'Bigger is Still Better' in Luxury Market

Manufacturers see continued growth opportunities for high-end products, particularly wide-opening doors
John G. Swanson
August 1, 2011
FEATURE ARTICLE | Segments, Markets & Trends

Spectacular homes often feature spectacular views. It’s no surprise that architects and owners want to maximize these views with walls of glass. Over the last few decades, door and window makers catering to this market have gone a step further, enabling owners to not only fully enjoy their views but bridge interior and exterior spaces with wide-opening door systems that can almost disappear.

 
 The luxury home market has demanded more glass to take advantage of beautiful views, with wide-opening doors systems, including these Weiland lift/slide doors.

The increased awareness and popularity of these lift/slide and bi-fold door products is still one of the biggest trends in the luxury home market, where “bigger is still better,” according to Chris Schamer, director of sales/principal at Quantum Windows & Doors Inc. in Everett, Wash.

While the landscape has changed with an economic downturn that took its toll even on the healthy providers of these systems, more companies are now competing in the ultra-high end segment.

And despite the scale-back, luxury window and door business certainly didn’t disappear, reports Roy Zeluck, president of Zeluck Inc., a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based manufacturer that has long provided windows and doors for high-end homes. “Our potential market in the U.S. is probably 200 to 300 homes a year,” he states. “It doesn’t take a lot of jobs to make us happy.”

This market is generally insulated from some of the ups and downs in the rest of the window and door business, but the last two years, the market have been more of a struggle, Zeluck continues. “We’ve been working hard to keep our factory busy and our people employed,” he states, attributing the challenge to a combination of market weakness and an influx of new competitors.

Weiland Sliding Doors & Windows in Oceanside, Calif., has been producing large-opening doors since 1986, primarily supplying luxury homes. For a long time, it was a very specialized business, reports Sue Weiland, CFO and owner. In 2002, the products started to gain momentum, with displays at the International Builders Show causing increased awareness. “That attention attracted more companies into the large door market,” she continues. “Then as the construction market dwindled, companies scrambled to find products and niches where they could still grow. That brought even more companies into this business.”

Growth in Doors
The trend in wide-opening doors has been evident for about eight years, says Matt Power, president of LaCantina Doors, a manufacturer of folding doors with U.S.-based operations in Vista, Calif. He sees much of the company’s growth in recent years coming from the luxury home segment, and agrees this product segment is growing due to “the desire to create open spaces and enjoy the indoor/outdoor lifestyle."

 
 Popular in luxury homes, bi-fold doors such as these LaCantina Doors are moving into the broader housing market as the popularity of indoor/outdoor spaces increases.

Doors that create large openings are fast becoming a standard feature in any luxury home, Power states. “The main demand we see about style is to maximize the amount of glass.” Noting the appeal of folding doors as a “wow” feature, he see significant growth potential both in the high end and ultimately also for the average homeowner, as the folding door is generally seen as the alternate to a standard patio slider.

Folding doors are well suited for more applications, agrees Steve Donner, GM at Weiland, pointing to remodeling. He sees continued growth for both types of wide-opening systems beyond the ultra-high-end, noting that “the pie is definitely getting bigger.”

Beyond the luxury home segment, he points out that wide-opening doors provide a cost-effective approach to increasing living area. “You can take a 1,500-square-foot home and with a wide-opening door, you can add 700 square feet of living space.” 

Donner also states, however, that despite the broadening of the market, lift/slide systems are likely to maintain their popularity in luxury homes. “They can better accommodate the larger and larger glass panels with minimal framing that these homeowners want.”

High-End Opportunities
Large-opening door systems will increase in popularity among various price points, and luxury window and door producers continue to be encouraged about growth prospects in the luxury home market specifically. “We’re starting to see more signs of life,” reports Zeluck. “We’re encouraged because there are more projects to bid on.”

 
 Walls of glass, like these produced by Quantum Windows, are standard in the luxury market, but these manufacturers emphasize the added level of service demanded as well.

The clientele in the luxury market has not been as negatively impacted by the economic downturn, but there was definitely some hesitation moving forward on projects over the past two or three years, Quantum's Schamer says. “We see it as a positive sign that some projects that were bid on already are coming to life.”

And despite the influx of competition, the companies that are focusing on the luxury home market are confident they will continue to thrive. “Most projects we get involved in want large expanses of glass,” notes Schamer, but the market demands more than wide opening lift/slide and folding systems, he adds. “The level of service required, the range of products delivered for these project—those are hard for the larger manufacturers to deliver.”

The larger manufacturers with R & D and other resources have been able to do a lot of things with products, but the level of customer service required in the luxury segment is still a challenge for them, agrees Weiland. “There’s a devotion to detail necessary."

It’s a market that continues to grow more demanding, notes Zeluck. “People know what they want,” he explains. “They are spending more time with their plans, more time with their architects. You don’t see the constant stream of changes as the project progresses.”

Another trend these manufacturers agree on is the demand for more testing in high-end products. More jurisdictions require it before a door or window can be installed, and with custom products, it can become a challenge, Zeluck notes.

Schamer agrees. “It is a real challenge for smaller companies—compared to the bigger guys—to get all the necessary testing done and make sure products meet all the changing code requirements. We have to put a lot of our recources into that.”

Donner also points to the increased emphasis on testing, but also suggests that some companies entering the market are not always equipped to meet all the code requirements. He points in particular to the flush mounted bottom track offered on his company’s doors which have been successfully tested. In the luxury market, homeowners don’t want to step over a bottom track, he explains, and meeting the test requirements with a flush track remains a key challenge for many door makers.

While wood and aluminum products dominate the wide-opening door business, Zeluck sees an increased demand for steel windows and doors in luxury homes. As a result, his company is introducing what he describes as a "revolutionary" new thermally-broken stainless steel product line. Steel is popular in both traditional and contemporary design, he reports. “Its thinner profiles—and more glass area—appeals to architects and their customers.”

Customers in this segment will continue to look for a whole array of options. “It’s not just the large-opening doors; it’s retracting screens, it’s solar panels,” Zeluck continues. His company has even supplied a door that sinks into an opening in the floor when not in use. “People like to have a special feature in the home that really stands out.”

Schamer agrees. He sees demand for switchable glasses and many other unique options in his company’s projects. Looking at the increased competition in this segment, he adds, “that’s not always a bad thing. It’s made us a better company. We’ve had to work much harder to become a more efficient organization. We now feel positioned to take advantage of a vast wealth of knowledge and experience to bring our clients greater value.”

Zeluck predicts that competition will continue to come into the upper-end segment, but says his company will focus on the ultra-high end. “You can’t get a Rolls Royce at a Buick price,” he says. Larger manufacturers can put a lot of resources into a product, but they will not be able to deliver the level of service and customization required in the top homes being built, he says.

Those companies focused on large opening doors, meanwhile, are looking at the broader market. “We see an increasing number of home designs incorporate at least one large door opening living areas as part of an indoor/outdoor lifestyle,” says LaCantina’s Power. “Our product is exciting for homeowners and often a focal feature of the home.”

In fact, homeowners will sometimes save money elsewhere on a window package just to have the large opening door, he notes. “Our product is just as appealing to create space in a home with a small courtyard as a large home with wide ocean or mountain views.”