Demand Accelerating For Alternative Materials

Windows made of fiberglass and wood/plastic composites still account for a small share of the market, but there’s an uptick in the numbers and manufacturers see momentum
John G. Swanson
October 15, 2004
FEATURE ARTICLE | Materials & Components

Are alternative materials like fiberglass and wood/plastic composites poised to take a larger share of the window market? Window and door manufacturers have quietly incorporated new materials into their product lines for years, even decades, and fiberglass has established itself firmly in the entry door market, but the lion’s share of window sales still go to vinyl, wood and aluminum.


Few manufacturers of alternative-type windows expect a dramatic shift in the market overall, but they agree that interest, and sales, have started to gain momentum.  And, they can point to some numbers.  After hovering around an estimated half million units for much of the ’90s, sales of windows not categorized as vinyl, wood or aluminum were estimated to have doubled from 2000 to 2002, with continued increases projected.

 

Fiberglass

Growth in alternative sales is most evident in fiberglass windows, which were broken out for the first time this year in Ducker Research Co.’s annual market study performed on behalf of the American Architectural Manufacturers Association and the Window & Door Manufacturers Association.  Sales of fiberglass units were estimated at 800,000 for 2003 and are now projected to increase to about 1.3 million by 2007.

Marvin launched its Integrity line incorporating fiberglass pultrusions about 10 years ago.
Fiberglass window sales are “absolutely on the increase,” reports Gerry Maibach of Comfort Line Inc. in Toledo, OH.  “I don’t think demand or interest in the product has ever been as high.  We’re looking at some pretty dramatic growth over the next two years.” 


Al Dueck, president of Duxton Windows & Doors in Winnipeg, MB, definitely sees demand for fiberglass windows and doors building too. He says several factors have contributed in the past two years to this increasing momentum.


The fact that large manufacturers are talking about fiberglass more is giving the material increased credibility and visibility.  Pointing to the efforts of such companies as Marvin, Milgard and Pella, Dueck says it’s already having an impact, but “not to the extent that we expect it will.”


In his two decades in the window and door business, Maibach says the one thing dealers have asked for is ‘something different.’

“There’s never been a better time than today for composites to answer that question.” Given vinyl’s level of penetration in the market, dealers increasingly see it as a commodity, he says. 

“Dealers can’t differentiate themselves with a vinyl window anymore. Many dealers who have never been involved in anything other than vinyl before now clearly see fiberglass as something to set them apart.”


Given the competitive nature of the window business, window dealers, glass shops and specialty millwork businesses are definitely looking for new product options like fiberglass, Dueck agrees.  General awareness among architects, engineers and building owners is also increasing, he notes.


“The trade is increasingly recognizing the superior performance capabilities of fiberglass,” says Phil Wake of Omniglass Ltd. He sees the country’s biggest window makers continuing to expand their use of fiberglass and projects there will be growth in all-fiberglass units as well, particularly in the commercial market.


No doubt that much of the increase in sales of fiberglass products to date can be attributed to the large manufacturers, yet they’re reluctant to talk too much. Marvin Windows is certainly one of the biggest players in the fiberglass market, having launched the Integrity line of products featuring its Ultrex pultruded fiberglass exterior in the early ‘90s. “From a market-wide perspective,” says Sheila Dunn, a spokeswoman for the manufacturer, “we do see growth in the recognition and usage of fiberglass as a material of choice in windows and doors and expect that growth to continue in the future.”  Although the company won’t comment on its own sales, it has steadily added production capacity for the line and just opened a new 200,000-square-foot Integrity plant in Virginia.


Duane Putz, director of sales and marketing for Pella Corp.’s advanced materials division, reports its Impervia fiberglass line, launched in 2003, has been well accepted in the West and Southwest. “We’re pleased with the marketplace response to this affordable alternative product, which provides lasting value. As manufacturing capacity grows, we’re expanding the product distribution as well and expect to be distributing nationally in the near future.”

 

Wood/plastic Composites

Fiberglass may be the alternative enjoying the greatest success at the moment, but wood/plastic composites— extruded products manufactured using a variety of polymers in combination with wood fibers—also are seeing more activity now. They certainly aren’t new in the market.  Andersen Corp. was probably the first in the wood/plastic composite window category, launching its Renewal by Andersen replacement product line in 1995. The manufacturer declined to discuss how the product is doing in the market, but it has reported it operates over 50 retail locations in 22 states. 

Another indication of the growing sales of Andersen’s wood composite replacement line is the construction this year of a new plant to extrude its Fibrex wood composite material, which is used not only in its Renewal product line, but in components for its traditional lines.  

One factor contributing to accelerated demand for fiberglass may be expanded product offerings, including more trim and finish options to meet specific needs, as well as arch-top capabilities.
The newest entry in the wood/plastic composite market is Amsco Windows, a vinyl window producer based in Salt Lake City, which launched its new Renaissance composite product this summer. 

“We’re excited about Amsco,” says Richard Morgan, vice president of marketing for Mikron Industries, the Kent, WA, based extruder  The company, which is supplying its MikronWood composite for the new Amsco line, also supplies composite extrusions to MI Window & Doors, which uses them to make its Insight product line, and LBL Windows, an Oregon-based manufacturer that primarily serves the Northwest. Amsco, Morgan says represents the beginning of a new program that Mikron plans to roll out with five to seven other regional manufacturers over the next year or two.


Steve Sullivan, Amsco’s director of marketing, says the manufacturer decided upon the new product for a number of reasons. First, he says, it offers some clear advantages over vinyl and wood.  “It just looks better than vinyl. It’s just as aesthetically pleasing as a wood window, sometimes more, but it doesn’t have any of the maintenance requirements.”


