Volume 13, Issue 6 - July/August 2012

feature

Fast Track
Is Fiberglass the Next Big Thing in Fenestration?
by Ellen Rogers

The residential construction market has undergone many changes during the past five years. In that time the industry watched as the economy plummeted, taking along all sectors of the construction industry, with residential being one of the hardest hit. Fortunately, that is changing, as new construction activity is starting to rebound. Combine that with homeowners’ ever-increasing desires to conserve energy and stand out from the neighbors, and you find a market that’s wide open to the latest products.

And while fiberglass isn’t necessarily “new,” it is a product that is quickly being recognized more and more for its many features and benefits. In fact, according to the 2011/2012 AAMA/WDMA Study of the U.S. Market for Windows, Doors and Skylights, fiberglass is the fastest growing fenestration material category, and for entry doors specifically, the study forecasts sales to grow 35 percent from 2012 to 2015.

With so many reasons for this growing popularity, the industry can likely expect to see more in the way of fiberglass in the years to come.

Curb Appeal
While new construction has been down these past few years, remodeling has been up. And when it comes to differentiating the exterior, consumers often choose a new front door—and fiberglass has been increasingly in demand.

According to Kathy Krafka-Harkema, corporate public relations manager for Pella Corp. and the marketing chair for AAMA’s Fiberglass Materials Council, when consumers want to spruce up their homes they often start with the front door.

“This can help the home stand out and create a whole new look,” she says. “Today’s fiberglass doors can have the look of a wood grain door combined with the strength, durability and low-maintenance features of fiberglass. The doors can withstand consumers’ busy lifestyles with fewer dents and dings compared to other materials.”

Marcel Chehade, sales manager with PlastPro Inc. based in Los Angeles, says manufacturers have evolved their products to offer more consumer appeal, which has also led to growth as a fenestration material.

“Manufacturers have continued to add designs, different graining types and introduce more contemporary glass styles that compliment the door, such as wrought iron glass and more straight line designs with different caming,” he says.

Chehade adds, “Consumers have the option to select an affordable unit, with glass and staining or painting options that fits their needs and matches the exterior of their home style, more than ever before.”

Green with Envy
According to Chehade, one advantage of fiberglass doors is the insulation core that gives it a high insulation value in R-factors compared to wood doors.

“The advantage to wood doors is simply the customization capabilities that render the door itself to be a more expensive product, geared more toward custom built units,” he says. He rates fiberglass and steel as equal in usage and wood a distant third.

“We can’t ignore the consumer’s drive toward energy efficiency and green. Fiberglass, in general, rates better than other exterior door options in energy efficiency.” As an example, Chehade says the tax credit for homeowners to upgrade their homes with energy-efficient products helped prompt consumers to educate themselves further. “And that has benefited fiberglass doors tremendously,” he says.

Krafka-Harkema agrees that fiberglass is inherently green. “Fiberglass lasts a long time so it has a long life span, meaning the door will not need to be replaced frequently,” she says. “Plus it is energy efficient. Many of the doors also are foam-filled, which helps seal out the heat. As an example, with a dark steel door there can be a lot of heat build up. You don’t have that with fiberglass.”

Beyond the Front Door
With more and more manufacturers entering the fiberglass scene, new products are continually being developed—beyond just the front door. While hinged patio doors, for example, are commonly made of fiberglass, some companies are developing other new products that can be used in similar applications.

LaCantina Folding Doors in Oceanside, Calif., for example, recently introduced a fiberglass folding door system. Commonly made from materials such as aluminum and wood for the high-end market, Matt Power, president and co-founder of LaCantina, says the company saw a need for a more affordable door system.

“We knew from inquiries that there is a market out there for folding doors beyond the custom home,” says Power. “We looked at different elements and assessed different materials … and we felt that fiberglass achieved what we wanted and that’s an affordable, rigid door frame that’s not subject to expansion and contraction, and that would be energy efficient while meeting the needs of different regions.”

Power says he expects the product will be well received in the builder market.

“They are excited to offer our new fiberglass system as an upgrade from a standard slider,” he says. “It will compliment any fiberglass or vinyl window package the builders choose for the home.”

Since folding door systems are designed to open and close easily, Power says the weight of the panel was important.

“We like fiberglass because it is lighter than metal,” he says. “This is part of our overall design that ensures our doors glide effortlessly.”

Likewise, fiberglass windows are also emerging more into the residential market. Toronto-based Inline Fiberglass, for example, both pultrudes and manufactures fiberglass profiles and windows. Anthony Bartolini, manager of U.S. sales, says one reason the demand for fiberglass windows is growing is the global emphasis on green and sustainability in building practices.

“Fiberglass as a material is inherently green, as it will not emit VOCs,” says Bartolini. “Also, its longevity and durability are estimated to be well beyond 20 years. So it’s a strong, durable material with longevity.”

He adds it’s also environmentally friendly. “Any given profile has 50-65 percent glass content derived from silica sand. It’s also petroleum free,” he says, adding that fiberglass windows provide structural performance, as well as air infiltration and thermal performance, which are attractive features, particularly for passive houses.

Future Developments
In addition to aesthetic developments, such as new designs and finishes, Chehade says building codes are also driving changes.

“Building codes continue to force us to build doors structurally to meet [requirements for] impact products, fire rated, etc.”

Likewise, Krafka-Harkema agrees that the industry will continue to make advancements. Her company’s fiberglass doors, for example, are tested to meet air, water and structural requirements, which she says is unique for the market.

“Fiberglass is still a niche product and the interest and popularity right now is in the door area,” she says.

When it comes to windows, though, Bartolini says while fiberglass offers many benefits, in residential construction it is still a premium material.

“There are several reasons why fiberglass products are sold at a premium. The significant reason is the slow pultrusion process,” he explains. “If you consider the raw materials, and the embodied energy to convert the raw materials to finished product, fiberglass is less expensive in all regards. However, because fiberglass is a thermally set material, we must pultrude at a much slower rate compared to the PVC and aluminum extrusion processes.”

He adds that the assembly process also involves more manual labor than other window types. “But only to a certain degree and, ultimately, our yield is the reason why fiberglass is sold at a premium to both PVC and aluminum from a lineal and finished product standpoint.”

This, however, could change. According to the AAMA/WDMA 2010-2011 U.S. National Statistical Review and Forecast, fiberglass fenestration is shown to more than double in sales from 2007 to what is forecasted in 2014, while the total market will experience slow continued reduction of approximately 1 percent.

Bartolini says much of the growth fiberglass windows have seen, and will continue to see, is due to increasing awareness.

“We knew these features and benefits were sought after [years ago], but people are reluctant to try something that’s new,” he says. “As you gain awareness about the materials people become less reluctant.”

Bernard Rokicki, president of Inline Fiberglass, adds that building awareness is still a challenge.

“There are still those who do not know fiberglass exists for windows. Once they are aware, it all falls into place.” Recognizing the potential that’s likely for fiberglass windows, he’s quick to add a word of caution.

“For other manufacturers fiberglass may just be an add-on product, but when you make a cheap fiberglass window that helps no one.”

Ellen Rogers is an assistant editor for DWM magazine.


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