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Volume 7   Issue 5               May 2006

Plant Tour 

For Northern Building Products,
The High-Rise Residential Market
is Moving in One Direction -- Up

by Alan Goldberg

Mention the residential window market and the perception is single-family homes, possibly multi-family units, but not high-rise buildings. Yet, the growth of apartments and condominiums, especially in large cities, can hardly be overlooked. One person who has recognized the potential from this residential market segment is Bob Pecorella, president and owner of Northern Building Products Inc.

Fifty years ago, brothers-in-law—Arthur Houtz and Nathan Gabin started a company called Northern Jalousie Manufacturing Co. in Hackensack, N.J., not far from the current site in Teterboro. With a modest operation, the company manufactured jalousie windows and storm doors. The partners could not have envisioned the path their small business would follow as they built a reputation for dependable quality and personalized service. While these values formed a foundation for a growing operation, everything else soon changed, including the market and the company’s ownership.

In 1978, Pecorella purchased Northern, as jalousie products were being replaced by double-pane windows that could reduce heat loss in the winter and cool air in the summer.

“I was looking to buy a company that was into energy savings,” says Pecorella, who saw the potential of a new industry. “They [Northern] were getting into distribution for the window replacement business and aluminum appeared to have a bright future as an energy-saving material.”

One of the many challenges the new owner faced was learning to manufacture some of the energy-efficient products that were being distributed.

“We had five shop employees who knew how to make jalousie windows. We knew nothing about fabricating double-pane windows. The 5,000 square foot facility was actually a basement that would flood when we had a heavy rain. Sometimes I just wonder how we survived,” he says. 

Growing Pains 
A number of changes took place in a relatively short span of time. Recognizing the growing popularity of a maintenance-free material for windows, Pecorella started to fabricate vinyl. windows.

“One thing we learned was that it required more space and the company was already operating beyond its limits,” says Girish Desai, executive vice president. 

The result was a move to a new 18,000-square-foot facility in neighboring Leonia. For seven years, the company manufactured vinyl units, but not without problems. There were concerns about environmental issues and performance and whether vinyl would fit in with the long-term goals of the company.

“Vinyl was not going to allow us to move into our niche—high-rise residential buildings,” says Pecorella. “We realized this when we experienced performance problems in four- and five-story buildings. In retrospect, we were not happy with the product. We needed a material that was going to work for us.”

In 1994, vinyl was discontinued and aluminum became the primary material used for doors and windows. 

In spite of the problems with vinyl, the business prospered and the company outgrew its facility. Within three years, Pecorella was looking for another location. Two years later, Northern moved to a 65,000-square-foot facility in Ridgefield, another neighboring town. 

“It was a tough move because 1991 was the year of the recession. As a result of the slowdown, we lost about 50 percent of our business,” says Pecorella. 

He points out that what helped the company through this difficult time was the growth of the retrofit market. When the market eventually rebounded, Northern was in an excellent position to meet demand as it had transitioned to serve the replacement market.

Growth was significant and sustained and, once again, the facility became inadequate, necessitating another move. A new corporate headquarters in nearby Teterboro has more than 115,000 square feet. Today, the plant’s annual capacity is approximately 200,000 units, according to Pecorella. Windows and doors from Northern can be found in buildings of all sizes in major cities along the East Coast, from Boston to the Beltway. A large project in Chicago represents a first step in moving westward.

“We see Chicago as a Midwest target market for us in the future,” says Pecorella. Although he is unable to report sales figures, he says the company has been performing very well. 

Custom Versus Automation
With the level of customization required, the “volume production line is forced into a job shop environment,” says Pecorella. Highly automated equipment, generally designed for high volume, standard products, doesn’t necessarily work in the Northern operation, which is considered semi-custom because of the nature of its business. Yet there must be a balance. Too much customization, he points out, poses the danger of higher production costs, making it difficult to recoup modification costs. 

“We must walk a thin line between engineering a product that is different and achieving some degree of efficiency,” says Desai.

Presently, there are 10 production lines (or paths) which Desai emphasizes are flexible. On any given day, the shop can change dramatically because a project can call for many types of doors and windows, in volumes that vary as much as the size and specifications. 

As Pecorella explains, the company is project-oriented, unlike typical manufacturers. 

“We don’t maintain an inventory of materials or finished products. We get projects through architects and our manufacturing is geared to completing those based on the specifications and deadlines we are given.”

This type of operation affects the way the plant is run. Software is a prime example.

“We looked at one software company after another,” says Pecorella. “None of them was applicable for us so we developed our own system. It took seven years to get everything together.”

