Volume 45, Issue 4 - April 2010

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Moving Inside

Interior Glazing Offers New Opportunities for Some Contractors
by Megan Headley

They say it’s what inside that counts, and that may be truer than ever for the contract glazing industry. As commercial work remains slow, some glazing contractors are moving inside for the first time to take a look at interior glass work.

“The exterior market has almost come to a halt except for big projects, the institutional stuff—the colleges and hospitals, they’re doing fine,” says Al Leonard of Trainor Glass’ Chicago branch. “But the interiors have not slowed down that much. We’re still doing a large volume but we’re working on a very, very small margin,” he adds.

Tom Huff, president of Go-Glass Corp. in Salisbury, Md., is starting to see more sales in residential and interior glass projects. “This year we’re seeing people who maybe came to us last year and got some pricing and weren’t quite ready to do it then or saved their money and now they’re saying, ‘oh, you came out last June, now we’re ready for it.’

“I think starting in 2008 we saw fairly steady decline,” Huff adds. “This spring we’ve seen stabilization and even a little bit of an increase. We’re actually expecting a fairly good second quarter,” he says.

Tropical Glass & Construction Co. in Miami has been providing specialty installations for 65 years, and its glaziers know where to look to find work in their niche.

“We do expensive projects in high-end malls that still have work,” says Gene Lomando, general manager of Tropical Glass. “There’s always turnover and business from the high-end shops that come in. Although business is down we still have found our niche to be very profitable.”

 

Trends in Interior Glazing
That niche benefits from the variety of unique functional and decorative glass products (and products that combine both of those characteristics) available today.

Trainor Glass offers a wide range of interior glass products, from glass floors and ceilings to handrails and shower doors, as well as most everything in between. “We’ve got the expertise to do just about anything,” Leonard says.

That expertise gives Leonard a good perspective on where demand is coming from. “Back-painted glass is a very big thing right now … back-painted glass glued to walls, used as marker boards, in various colors. They have a lot of options there. One project that we’re doing right now has one glass wall in every office. They have meetings, they write on [the glass] with a marker, and since it washes right off when they’re not using it for a meeting it’s decorative.”

Leonard adds that this item is popping up “on almost every project” these days.

He says that decorative glass continues to grow in interior applications such as partitions.

“For interior glass [architects] are looking for more decorative glasses, more laminated glasses, more obscure glasses. Also, custom sandblasting artwork is very prevalent,” Lomando says.

Cathie Saroka, marketing director of Goldray Industries in Calgary, has certainly taken notice of the trend toward interior decorative glass products, with increasingly detailed patterns, more use of color and “definitely many more different applications in which decorative glass is being used.

“There is also an increase in the number of glaziers who are willing to purchase and install decorative glass,” she says. “I’m not sure if that is because they are becoming more comfortable with the products or if this increase is just a function of an economy in which companies are pursuing projects that they normally wouldn’t.”

Lomando also has noted an exterior trend design that’s moving inside: larger-than-ever lites.

“When we’re doing interior mall fronts they’re looking for larger pieces of glass, following a European trend,” he explains. “The malls are accommodating us by opening their entrances so we can bring larger and larger pieces of glass in.”

“Larger panel sizes are also a trend that we’ve been seeing more and more of over the last few years,” agrees Saroka.

Andrew Canter, Jr., president of Ridgeview Glass Inc. in Upper Marlboro, Md., takes a more hardened look at the latest trends to mark the interior market. “It is the same as always—except for the pricing structure,” he says.

 

Adding Value to Your Services
You might say that the increased competition among contractors is a trend that’s as prevalent in the interior glass market as the exterior: competition that has doubled and tripled as contractors bid on jobs they wouldn’t have normally pursued a year or two ago.

“Just to give you an example, here in Chicago … we have two or three glazing contractors that we compete with. Well, now that the market is such that there’s no exterior work, so all of these exterior [contractors] are coming into our clients trying to get interior work. In one particular office that I’m thinking of we normally have two bidders against us, and there are three prices. Just recently they had nine prices,” Leonard says.

