Volume 48, Issue 11- November 2013

Grand Openings

Commercial Settings Draw in Opportunities in Operable Walls
by Ellen Rogers

What’s the best way to enjoy a million-dollar view? Through an opening that’s equally valuable. Operable glass walls, such as folding and sliding systems, have seen increasing growth in the high-end residential market. These products aren’t just for homeowners. Commercial buildings are also taking advantage of the benefits these products can offer for both exterior and interior settings.

“What used to be minimal is growing every day,” says Lee Maughan, general manager of LaCantina Doors in Oceanside, Calif. He says about 20 percent of the work his company does is commercial. “We’re doing everything from schools and interior partitions, to cafes, restaurants, even car showrooms.”

Ruben Gallegos, marketer for PRL Glass in City of Industry, Calif., explains that his company is involved with both residential and commercial projects as well, though the residential market is still stronger than commercial.

“We’re receiving lots of business in areas of highrise applications for tenant improvements,” says Gallegos. “People like [to see] the moveable wall systems on entire floors. You might see eight to nine panels stacking on each side of the opening.”

He’s also seeing interest in various other applications in the hospitality and retail segments.

“You’re seeing more open-air malls instead of the enclosed buildings and people like the wide open access areas,” he says, noting the systems are often used in both big and small stores, as well as restaurants, “Especially in beachfront areas where guests can enjoy the views. These systems provide an option to enclose [the interior] and still have the views outside in the event of weather.”

According to Scott Gates, vice president and general manager of Western Window Systems in Phoenix, while his company’s core business continues to be high-end residential, they have seen significant growth in the commercial market over the last three to five years.

“It’s actually become one of the fastest growing segments of our business,” says Gates, explaining that the dominate trend in the residential market today is indoor-outdoor living, and that trend is now carrying over to the commercial side. “Developers are realizing people love to be outdoors and the lifestyle that comes with it. Of course, giving people what they want is great, but developers also love these doors because they can dramatically expand usable space without requiring all the costs associated with larger construction or maintenance.”

John O’Brien, architectural product manager for Los Angeles-based C.R. Laurence Co. Inc., says their operable wall projects are about an even split between residential and commercial applications. And there is definitely growing interest on the commercial side.

“In higher-traffic commercial settings, access and circulation are always key factors that are constantly being evaluated and improved upon,” he says. “Owners and designers now have options to create inviting, open-concept spaces that are both secure and weather-resistant. These versatile systems also adapt well to retrofit applications, allowing for larger open areas without expensive building expansions.

Growth Drivers

So, what’s driving some of this interest and growth for the commercial market? Maughan says a lot of the growth is driven by what these systems can create.

“They allow users to open the outside, draw customers in,” he says, adding the systems also provide flexibility in how the rooms are laid out. “Schools, for example, are being designed around open spaces and not just small classrooms. The same can be said of the majority of restaurants and cafes; they want openness and to draw customers in.”

“For the people actually using the buildings, these glass walls offer a better experience by opening the indoors to the outdoors. This is what people want to experience now, not the traditional feel of a single door that handles all traffic in and out of a room,” says Gates. “Builders and architects have to keep up with the current trends in the marketplace as well as extend the footprint of a building without the associated costs of an additional structure.”

O’Brien adds, “Operable walls are an effective way to maximize available space while providing resistance to undesirable weather conditions. These systems allow for large functional spaces that seamlessly transition outdoors to indoors … [they] are a contemporary way to maximize space and functionality.”

Speaking of interiors, Scott Staedter, senior manager of brand development with Hufcor in Janesville, Wis., says while the company has product lines for the exterior as well as the interior, he’s seeing a lot of growth inside. Much of this, he points out, is driven by a desire for daylighting as well as acoustic performance. Owners, he says, are looking for the ability to offer open spaces that flow. Schools in particular are where Staedter is seeing much demand.

“In school projects [they are looking for] acoustic glass walls, as these can have space flexibility (going from one large room to multiple smaller rooms) plus the glass allows daylight into schools,” he says.

As for room flexibility, Staedter adds this is one of the key benefits.

“Being able to divide the room is the main reason to have [this product] and another benefit that owners like is there are single panel and pair systems that don’t have floor tracks. The benefit of having this product with no floor track is that you don’t have to worry about ADA compliance thresholds,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about floor finishes, tripping hazards, etc.”

He adds, “There is also a safety element with these products [particularly in schools] because you can see what’s happening within a room.”

Mindful Matters

Since these systems are different compared to traditional systems, there are also a number of considerations contract glaziers should keep in mind. Depending on the product line, there may be a number of considerations. For example, Gates says his company offers both a top-loaded and a bottom-loaded door.

“Since these products can be large and complex, [it’s important to] make sure the installer is prepared and trained properly in custom products,” says Gates, explaining that his company puts a lot of effort into training dealers and partners to give them insight into the specifics of each product.

“Contract glaziers should always be mindful of ADA requirements,” adds O’Brien. “If ADA access is required, a flush sill is a must. Subsequently, when using a flush sill on an exterior application, you’ll want to consider using a trench drain system to prevent water seepage. Be sure to also inspect the floor space immediately adjacent to the flush sill on the stacking side of the wall system, even a 3/16-inch inconsistency can obstruct panel movement.”

He adds, “As with any top hung system, ensure the header can support the load of the panels.”

Cost Considerations

While these systems, both interior and exterior, continue to flourish, they are not without challenges, with the main one concerning cost.

“There is more demand, because there are more options,” says Gallegos. “There are more solutions for the architect but there are some areas that are challenging.” He says for one the products are somewhat more expensive and intricate, compared to more traditional systems, and this can lead to value engineering.

The same is true of interior products. “Often these products are not necessarily cheap so there may be a desire for the product and then we see it value engineered out,” says Staedter.

Maughan adds, though, education and understanding are key. “Once they understand the system,” he says, “it’s not a challenge; architects love the product.”


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