Material handling is another area that required some ingenuity. One of the key materials is aluminum, and when ordered in large quantities, there has to be an efficient way to store it on the shop floor and make it easily accessible. The company is involved in a rack system exchange program with its supplier, Astro Shapes, which helps simplify the movement of bulk material. 

“Astro Shapes is not only very innovative but responsive. They have worked with us in developing many proprietary things,” says Grace Picinni, director of purchasing.

AFG is another excellent supplier, he says. 

“As our supplier of glass, they work very closely with our people and give us exceptional service and support,” he says. 

For cutting glass to specified sizes, the company uses a strip cutter rather than a computer-controlled XY cutter. 

“If we are doing many repetitions of the same cut, the automated XY cutter is not practical for us. It simply is not as efficient for a high volume of the same size,” says Tom Armstrong, manager of glass fabrication. 

However, a Botero optimized cutter has been ordered because of its ability to cut thick and laminated glass, which is gaining wider acceptance for security reasons. 

A new machine by GED Integrated Solutions represents the latest development in glass washing equipment. A key feature is an attached filtration system which uses reverse osmosis filtering and a de-ionizing polisher. The company conserves a significant amount of water by recycling throughout the day. 

Adjacent to this machine is another new unit, a Besten tilting airflow table for applying Swiggle. Armstrong explains that the ability to rotate the glass into a vertical position makes it easier to fabricate insulating glass. Although the unit was delivered recently, Besten equipment is not new to Northern. A Besten roller press is also used in IG fabrication. 

“We’ve had Besten machines for 20 years because they’re built to last,” says Picinni. 

In the sub-assembly area, aluminum extrusions are crimped together hydraulically, using heavy corner gussets. This European technique is used to achieve what Desai describes as ultimate stability in framing.

“Very few aluminum manufacturers are using this concept. We find that the stability is unmatched,” he says.

Nearby, weatherstripping is applied using a pile insertion machine made by Ultrafab, another recent addition. The attractive benefit, according to Desai, is that it eliminates what has long been a time-consuming task of manually inserting the material. The machine measures the correct length, cuts the weatherstripping and fills the channel. 

In the assembly area, glass and frame move along parallel production lines and eventually come together for final assembly. Mouldings, trim and other components, which are fabricated in an adjacent area, are installed. 

“We have hundreds of choices because of the number and types of windows and doors that can be in production at the same time,” says Desai. 

For shipping, the company has its own drivers and fleet of trucks and for a very good reason. “Our windows and doors are delivered to the jobsite. By controlling this final stage, we can assure on-time delivery and the packing does not have to be as extensive.”

In fact, he refers to it as minimalist. Packaging, like everything else in the plant, is biodegradable for easy disposal. 

Another Dimension
As engineers, Desai and Pecorella pride themselves in the additional capability they have created in the plant that is atypical of a door and window operation.

“With our backgrounds, Bob and I have always viewed windows as an engineered product. Not only is it easier for us to make improvements to our product and the way we manufacture, we have been able to add another dimension to our manufacturing capability,” says Desai.

He refers to a fabrication shop, within the plant, that can make one-of-a-kind metal products. Using a hydraulic shear and brake press where metal can be bent and shaped to a specified size, aluminum and stainless steel ornamental products, such as column covers, beam covers, balcony railings and trim pieces for window dressings, can be custom fabricated. If there is a problem at a job site and there is a need for a structural piece of metal, such as a sill cover or a flashing, the company can supply it and deliver it almost immediately, a level of service to architects and contractors that Pecorella believes is invaluable.

Quality and Training/Looking Ahead 
Northern believes on-the-job training is the best way to instill quality. 

“Quality begins at the saw,” says Desai. “If every piece is cut to specifications and at the right tolerances, the product comes together down the line and everything fits.”

Training and cross training are on-going, especially when there is a new product that has new requirements. Products must be manufactured based on test standards that have been established, since Northern is AAMA certified.

Like any manufacturer, Northern has its share of future challenges. But because it is not a typical door and window manufacturer, it is not affected by some of the current issues.

“We’re not really impacted by globalization because we supply fenestration products to the architectural community, nor are we involved with installation nor the training that is required. Installation is covered with detailed specifications from the architect and is handled through the general contractor.”

What Pecorella sees are industry challenges that affect Northern as well as other aluminum manufacturers.

“We’re looking for the next generation of thermally-improved windows. We are committed to aluminum and we need to play an active role in perpetuating its use in this industry,” he says. 

As it makes inroads into the Chicago area, Northern Building Products will continue to focus on the northeast corridor, maintaining a strong presence in the New York metropolitan area where it best serves a high-rise residential market that is moving in one direction.

Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM. He has 31 years of experience in the insulating glass industry. 

© Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.