“The interior glass market has definitely become more competitive over the last year,” Saroka says. “We are seeing more manufacturers getting into the decorative aspect of the glass industry and, like every other industry, more supply forces the prices down.” In some cases, she says, that means more opportunities for customers “to use more decorative glass even in projects with a tight budget, which again, increases demand for the products.”

“In both markets it’s difficult to sell work at reasonable profit margins,” adds Canter. “Usually there are different competitors [in each market] but the same problem: sell price versus reasonable profit.” Canter adds, “We are struggling to sell work, as we will not price projects at a break-even point or a loss.”

Huff agrees that on the residential side, too, customers are shopping around among shops to find the best deals. “They’re doing a lot more research,” he says. “We’re seeing more hits to our website from people doing more research before they come in and shop.”

Companies such as those surveyed here aim to make their services—rather than prices—the selling point for owners and architects with tight budgets.

To “add value” to his company’s services, Lomando says, “We’re capable of doing all the parts that are necessary to do these wall fronts and that’s what makes us very attractive in the marketplace.”

Companies such as Trainor leverage their expertise and relationships with the owners and architects to ensure that they “still are able to get our share of the work,” as Leonard says.

Huff says that leveraging existing relationships can prove particularly important now. “We just did a hotel, for example, where we put in a partition as they were changing the layout of the lobby. That was the result of an existing relationship with a customer we have. For people [moving to interior glass work], I’d say let your existing customers know the additional services and products that you can offer. They may think of you for the storefront or for the service work but they don’t necessarily think ‘I should have my designer or architect contact them for some ideas.’”

Through these existing relationships, these glazing contractors are able to become resources to the client.

“A lot of times the architects don’t have a lot of background as far as what thickness to use, what the size restrictions are for the particular glass that they want, etc. They’ll specify a size of glass and not even do the research to find out if it comes that large. They’ve got to find out if it’s safety glass—there’s a lot of stuff they want to use but it can’t be used because it’s a safety glass application,” Leonard says. A glazing contractor that can guide the architect toward the best materials for the job becomes increasingly invaluable.



“Just letting people know what’s out there and what its qualities are and what the price points are can probably lead to some sales,” Huff says. “Take the painted glass, for example—the price and availability has improved but a lot of people may still not know it’s out there.”

Lomando agrees. “We find that more and more architects are asking the glazing contractor before they make the design about what is available, what can be done and then they go back and incorporate what’s available into their plans,” he says.

 

Know Your—and Your Site’s—Limits
Providing winning service can make or break a contractor in this market, these glaziers says—and many professionals moving into interior work may not realize what it takes to offer that service.

“That’s the problem because service is the name of the game,” Leonard says. “Because the time constraints are so tight for interior work, as far as completion is concerned, [new contractors] don’t have the manpower or the ability to do the submittal process, order the glass, get it surveyed and get it in on time. These guys who don’t have the experience are hurting the contractor. In the long run it’s not a good deal for either the owner, the architect, or the client or the contractor.”

Knowing the timelines is an important consideration—as well as knowing the site restraints on these interior jobs.

“Some of these people who bid these jobs have no idea of how long it’s going to take to get the glass in … They don’t realize, for example, in an office building how difficult it is to get into the dock, all of the time lost down there waiting to get your trucks in to get your glass in. They think you can do it like a suburban job where you just pull in the dock and unload your glass. That doesn’t hold true here in Chicago,” Leonard says.

Canter agrees that the time schedules are different for the interior jobs. “The interior work is muck quicker and much easier,” he says.

Saroka notes that the definition of “interior glazing” can be wide-ranging, so a vast skill set may be required. “Interior glass projects are often smaller in scope and more customized and often require innovative installation techniques,” she says. “Interior decorative glass is often more functional as there are so many different applications in which it can be used, so knowledge of many different installation methods is critical.”

“The market that we serve really requires you to be a generalist,” Huff adds. “Generally there aren’t large enough segments, especially right now, to be able to specialize too much.

“The general contractors pursuing interior work are usually not the same as the general contractors pursuing base building work,” Canter says. And, these glazing contractors agree, forming relationships with those contractors—and store owners—is essential. Paying attention to new businesses in the local area could pay off if an introduction or sales pitch leads to a new form of revenue.

Megan Headley is the editor of USGlass.


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