Volume 13, Issue 1 - January/February 2012


A New View
Product Advances Bring Moveable Glass Wall Systems into New Spaces

by Ellen Rogers

Flip your remote to any home improvement TV channel and you’ll soon enough hear a certain catch phrase: outdoor living. It’s been a trend for years. By now, consumers have embraced the available resources to enhance the outdoor area of their homes. Lucky for the fenestration industry, these enhancements can include the all-glass look, made possible with operable glass door and systems.

An Evolving Market
These products, which include systems such as lift-and-slides and folding doors, were once deemed solely for the uber-rich. But manufacturers say this is changing, thanks in part to product innovations and advances. Still, as with any other product, there’s a lot to think about and plan for to ensure the demands for their systems continue to escalate.

Operable glass wall systems have come a long way over the past few decades. Not surprising, many of these changes tie into the increasingly stringent demands for energy performance.

As Cooper Buranen with Las Vegas-based Panda Windows and Doors points out, much of these technology/engineering advances are in the door assembly/aluminum extrusions.

“We use thermally broken frames, which offer a good thermal barrier,” Buranen says. “A lot has been done in the last few years and has helped grow [the market] in colder climates.” He adds that there has also been a tremendous amount of advancement on the glass side.

“The technology is amazing in glass nowadays,” he says.

According to Matt Thomas, marketing manager for Nanawall in Mill Valley, Calif., much of the growth around the product segment ties into performance and creating a greater range of usage. This includes weather resistance, energy, and durability. He says, in fact, these products can reach R-values of triple-glazed products, even in the upper territories of Canada.

Derek Lukala, senior technical sales with Tiltco, in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, points out, “We’re seeing the consumers becoming more educated and aware of the energy efficiency of windows. That’s pushing us to stay up-to-date on glass technologies.”

Regional Expansion
Energy advances aside, potential customers in, let’s say, the upper Midwest or the Northern territories of Canada, may still be leery of such a product. After all, they may think that massive glass walls just aren’t conducive to cold climates.

Wrong, the experts say. Thanks to technological advances, such as thermal breaks and high-performance glass, these systems can and are being used in every climate range, from the most temperate to the coldest.

LaCantina Doors in Vista, Calif., is a manufacturer of folding doors that started in Australia about 15 years ago and has operated in the United States for about eight years. Lee Maughan, general manager, says they do much of their work in Southern California, and are starting to expand into other regions.

“[You see these systems on] every corner in Australia. There are no geographic constraints,” he says pointing out how common they are, even in typically cold areas, such as Melbourne, Victoria, in the southern part of the country. “I think we could see the same here one day.”

Lukala says there’s been a misLukala says there’s been a misconception that having a large glass area can be detrimental to the performance of the home. He says there is glass technology available, though, that can perform as well as a triple glazing in a dual-glazed unit.

“Of course, much still has to do with the placement of the window and the orientation of the house,” Lukala adds. “Everyone desires a view, but you don’t want to be cold. These systems can offer minimal sitelines as well as condensation resistance and energy performance.”

Likewise, it’s not just energy performance these products can offer. They can also meet other performance requirements. Thomas says, for example, his company has seen significant growth in northern markets.

“This is due to our continual refinement of the product to adapt to colder climates, giving those homeowners the same warm-weather benefits/capabilities that the southern climate homeowners have year-round,” he says. And speaking of other performance features, he adds, “It continues to be a surprise to me where these products show up. After Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast a lot of homeowners there said repeatedly how well their systems held up from the storm.” However, Thomas is quick to point out that while there is an increased demand in the Northeast the mainstay for these products remains warmer climates, particularly Southern California.

Creating Awareness
Moveable glass wall systems historically have been used most often in high-end, luxury homes, as well as some high-rise condos and some commercial applications, such as storefronts. The high-end market has continued to be a key focus for suppliers

“Most of the projects are the $3 million-plus custom homes, but we also do high-rise condos,” says Buranen.

Maughan says historically his company’s customer base has been high-end clientele, but they are starting to see that going more toward the mass market.

“But awareness is the first thing. Many still do not know what folding doors are. As the awareness grows the products will become more competitive and the prices will start to come down,” he says “I can see it veering away from just the high-end customer, as we want to see [it possible] for everyone to [have such a system]. It’s a fun product, a lifestyle product … it opens spaces and changes lives.”

This, some say, is starting to happen.

Operable glass wall systems may never be sold at a price on par with the traditional French doors, but manufacturers say they are starting to see a shift in the market. These products gradually are making their way into more moderately priced homes—at least moderately priced compared to the multi-million dollar homes in which they started.

Tiltco, for example, recently added a sliding door system that’s a mid-range price point. “It has movable panels, up to five on each slide,” says Lukala. “So it’s an evolution of the operable wall system and gives a mid-price point option.”

