Volume 2   Issue 2               Summer 2001

Into the Mainstream
Increasing Choices in Fenestration Products are Providing Window and Door Manufacturers with More and More Alternative Options

by  ELLEN GIARD

Window manufacturers know that wood, vinyl and aluminum comprise the majority of fenestration products used in the United States. For most users in the industry, it’s an all or nothing attitude—you love one product, and one product only. However, there are a number of alternative products making their way into the window and door mainstream, which many believe will soon increase in popularity and usage. 

Pultruded Fiberglass
One product is pultruded fiberglass, which when used in windows, has been described as glass on glass. While fiberglass itself has been used for years in products such as boats, golf clubs and sinks, its usage in the fenestration industry is more recent. According to Al Dueck, general manager of Duxton Windows and Doors in Toronto and vice president of marketing for Inline Fiberglass, also in Toronto, pultruded fiberglass window lineals are created by pulling glass roving and matting through thermoset resins, a forming station and a dye. “This process creates an extremely tough material … the pultrusion process results in lineal components that have excellent strength, and, not surprisingly, similar expansion and contraction characteristics to glass,” said Dueck. 

According to information from the Efficient Windows Collabora-tive (EWC), fiberglass frames “are dimensionally-stable and have air cavities that are similar to vinyl.” When filled with insulation, the EWC says fiberglass frames offer thermal performance superior to wood or vinyl. Used with high-performance glazings, fiberglass frames can offer U-factors as low as 0.44 and a solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) of 0.59 for a double-glazed system with clear glass, to a U-factor of 0.17 and SHGC of 0.26 for a triple-glazed system with low-solar-gain low-E glass. 

The cost of fiberglass windows runs “at or somewhere below metal-clad wood window pricing … slightly above high-quality thermally-broken aluminum pricing and 10 to 30 percent more than polyvinylchloride … it is difficult to make true comparisons on that alone,” said Dueck. 

“We are seeing the cost structure of fiberglass windows become even more competitive as the volumes rise. Material stock such as fiberglass matting and rovings are becoming more cost-competitive; the pultrusion process is getting faster and costing less; and the fabrication process is getting more efficient as more effort goes into the process.”

Cellular Vinyl
Another alternative product attracting attention is cellular vinyl (cellular PVC). Marley Mouldings of Marion, Va., is one company manufacturing this product. Cellular vinyl is a blend of PVC, blowing agents and custom ingredients, and has been available for 27 years. “Cellular PVC is a lot like wood, having a solid texture, and can be fabricated like wood, but it’s plastic,” said Tom Wright, national sales manager for Marley Mouldings. 

Cellular vinyl gives the look and feel of wood and the durability of PVC. Other benefits, according to manufacturers, include its resistance to rotting, peeling and splintering. Like other alternative materials, cellular vinyl boasts high energy efficiency levels. “It insulates 200 percent better than rigid vinyl and 60 percent better than wood,” added Wright.

Price-wise, Wright says that depending on the extruder, cellular PVC can run anywhere from 15 to 25 percent more than wood, and probably aluminum and vinyl as well.

Composite Materials
Composite materials are also making their way into the mainstream of product choices available to fenestration manufacturers. Wood-filled plastics are one such product. According to Brent English, president of English Engineering and Consulting, wood-filled plastics are manufactured through conventional plastic processing equipment, where wood fiber serves as a reinforcing filler in a continuous plastic surrounding. 

“Wood-filled plastics have been around for quite a while, and were first used in the United States for automotive interiors such as door panels,” said English. He added that the Swedish window and door manufacturer, Sonesson, has been using wood-filled plastics since the early 1970s. However, research and development for wood-filled plastics usage in the window and door sector didn’t begin in the United States until the early 1990s. 

“The advantages they offer are especially attractive to fenestration applications—they offer high stiffness, low thermal expansion, excellent resistance and are of a relatively low cost when you look at the entire finished window,” said English. According to the EWC, composites are very stable and have the same or better structural and thermal properties as conventional wood, with better moisture resistance and more decay resistance. A wood composite frame with single-glazed clear glass offers a U-factor of 0.90 and SHGC of 0.63 while a triple-glazed system with low-solar-gain low-E glass has a U-factor of 0.24 and SHGC of 0.25, according to EWC.

VEKA Inc. of Fombell, Pa., is one company working to create a wood fiber composite product. “The wood fiber composite has many advantages that are not found in genuine wood,” said Amy Taylor, communications coordinator for VEKA. “It processes like vinyl and will not rot, decay, mold, mildew or discolor, as wood tends to do over time.” 

According to Kevin Seiling, manager of research and development for VEKA, the cost of producing wood composite materials can vary. “For multi-chambered hollow profiles, as the percentage of wood content increases, the material cost decreases, however the wall thickness must be increased to ensure proper impact-resistance and weld-strength,” he said. “This, coupled with the fact that wood fiber composites are not weatherable and therefore must be laminated, capstocked or painted, suggests that wood fiber composite lineals will likely be more expensive than rigid PVC profiles of similar function.”

In terms of solid cellular materials, manufacturers will find a lower density, rigid skin and improved weld-strength. “With solid cellular, case by case, its benefits overweigh costs; it’s probably more expensive,” Seiling added.

In addition to creating a wood composite product, VEKA is working to create other alternative fenestration products, and is currently testing glass-filled PVC. Glass-filled PVC consists of small glass particles mixed together with PVC, creating a durable product that is weatherable and weldable.

