Volume 13, Issue 5 - June 2012


Heavy Lifting
As the Operable Glass Walls Market Grows, so too, Does the Need for Hardware that Can Hold it Up
by Ellen Rogers

Ten years ago the market for large, operable wall systems, such as lift-and-slide and folding doors, was more or less dominated by a few niche companies. However, as the popularity increased so, too, did the number of companies stepping in with their own systems. And with more manufacturers came the need for more hardware products—but hardware for these systems couldn’t come from just any supplier. These completed systems must be designed, engineered and constructed to ensure the highest performance features and aesthetics. After all, homeowners are paying top dollar and want to know what they’re getting is something that will last.

As more and more companies make their way into this growing market, a number of considerations have emerged for which they must account. At the top of the list is hardware. With jobs that call for more than off-the-shelf hinges, there are a lot of factors involved.

Growing Awareness
It’s no secret that there has indeed been an emergence of companies moving into the operable glass wall market. This has included everyone from small, specialized manufacturers to traditional door and window manufacturers. Some manufacturers that specialize in this type of system opt to manufacture their own hardware, while others work with suppliers focused in this realm.

Centor in Batavia, Ill., is one supplier that manufactures hardware for bi-folding doors. President Jim Thornton says yes, a number of the traditional OEM door manufacturers have begun producing systems for these large openings. And, according to Thornton, these manufacturers, like so many others serving the residential construction market, have seen a decrease in production building, and have looked to specialty markets as a growth alternative.

“This can, in turn, really help those specialty manufacturers,” he says, explaining that as more companies enter the market it provides an avenue toward increasing the awareness of what can be done with operable glass wall systems.

Kevin O’Connor, president of Brio USA in Rochester, N.Y., agrees there has been an emergence of traditional door/window companies entering the bi-fold door market.

“I see [bi-folding doors] where multi-point locks were 10-15 years ago. It’s really moving into the mainstream.” He points out that in Australia, where Brio is headquartered, the systems are already mainstream, even in spec homes. “Once [these doors] get to a more competitive price point, I think we will see more here,” he adds. “The market awareness will build and demand will increase.”

“I see [bi-folding doors] where multi-point locks were 10-15 years ago.
It’s really moving into the mainstream.”
—Kevin O’Connor, Brio USA

Quality, service, ease of fabrication and installation and longevity and quality for the end user—these are just some things manufacturers are looking for from hardware. According to Jason Funk, president of Western Window Systems in Phoenix, there are a variety of such factors his company considers.

“The most important feature is quality. Everything from the finish, to the glass, to the hardware components, is an area where we look to enhance quality and improve our products,” he says. “As a premium supplier, we have to ensure that the hardware we use will enhance our products in ways that result in better warranties, improved performance, ease of operation, etc. Once we have found quality hardware, we then work to find manufacturers that we believe we can work well with and that we believe will perform with the same level of excellence that we promise to our customers.”

Funk says issues such as lead times, price, minimum purchase amounts and options are also relevant. “As we finalize our selection and move forward with our vendors all of these items are considered to help us [decide] who best to move forward with,” he says.

From the hardware perspective, O’Connor says considerations for his company’s customers typically include finish selection, and achieving a certain style/look. In addition, he says the adjustability of the hardware is important, as the customer wants to know that once the door is adjusted it won’t move by itself.

“Also consider the options on hinge type, is it surface-applied or mortise, as well as the weight range of the panels,” says O’Connor. “You have to make sure it’s sized appropriately as it can vary based on the size of the glass.”

Another consideration relates to the increasingly stringent requirements for energy performance. This, in turn, is bringing demands for higher performing glass packages—which could also mean triple glazing. Will the hardware used in these operable door systems be able to stand up? It’s an important consideration, according to Thornton.

“It’s important that the hardware be able to carry the weight of that glass,” he says. With the proper engineering and design it can and is being done. “So, you can have a folding door system that weighs almost 300 pounds that still has that ease of operation; the hardware can manage the extra weight.”

In order to ensure these systems perform as they are designed and intended to so, Funk says research is a critical component.