He explains that his company did not previously offer a typical slider system that could be used most anywhere; this new system, he says, allows them to offer a more cost-effective product.

“Our focus was not to take away from the high end, but provide another choice … [the new product] is coherent with our current product line so we’re here to give the full package,” says Lukala. “We’re not looking to re-define our product line [we saw a need for a mid-range product] … if you want to provide everything in house you have to have products to meet all price ranges—no matter the budget.”

When it comes to getting their products installed, manufacturers agree that their first move is to reach the architects, as they want to be specified on the project. But it’s also important to maintain close relationships with dealers and distributors, as well as their own salespeople, to help increase awareness.

“We work with our dealers very closely,” Buranen says, explaining that dealers help keep them informed on the manufacturing end what customers are looking for and asking about.

Likewise, many manufacturers also maintain showrooms, another helpful sales tool.

“These allow us to show the quality of the products,” says Buranen. “The benefits of a showroom are that at any time someone can see, touch and play with the product; they can experience the difference in [this type of product compared to others] especially when they are looking at other options. It’s a way for the product to sell itself,” adds Buranen.

Economic Woes
As with any other segment of the residential construction market, suppliers of these systems say they, too, have seen the downturn in the market—though perhaps not to the same extent as mainstream America.

“We’ve been affected, but the people with money still have money,” says Buranen. “Those who are buying from us held onto their purse strings for a while, but now sales are starting to increase so we’re seeing more comfort in spending either on an existing home or new building again.”

Thomas says that while the commercial segment has been up, residential has been down, but now is seeing a comeback.

“Residential absolutely took a hit,” he says. “But it’s evolved from new construction to retrofits and renovations; little is happening as far as new homes. Homeowners are staying put and putting money into what they have.”

Recognizing this, Thomas says his company underwent a marketing change from 2008-2009. In addition to seeing the increase in renovations he says his company also saw another trend among smaller homes. “[Those homeowners] are updating what they already have to better utilize the space,” he says. “We’re seeing a trend toward a better utilization of space … [creating an] all around usable space.”

"Everyone desires a view, but you don’t want to be cold.
These systems can offer minimal sitelines as well as condensation resistance and energy performance."
—Derek Lukala, Tiltco

Maughan agrees that this market segment has likely been less affected compared to traditional building products, though they’re still not doing much in the way of new construction.

“We’ve seen a shift from new construction into the remodeling market, which has still been high-end homes,” he says.

Lukala agrees that while the economy has been slow, his company has chosen to focus efforts on different markets.

“Last year started slow, though the level of business was typical. However, we ended strong and are now busy as we’ve found other markets and we’re able to subsidize lost business.” Some of these markets include Toronto, Georgian Bay, Vancouver and Calgary, which Lukala says were unchartered territories. He adds that high-end residential work in Seattle and Oregon has also provided opportunities.

Competitive Matters
Even with a down economy, these experts agree that the competition among those manufacturing and supplying these systems has been increasing.

“And we’re seeing more and more manufacturers introducing new lines,” says Maughan, whose company only makes folding doors. “Our company manufacturers a specific product so we’re able to be more competitive price-wise,” he says, adding that having a strong brand is helpful in spreading awareness. Maughan explains that as more and more companies get involved in this market segment it should in turn help the products as it will increase awareness.

According to Buranen one of the challenges he’s seen has been the emerging presence of window manufacturers within this market segment. Buranen says he’s seen manufacturers taking a door system that they already offer and modifying the hardware to create a bi-fold door.

“This is challenging because we’re already having a hard time getting the clients to understand [these products],” he says. “[We] put a ton of time into research and development so that our systems are built for a specific application range; we’re not just re-adapting an existing product.”

What’s in Store?
Manufacturers agree there are definitely future opportunities in store for this market segment. And energy awareness is leading much of what will go into new designs.

Maughan says he sees the market evolving more in terms of performance. “Everything is performance based,” he says.

“Performance will continue to be an issue,” says Thomas. “I see us expanding that further It’s about growing the capabilities of the existing product line and making it better.”

Looking toward the future, Buranen says energy codes will continue to be important, so National Fenestration Rating Council ratings, for example, will be critical.

“Also, the development of thermally broken systems will have to continue to [improve and develop new products]. It can be a huge challenge to reach the numbers [codes will require], given the overall size of the systems, [so as codes become more and more stringent] meeting those may be a challenge.”

Though the future may indeed hold both opportunities and challenges for moveable glass wall systems, manufacturers are ready for what the future may offer. Products will advance and homeowners, builders and architects will find more new ways to enhance those indoor-outdoor living spaces.

Ellen Rogers is an assistant editor for DWM magazine.


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