Steel Comeback
Steel is another option available to the fenestration industry. Having been available since the 1800s, steel is not a new product to the market. England’s Crittall Windows Ltd., for instance, says it is the world’s oldest and largest manufacturer of steel windows. “Steel was the product of choice for many architects and designers from the 1800s to the early 1940s,” said Bill Turso, vice president and national sales manager for the Fox Steel Company, Crittall’s exclusive North American distributor. It was after World War II that companies began creating windows with other products, such as vinyl. “Steel just fell out of favor due to pricing,” he said.

Today, however, Turso says steel windows and doors are experiencing a renaissance in usage. He added that the extremely thin sightline of steel is the product’s best feature. “Architects are specifying steel more and more because of the thin sightline, which affords the window more glass area,” he said.

“Steel has seen a real growth in buildings that five years ago would have used aluminum, and it’s that slim sightline that architects and designers are coming back to. Architects of the past all specified steel,” said Turso. He also pointed out that compared to other fenestration products, steel needs little to no maintenance. “The life cycle of steel is a fraction of the cost of what someone would spend otherwise. 

Thanks to the advanced coatings we have today steel windows won’t need to even be painted for 30 or 40 years, and could last for hundreds of years,” Turso added. In addition, according to information from Crittall, its “steel window thermal performance is comparable with thermally-broken aluminum windows and is vastly superior to non-thermally broken aluminum windows.” 

For example, company statistics show the Crittall Corporate 2000 frames provide a U-factor of 0.55 for a double-glazed, low-E glass inner lite and 0.680 for double-glazed clear glass.

In terms of cost, manufacturing steel windows can vary greatly, depending upon the nature of the product. “Being a custom manufacturer, our price is generally higher than that of a standard product,” said Turso. 

“Sometimes we’re more expensive than custom wood or aluminum and sometimes we’re less. Also, often the comparison of cost depends greatly on how the others price. Our competitors pricing also varies greatly depending on how busy they are, as well as the same criteria that could skew our prices such as quantities and window types,” he added.

The Downside
Although there are many options available, all offering certain advantages, there are also negative aspects of each as well.

Chris Lorber, vice president of sales for B.F. Rich Co. Inc., a manufacturer of vinyl and aluminum windows based in Newark, Del., said his major concern with alternative materials on the market lies in the area of cost. “From a sales and marketing perspective I know the current demand for replacement and new construction windows is very price sensitive,” he said. “These new alternative materials add significantly to the price structure for windows, while adding little real value to the end user,” he added.

Alan Campbell, president of the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA), disagreed. “I really haven’t heard of any downsides to these alternative products,” said Campbell. “I think that is one of the reasons why so many are interested in these products. They have a significant upside.”

Does Everyone Agree?
Despite the large numbers of alternative options readily available, are fenestration manufacturers actually in favor of the growing change? “In the replacement market, price is very important, and manufacturers are constantly looking for new ideas and options to separate themselves from others in the market,” said Lorber. 

“Right now, the market is saturated.” He explained that the biggest difference in alternative products, however, is the cost. Their volume is relatively low, so they are sold at a premium price. “They [alternative materials] are different and unique, but do they really offer any added benefits that are not already being met by other products?,” remarked Lorber. “I don’t think so.”

Keith Oakley, sales manager with Air Check Mfg. of Clifton, N.J., also sees positives and negatives to having numerous choices. “It’s good having so many options for consumers, but at the same time I think it probably confuses them,” he said. “They aren’t educated enough about the products to know which one they need … I think that’s why you see so many companies offering different products. Otherwise, the vinyl guy is going to tell you why you need vinyl, just like the aluminum guy is going to tell you why you need aluminum.”

Change Change Change
While the number of alternative products continues to grow, and many have been available to other markets for years, a slow start with their entry into the fenestration arena can be expected. “These options are catching on slowly and gradually,” said Campbell. “Builders and architects are slow in accepting new materials. They like to use products with a proven track record,” he added. Likewise, with more alternative choices making their way into the industry’s product realm, it’s likely that the industry itself can expect to see changes. 

“Having more options has allowed us to better satisfy the needs of our customers [builders, architects, homeowners, etc.], by being able to offer more materials and options,” said Campbell. “I think that with so many options available, some of the more traditional companies that have been locked into one market will be forced to start analyzing the new materials more,” he added. “I don’t see the industry shifting rapidly in the design element—that seems to pretty much have remained the same.”

Dueck shares similar views. “There are so many elements of technology that have advanced, thereby allowing more options to be available—better glass options, more paint choices, better software to process such orders and so forth,” he said. “Custom window manufacturers have growth and profit potential in this area, and will continue to see this with renovation becoming a bigger and bigger market segment.”

“There is a viable market for all of the fenestration products out there,” said Turso. “Some products are not right for all projects, but there’s now a market for all and thus a need for all,” he added.

In addition, utilizing the alternative products on to-day’s market can be beneficial to manufacturers. “Alternative products help people sell and drive margins up,” said Wright. “They allow fabricators so many price points and distribution outlets that there are benefits to having all these alternatives.” 

More to Come
Today’s array and growing number of products available to the fenestration industry is only the beginning. “I’ve heard of one or two companies experimenting with carbon fiber doors which would have incredible strength,” said Campbell. “But they would also be very expensive, and would really be for a niche market.” “Inline fiberglass will soon be introducing new variations with different resin and roving/matting combinations,” said Dueck. 

“These newer variations will make it even easier to create fenestration products and incorporate them in a wider range of components and configurations.” Although a variety of alternative materials are in existence, according to one industry expert, “I’d say the next great product is probably not out there yet or even thought of.” 

Ellen Giard is an assistant editor of Door & Window Maker magazine.


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