DWM-logo.gif (6532 bytes)

March - April 2003

Alternative Materials Spotlight

Disenchantment with Traditional Materials Causes Some Companies to Look Elsewhere

 by Al Dueck

Entrepreneurial efforts to create newer and better materials and approaches to window and door frame materials continues with unabated energy and examples abound. Yet, there has not been a rapidly emerging winner in the last few years. In fact, there are some very logical reasons why this is the case. Window and door frame materials ideally need to meet an increasingly difficult and sometimes conflicting set of needs. Take a look at the following range of parameters versus material type:

 Fundamental Frame Material Parameters

  Fiberglass Vinyl Wood Aluminum
Pre-finished/low maintenance Yes Yes Clad Yes Yes
Non-conductive Yes Yes Yes No
Color flexible Yes No? Clad Yes Yes
Stable material Yes No ?? Yes
Low Embodied Energy Yes ? ? No
Environmentally low impact Yes ? ? ?
Energy Efficient Yes Yes  Yes  No
Strength  Yes No Yes Yes
Non-corrosive Yes ? No

To top that off, the cost/price trade-off needs to meet acceptable levels in order to get to market at an acceptable price point, and there needs to be a critical mass of supplier/fabricator interest to accelerate growth.  

Wide-Ranging Materials

 Alternative materials are fairly wide ranging, from modified vinyl (trying to produce products that have more composite characteristics) to cellular PVC to various types of clad wood to pultruded fiberglass. 

 Research on the topic led to some interesting observations. 

“Nebraska faces some special climatic challenges,” said Arnold Breslow, principal of Architectural Building Concepts in Omaha, Neb. “Rapid, extreme changes in temperature seem to be more compatible with a product such as pultruded fiberglass due to the dimensional stability of the product.”

 “I believe it is important to make sure people recognize the long-term benefits of the use of composite materials and that they don't just look at the initial material costs,” said  Ellen Lackey, associate professor, mechanical engineering at the University of Mississippi.

“The world is working diligently at becoming a ‘lighter user of materials as we strive to reduce our impact on the world around us,’” said Michael Dorgan, an energy-efficient advocate from Buffalo, N.Y. “Pultruded fiberglass is 80 percent silicone and fundamentally is an example of human ingenuity.”

Door frames are an example of how new concepts are becoming a bigger factor but have not broken through. Vinyl door frames have struggled to achieve the level of acceptance due to some concerns about the strength and stability of the material in this application. 

Alternatively, Inkster Park Millwork has been producing Ektakron clad wood (sophisticated adhesion of vinyl film to wood substrate) for door frames and some other stop materials for a number of years and currently is seeing breakthrough demand in the residential retrofit market. At the same time, custom shops, such as Fibercraft Doors in Hanover, Ontario, have been creating insulating fiberglass frames. Fiberglass door jambs seem to offer significant advantages due to greater strength and color flexibility than vinyl. Fibercraft Doors also adds a wide range of custom details with special focus on fiberglass insulating door panels. 

Despite the very strong showing of pultruded fiberglass in the earlier material comparison, it has been slow developing. A recent editorial with an eye on the European front commented that vinyl had surprised the aluminum tradition and that pultruded fiberglass just might stage another surprise. There are many in America who would be more skeptical but there is a range of developments that might create pause to ponder.

One of the fastest growing window systems is reputed to be Marvin’s Integrity composite window with speculation that at least one other major manufacturer will soon launch a fiberglass window program.

A host of accessible information on the Internet, including information from the Efficient Windows Collaborative, shows the superior performance capabilities of fiberglass windows.

Exploring Other Options

Distributors often tell me that they are disenchanted with a predominant white vinyl industry and are keenly interested in the opportunity to exploit products with a wider range of color and performance options. 

 A range of common threads from rising energy costs to rapidly rising sustainability/green interests is sharpening interests in appropriate products.