“In most instances, the large operable wall systems are going to be incredibly heavy. To build these huge, oversized units, we have to utilize hardware systems that can carry with ease the weight of the glass panels,” he says. “Ease of operation is a value that we pride ourselves on delivering to our customers. To be able to offer doors that glide open with the push of a finger, we have to do our homework to find hardware that can yield the desired results. As we have enhanced our products the testing and approval process of each component was critical.”

Experts agree that a close, collaborative relationship is an important first step toward building this package. Thornton says at his company, for example, they are very involved with their customers.

“We like to provide concurrent engineering assistance so we can marry their products to ours and ensure the finished system meets all the criteria, both performance and aesthetics,” says Thornton.

Funk says his company runs a relationship-based business, which is just as important with vendors as it is with customers.

“We form strong partnerships with [vendors] that allow us to work together to benefit both companies. We have important discussions on pricing, lead times, quality improvements, etc. We often come to them with new design concepts or market penetration strategies so they can see the opportunity of what we can help them do,” says Funk.

Passing the Test
As with other doors, these systems go through the same round of testing for air, water and structural performance, as well as thermal simulations and, depending upon the location, coastal requirements. Funk points out that state-by-state code requirements (be it energy, structural, air, water, or anything else) can differ greatly.

“With that being said, we have found it critical to have our custom moving walls of glass tested and certified in the same way all of our more standard door and window offerings are. To be able to offer products with NFRC or AAMA labels is not cheap, but it’s critically important to help our dealers meet code requirements plus instill confidence in our customers that this is a product that is tested, certified and performs exceptionally well,” he says.

Funk also adds a word of caution.

“Customers have to be wary when purchasing these specialty systems from various suppliers across the country. There are many small fabrication shops that try to build and manufacture door systems like these, and the reality is the products they are selling are not tested and generally come with no warranty. Though they are custom and perform a very unique function of opening up an entire wall to the outdoors, we go to great lengths to make sure our moving walls of glass are tested just like any other door or window product.”

And the hardware?

“It goes through cycle tests, and those for operation, weight, finish, salt spray—a battery of tests to ensure a level of comfort that we can give our customer,” says Thornton, adding that they want to know that the hardware will perform under any given condition.

O’Connor adds, “There is no test specific for this type of hardware, but we go through the cycle/longevity tests to make sure the system will stand up as intended.”

So when it comes to testing, there really are no differences compared to the requirements of, for instance, hinged patio doors.

“There is not a different performance requirement; there’s more of a performance perception,” says Thornton. “A lot of these systems are top hung so you can have that finger-tip ease of operation—that’s the perceived performance aspect.”

And O’Connor points out, “Most bi-folds are supported from the top so you have to factor that into the header design of the house, so that it loads from either the top or the bottom versus hanging from the jamb.”

“The biggest challenge is making sure the entire system works together,” adds Thornton.

No Comparison?
But while the testing may be the same, Funk says comparing custom multi-slide or bi-fold doors to a standard patio door is tough to do.

“… we do our homework to find hardware that can yield the desired results.”
—Jason Funk,
Western Window Systems

“The customization, size requirements and hardware capabilities make it something that really require a team of experts that are [familiar with] fabricating these custom door systems.” He says while his company also builds traditional patio doors, “the reality is the custom systems require a much different level of engineering and the quality and capabilities of the hardware included must be much higher. When you are potentially sliding or hinging five, six, seven or more panels versus sliding only one, obviously the needs and level of expertise differ greatly.”

Forward Thinking
So, what’s the future have in store for these systems? According to Funk, there are a number of issues that come into play. He points out that the sizes are often massive and there is a great deal of requirements architecturally to be able to make such a system work effectively.

“Structural beams and support become critical. The architect must engineer his wall to be able to carry the weight of the roof for walls that are basically disappearing. Next, different design components such as depth of the wall, how wide the track is, flooring conditions, depth of the pocket, return conditions, etc. all have to be determined,” he says.

And to make sure the project is successful, a collaborative design team is key. Funk says in the end, while homeowners will love the functionality the door brings, “you just need to make sure you work with a team that can get it done right.”

Ellen Rogers is an assistant editor for DWM magazine.





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