Celebrating the Past, But Focusing on the Future

Andersen marks its 100th anniversary with a determination to "raise the whole category" of windows and doors
John G. Swanson
February 15, 2004
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Andersen Windows Inc. is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with its eye on the future. Although several projects to commemorate the event are in the works, one of them has been underway for the past several years. Project Odyssey, a unique research-and-development effort, goes beyond the window and door industry's typical efforts to create new products. Andersen describes it as "an exploration of the window as interface," and maintains that the project's findings and resulting product developments could have a long-term impact on the industry as a whole.

Although the first product concepts to come from this effort were unveiled in January at the Builders' Show in Las Vegas (a full report on that event will appear in the March issue), late last year, Window & Door, along with several other building industry publications, was invited to Andersen's headquarters in Bayport, MN, to get a preview. Company officials not only reviewed the history of Project Odyssey, but offered a closer look at Andersen's evolution over the past few years and the direction it's heading in now.

 
 

Jay Libby, Project Odyssey program manager, right, demonstrates the Slide-Away concept window incorporating a touchscreen computer.

Project Odyssey
Andersen's research and development team is housed in a virtually windowless set of rooms in a nondescript commercial building several miles away from the company's huge plant and corporate offices in Bayport. While the room where concept products are on display may be the primary showcase, many window and door industry executives would probably prefer to spend a few hours in the main workroom, filled with prototypes, old window models and competitors' products. The walls are covered with hardware samples, color samples of all types of building products and drawings and charts that show window and door styles and construction and installation methods used around the country.

Project Odyssey's roots go back to a 1999 trip to Europe, where Don Garofalo, then Andersen president and chief executive officer, and Kurt Heikkila, senior vice president of research and technology, met with a design group that had recently completed a "house of the future" project. In learning about the processes used to envision the home of tomorrow, the two determined that a similar approach could be used to look at the future role of the window. The goals of the project were to understand how technological and behavioral trends would affect the window and its role as "interface" for the home and then apply these findings to Andersen's research and development efforts.

"When we say interface," Heikkila explains, "we're talking about more than the role the window plays in how the home looks or how we view the outside." The window allows more than light and air into a home. It is also an interface for information. People use windows to determine what they want to present about themselves to the outside. They also use windows as a filter to determine what they want to allow inside the home. Windows address a variety of communication, safety and security functions. "We put a hole in the wall because there's a value there," Heikkila stresses. "As far as that value proposition goes, we've just scratched the surface."

Andersen worked with an international team of researchers, designers and other experts to uncover what people want in their homes, what their homes represent and which technologies could be applied. The team then focused on where technological and behavioral factors converged and created dozens of product scenarios.

Hints at some of these product scenarios were displayed at the 2001 and 2002 Builders' Shows in large displays. Inside those displays, Andersen conducted focus group meetings and gathered feedback. Throughout a three-year process, the company sought input from various audiences, including builders, architects, consumers, suppliers and others.

 
 

With the ViewPoint window, a bay unit is converted to a home entertainment center.

The Results
Based on its research, Andersen has developed four product concepts. Perhaps the most attention-getting are its two multimedia window concepts. The first, called the ViewPoint media window, is basically a bay window that doubles as a home-entertainment center. When turned on, the center panel of the window switches from a clear to opaque glass to block outside light and allow it to be used as projection screen television. The casement windows on both sides of the center panel serve as speakers, with the glass itself providing the sound to create the home theater experience.

The second concept is the SlideAway media window. This unit, which at first looks like an ordinary kitchen window over a sink, features a panel equipped with a touch-screen computer that slides into a pocket in the window frame when not in use. The computer can be used for a variety of functions, from downloading recipes to watching television or listening to music. Connected to other smart-home features, it could also be used to control the central air conditioning or enable the occupant to see who is at the front door.

The third prototype to be developed is the LifeSigns fire safety window. Designed to assist occupants in locating a window or door to escape from a fire-often a difficult task when a house is filled with smoke and flames-the window incorporates lights in the interior and exterior frame that automatically flash when a fire is detected. The lights serve as a beacon to guide occupants to an escape route and as distress signals for rescue workers.

Although less high-tech in appearance, the fourth product is clearly generating some excitement within Andersen. "The invisible insect screen" is made of a micro-thin mesh to provide a much clearer view of the outdoors and increased curb appeal. Closest of the four concept products to commercialization and market launch, Heikkila describes it as "product with a clear, differentiated value," that he expects will greatly enhance the company's window sales. While other manufacturers have been focusing on creating retractable screens that can be hidden when not in use, the new screen eliminates the need to do that, he asserts.