I think many manufacturers would agree that there are a number of emerging characteristics in the industry including:

·        Choices in finishes (tired of white);

·        Energy efficiency--more than just average;

·        Full-frame replacement;

·        Strengthening interest and support of environmentally friendly products;

·        Operable windows that do not require air systems for fresh air/comfort; and

·        Institutional/commercial opportunities such as school retrofits.

 The availability of a wider range of window systems (a recent issue of Energy Design Update featured a range of seven different sources of pultruded fiberglass window systems) with high-performance capabilities to fit school retrofits, high-rise buildings and even storefront applications is definitely opening new opportunities.

Fiberline Windows of Windsor, Ontario, is somewhat representative of a new breed of entrepreneurs. This family operation added the Sovereign FG window system to its aluminum offering several years ago. Sensing a growing opportunity, the company started fabricating the system with a very modest investment in plant and equipment. This has paid off to the point where they have now built a new plant and expanded capacity dramatically.   

“It has been an exciting year as we have moved into our new facility and expanded output,” said Mark Mrkalj of  Fiberline. “In addition, we have completed projects from high-end custom homes to institutional projects to a historic window replacement in downtown Toronto. Our customer base ranges Quebec to North Carolina. North America is catching fiberglass fever!”

 Fiberglass seems to have been faced with a slower growth curve due to a mix of factors including substantial cost/price premium, lower level of awareness and slower development of product options.   

The comments of industry veterans seem to reflect this.

“We entered the fiberglass window market primarily because of the commercial market,” said Peter Knight, president of Accent Windows in Reno, Nev. “We find that the product is comparable in cost to mid-range, metal-clad wood windows and will compete with thermally broken aluminum.

 The ever-expanding residential retrofit market raises other issues such as the need for a broader range of accessories such as retrofit brickmoulds and flexible jamb extensions.  Not unexpectedly, entrepreneurial firms such as Fiberline tend to be closer to the customer and quick to adapt to those needs with new simulated divided-lite options or  “press fit brickmould” finish details. Custom sizing to fit OSM brickmould within 1/8 of an inch is also a fundamental requirement of the retrofit market and the fiberglass fabrication process is well suited. The ability to create custom sizes efficiently means such products are even more value competitive.

Other Alternative Opportunities

An interesting additional alternative material fit is cellular vinyl lineals (this material cuts and behaves like pine but is pre-finished). Royal Plastics has launched a range of materials and concepts including these cellular lineals which are ideal for custom width jamb extensions in the residential replacement market as they are very adaptable to custom dimensions.

 There continue to be other interesting developments within the pultrusion industry.  For example, the international marketplace seems to offer another huge set of opportunities. Island nations with significant energy concerns, such as Japan, would seem to have a large vested interest.  

“We are wondering if there isn't an entrepreneurial opportunity in some of the Caribbean nations which are in need of employment creation and stronger window and door frames as this system seems to be easy to adapt,” said Paul Labbe, an Ottawa, Ontario based consultant. There is even evidence of this as Euro Disceno, a Mexico-based fabricator, is experiencing some good success with unique applications.

 “We were amazed at the strength and durability of the fiberglass windows in our office,” said Joe Nagan of Home Building Technology Services in Wisconsin. “A damaging fire melted a lot of stuff but we simply re-glazed the fiberglass windows. We definitely have seen fiberglass windows making inroads in the last few years.”

There is no doubt that a cost/price premium--somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 30 percent more than mid-range vinyl--has been a limiting factor in the rapid growth of fiberglass in recent years.  However, there are signs that the lineal costs are beginning to narrow the gap. Furthermore, fabrication efficiencies are also beginning to create more competitive capabilities. After all, aluminum window systems have developed excellent fabrication efficiencies to create very competitive costs.

 This simultaneous merging of circumstances may in fact be creating an unusual opportunity or “black hole” for the imaginative, courageous window and door entrepreneurs. Even more interesting, this opportunity seems to present itself to an amazing array of participants (small to large fabricators, institutional/light commercial to residential market opportunities).

Al Dueck is president of DUXTON Windows and Doors in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


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