning to mature as a product. This is a turbulent life cycle phase characterized by softening prices, shrinking dealer margins and eventual shake-outs. Dealers are beginning to look for something new. 
That something new is most likely going to be fiberglass and/or WPC products.

“Fiberglass has arrived as a recognized framing material,” said ing for Comfort Line in Toledo, Ohio. “We think it’s the material of the future because it combines the best traits of the others–the strength and longevity of aluminum, the thermal efficiency of wood and the maintenance-free aspects of vinyl.”

“The structural integrity of fiberglass allows larger sizes with narrower sightlines,” added Milgard’s product development manager Phil Sironko. “It also has a thermal expansion about equal to that of glass, low U-factors and great weather resistance.”

Addressing concerns about technological difficulties and related processing costs that could limit the market penetration of fiberglass, manufacturers point out that production technology is still early in its learning curve.
“Cost has been an issue, but recent advances in pultrusion and fabrication technology are increasing our capabilities while bringing costs down,” said Sironko. “Fiberglass will be taking serious market share from the others soon.”

Although fiberglass window sales were only on the order of 1 percent of total sales in 2003 (see chart page 20) , the growth rate is impressive.

“The rate of market share growth of fiberglass could eventually be even higher than that of vinyl,” said Steve Sullivan, marketing director for AMSCO Windows in Salt Lake City. “For one thing, it doesn’t have to overcome early quality problems like PVC had to [such as yellowing of the finish] and is better technologically grounded than PVC was in its early days.”

However, Sullivan also notes that: “Right now, fiberglass is leading the way, but it tends to be a difficult and expensive material to work with. WPCs could end up capturing market share from fiberglass.” 

Producers of WPC products seem to be more than ready to share the stage with fiberglass.

“WPCs are already more prevalent than the statistics of the ‘other’ category in the market study would seem to indicate,” said Bill Thornton, president and chief executive officer of Integrated Composite Technologies (ICT) of Montezuma, Ga. “That’s because both wood and vinyl products are being made with WPC components.” 

Regardless of which material captures the lead in market share over the long term, one thing is certain. Performance-based, material-neutral standards will make the specifier’s job easy by leveling the playing field amid the claims of competing manufacturers. 

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