Noting that Amsco has a strong base of production builder customers in the Mountain West, he also sees the composite line fitting very well within the company’s own growth strategy. “In the markets we serve, we pretty well dominate the market,” he states.

While there is room to expand to other regions, the manufacturer and its existing distributors were looking for something new to expand sales to the existing customer base.  Many of Amsco’s  customers like dealing with the company, Sullivan says.  It enjoys a strong reputation for service and quick turnaround times.  The new product line enables the company and its distributors  to offer customers those same benefits, along with the benefits of a window that looks as good as a wood product and is available in all color choices.


And vinyl is getting to a point of maturity, at least on a national basis, Sullivan states.  “We were certain that something new was going to come along and we didn’t want to be the second to offer it.” The new composite provides a good way to expand sales to existing customers, as well as branch out to dealers in the remodeling and replacement segment, a whole new market for Amsco. “We have the opportunity to enter this business with something clearly different,” Sullivan notes. “This gets us beyond the vinyl saturation.”


The wood/plastic composite concept has appeal among two types of manufacturers, Morgan says.  For a vinyl window manufacturer, it enables them to “step up” and, given its veneering options on the interior and range of exterior colors, “compete at the highest end of the market.”  Vinyl window manufacturers also are looking for uniqueness, he notes. They’ve tried to differentiate themselves with hardware programs and services.  “This is another way they can clearly set themselves apart.”


The alternative material is also attractive to a good number of wood window manufacturers, he emphasizes. “Many have already looked at vinyl, but this product keeps them in the same market.”  The new materials get them away from the issue of wood rot, which continues to be a concern. For regional wood window manufacturers, he adds, wood/plastic composites provide them with a “feature-rich” product and “a clear point of differentiation” from the large national manufacturers.

 

Growth Factors

Manufacturers and suppliers of alternative products point to a number of additional reasons why fiberglass and wood/plastic composites are gathering momentum. On the fiberglass side, both Maibach and Dueck point to manufacturers’ increasing capabilities.
Fiberglass had a reputation as being difficult to manufacture, says Maibach.  “Those of us who’ve been in the business for some time have overcome that.” It takes probably half as much time to produce a fiberglass window today than it did 10 years  ago, he reports.  Manufacturers also have been able to steadily improve the aesthetics of fiberglass products, he notes.


Dueck suggests one big reason for increasing sales is that fiberglass window manufacturers are finally beginning to offer fairly complete product lines. “It’s difficult to be considered if you don’t provide a more complete package,” he states, pointing to the availability of supporting accessories, the ability to customize units with trim and the details necessary to satisfy historical and other project requirements. Noting an expanding range of finish options from fiberglass window producers in general, in addition to his own firm’s unique development of curved fiberglass products, he says, “you see the maturing of the whole package.”


The “green building” movement also has been a factor.  Dueck points to the growing popularity of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEEDS program. Environmentalists involved with these programs are biased against vinyl, and they don’t want to cut down trees, he notes. That leads many to look at fiberglass.  Sullivan also sees the “green” appeal of composite materials, given their recycled content, as an influence in the market.


Most executives involved in alternative products agree that demand is growing but are hesitant to make predictions about where that demand may go. Putz says that demand is growing for Pella’s fiberglass lines, but, he notes, the manufacturer has experienced growth in its wood and vinyl products also. “As customers search for ways to lower their utility costs and add value to their homes, we see demand for all three types of products continuing to remain strong.”


“Is demand growing for alternatives? Yes,” says Morgan.  “Is it changing the dynamics of the market? No, not yet at least.”


“Some projections about the future growth of fiberglass have been premature,” says Dueck. He’s very optimistic, but notes that even with double-digit growth rates, it will take some time before fiberglass obtains a substantial share of the market.


Maibach concludes by pointing to fiberglass’ ability to address problems associated with the three traditional materials.  “It’s a quite a story to tell,” he states. “It’s also one that’s still unique.” That appears to be the main reason behind the upsurge in interest in alternative materials, according to most executives.


Vinyl manufacturers increasingly see themselves in a product category that’s being “commoditized,” Morgan says. That’s a key reason they’re looking at composites and fiberglass.  Interest among dealers is very strong for the same reason, Sullivan states.

Amsco hosted an open house in Denver for remodeling and replacement dealers as part of its launch of the new line, and there was a huge turn-out, despite the fact that Amsco was a relative unknown in that market segment, he notes.


Sullivan also offers one of the most bullish outlooks on the future for alternative products.  “We expect that in a short period of time, composites will gain a market share in the industry that will be as significant as wood and vinyl.”   

 

Penetration of Alternatives Greater than Numbers Suggest

Even with the growth in sales indicated by Ducker’s latest industry statistics, suppliers of alternative materials stress that the use of fiberglass, wood/plastic composites and other materials is stronger than the numbers indicate.


Omniglass’s Wake notes that most of the country’s biggest window makers are continuing to expand the use of fiberglass. This includes products that are classified as “fiberglass,” but he points to growth in applications such as patio door sills, vinyl reinforcements and astragals where manufacturers are turning to fiberglass to gain its strength capabilities and thermal efficiency.


There’s growth in the numbers for alternative materials, but “the data lags the reality of the market,” Mikron’s Morgan suggests.  He points to one example where his firm’s material is used for sash with a vinyl frame.  There’s a fair amount of “material substitution” taking place in the market, and new materials are being integrated into windows and doors in many ways.  “Yet we don’t call these composites.”