In discussing the concepts being shown, Heikkila points out that each needed to meet a number of criteria. First, the technologies had to allow the windows to maintain their integrity as windows. "We wanted to keep that architectural value and the context awareness. We didn't want to diminish the sense of the outdoors."

Another important criterion was respect for the building chain. Although the multimedia windows, in particular, incorporate elements not commonly associated with windows, Andersen officials determined that they could form partnerships with appropriate companies and that the electronic home networks that allow for these added features are becoming increasingly available. One reason the home theater concept was combined with a bay window is that the bay allows the complete package to be created more readily. "We've had companies say they could start selling these today."

Although the invisible screen is fairly close to introduction, Heikkila won't make projections as to when the other concepts might be launched as products. The time lines might be shorter than many in the industry would expect, however. It might be closer to five years than 10, Heikkila hints.

Other concepts are likely to come out of Project Odyssey as well, but overall the findings suggest that "the house of the future looks more like the house of the past than that of the present," Heikkila states. Over the years, the technology that has become a part of our everyday life has filled homes with complexity and clutter. Once, homes were oriented toward the windows, with chairs and sofas facing the outside view. Now, they face the home theater and room lighting is adjusted accordingly. If the window serves as the television, it allows the room to once again to be reoriented the way it may have been in the past. Additionally, there will be fewer add-ons and more integration in the future, he continues, decreasing clutter and simplifying the home.

Change at Andersen
Project Odyssey represents more than a research-and-development effort-it also reflects something of a change taking place at Andersen. Phil Donaldson, vice president of sales and marketing, emphasizes that inviting the press to visit company headquarters reflects a change, as Andersen has historically been a rather quiet company. Outlining some of the history of the window manufacturer, Donaldson points out numerous "firsts" for Andersen, including the introduction of vinyl cladding on its product line. That introduction, he adds, was significant in gaining acceptance for vinyl in the building-products arena.

Andersen has been an industry leader in many ways, he notes, but now it plans to become a more active leader in the effort "to raise the category." According to Donaldson, these days, Andersen sees itself competing less with other window companies and more with producers of such products as countertops and flooring. When a home buyer looks at a new home, the builder shows him or her the kitchen, with SubZero freezers and Corian countertops. Meanwhile, the same builder will put in low-cost windows and no one asks questions. "It used to be the same way with countertops, but Corian was successful in raising the category."

Andersen has the same goal for windows and patio doors. This is reflected in both Project Odyssey and in its "Long Live the Home" advertising campaign, Donaldson explains. Company officials want to emphasize the important role windows and doors play in the home and stir the same sort of emotional attachment consumers now have with these other building products and appliances.

Andersen has not forgotten direct competition, however. Donaldson notes that during the past several years, Andersen has aggressively expanded its line. One example is the Renewal by Andersen business the company started a number of years ago to target the replacement-window market, a segment where it previously played only a minor role. It has also diversified its product line with the addition of Emco's storm-door business.

The company's core wood-window business has also evolved. Donaldson explains that a few years ago, Andersen saw itself as a premium window producer. Its presence, however, was not as strong in what he describes as the super-premium and value categories. The value category is still in the mid-price range, he notes, as Andersen does not see itself competing in the low-price window market. As a result, Andersen revamped its product line into the Series 400 line and introduced a new lower-cost Series 200 line.

Last year, Donaldson continues, Andersen took a major step into the super-premium market with the purchase of KML Windows, based in London, ON. That acquisition was a better strategy for Andersen than trying to develop a new line of its own, and the company can now compete for business in ultra-high-end homes and similar applications. As a producer of entry doors, KML also offers a product that complements Andersen's line of windows and patio doors, providing an immediate opportunity for growth, he adds.

Andersen continues to see other avenues for expansion as well. One important step, Donaldson states, is to expand company sales in the Sunbelt and other regions. "We don't have a presence in some of the areas where new home building is strongest. We're going to increase Andersen's presence in the South and West."

While it plans for further growth, Andersen is also marking its 100th anniversary in other ways, including sponsorship of an exhibition on windows in the American home to be presented at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, beginning in March. The anniversary will also be commemorated with the kick-off of a program to sponsor construction of 100 Habitat for Humanity homes during the next five years. The Habitat project, Donaldson stresses, reflects Andersen's commitment to its core values, which include giving back to its employees and its community. Publicly traded companies, with their focus increasingly on the latest quarterly earnings figures, face greater challenges when looking at the longer term, he notes. And while there may be change at Andersen, the company is also committed to remaining privately held in order to stay true to the values it has maintained for the last 100 years.