Inside Out

How to navigate the multi-panel door market
Emily Kay Thompson
May 9, 2015
FEATURE ARTICLE | Aesthetics & Style, Markets & Trends

ABSi orchestrated the details on this project that uses LaCantina Door’s folding door system to extend the kitchen and living room of this farm house into the veranda. (Photography by Open Homes Photography)

The concept of bringing the outside in is nothing new to the industry. But, the trend hasn’t yet permeated all levels of the general public, as traditionally it has only been financially accessible primarily to higher-end homeowners. That fact seems to be changing.

“These systems were traditionally only for the mid- to higher-end homes,” says Trisha Egge, vice president of Maui Windows and Doors, which sells Panda Windows & Doors’ systems. “But we are seeing sales increase in all demographics.”

The indoor/outdoor living trend has reached the point of accessibility for a wider audience, not only in terms of affordability, but also geography. “It’s reaching a wider market. Climate doesn’t matter so much anymore. People still want to enjoy outside but have the comforts of inside,” Damon Gregory, principal of Fenessco Inc. says.

At this point, multi-panel door systems that cater to this trend are no longer relegated to dealers in mild-climate, high-dollar zip codes. The trend has reached the point where all of those in the window and door industry need to be well versed in this growing product line.

The geographic versatility of multi-panel door systems has everything to do with how the systems are engineered. Many, such as this Overture series folding door that incorporates a thermally-broken all vinyl frame, are Energy Star qualified, too. (Image courtesy of Royal Building Products)

Where and why

While certainly there’s a natural progression for most trends and technologies to trickle down to the mainstream, there are other forces at play. “The wow factor is a big part of it,” says Dan Pompeo, owner of Architectural Glazing Solutions, a manufacturer’s rep for Panda Windows & Doors.

Egge adds that it has as much to do with light. “Homeowners want to bring in as much of the natural light as possible,” she says. “Studies have shown the numerous health benefits of natural light.” She cites an article from Science Daily that found that “There is increasing evidence that exposure to light, during the day, particularly in the morning, is beneficial to your health via its effects on mood, alertness and metabolism.”

New Construction Only?

Many look at the market for multi-panel door systems as exclusive to new construction. But, as Egge points out, they are just as suitable for the retrofit market.

“I have many clients who take out two 4-foot by 6-foot windows and put in a 13-foot wide window wall in that space. It changes the look and feel of the entire room,” she reports. In one case, Maui Windows and Doors installed a window wall that opened the space of a 1,000-square-foot cottage to give it a luxury feel.

While indoor/outdoor living more naturally makes sense for climates like Hawaii, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Nevada, for example, interest is growing elsewhere. Pompeo attributes a lot of the increase in demand to the engineering of the products—the ability to accommodate energy efficiency through dynamic glazing and through thermal breaks in the frame system, for instance.

To this point, Scott Thurber, vice president of Associated Building Supply Inc. (ABSi), which sells products from LaCantina Doors, Western Window Systems and Pacific Architectural Millwork, among others, agrees that the geographic versatility of thei ndoor/outdoor living trend comes down to how the entire multi-panel door system is engineered.

“The design is 100 percent different depending on the location. You can put the cheapest door in the exact same space, and it may look good, but it could leak like a sieve,” Thurber says. He stresses the importance of proper installation to this extent, specifically calling out the function of the sill pans and flashing system. Water management is a huge piece of the puzzle. And while it may not be top-of-mind for homeowners, it’s the dealer’s responsibility to make it so.

Education is key to closing the sale

All our sources concur that the most important aspect in selling multi-panel door systems is education. “These are relatively new in certain areas of construction, so there’s going to be a lot of education,” Gregory says.

This means education for not just homeowners, but the dealers selling to them. At Fenessco, they make it a point to get to know a few brands very well—Solar Innovations and Panoramic Doors for this category—and to be the most knowledgeable about those products.

Both Gregory and Thurber mainly work with architects on these projects, and say that the education needs to start early, because the systems needs to be engineered in. Says Thurber, “If you look at these big expanses of glass, you have to make sure you have the appropriate header to carry the load. Then, you have to think about the sill condition—how will you keep the water from coming into the home, and so on. So, you’re meeting early on with the architect and figuring out what products perform best in the project.”

Moreover, presenting yourself as the authority has a direct correlation to sales. “A lot of guys sell on price point. They don’t deliver the same package in terms of performance,” Thurber asserts. He says that when you have the technical savvy, it increases your credibility and, long-term, you become the primary resource for technical jobs. “There’s a lot of time that goes into it, but the reward from a margin and volume standpoint is very handsome,” he says.

The structural properties of aluminum, as used in Western Window System’s line shown here, allow large fenestration openings to be designed, manufactured and installed, says Scott Thurber, ABSi. (Image courtesy of Western Window Systems)

A wide open market

While giving homeowners what they want certainly helps the bottom line, it’s not all about the margin—though all our sources agree that they are quite considerable.

Especially with newer trends that transform a space as multi-panel door systems do, at the end of the day, it’s about being satisfied with your contribution to making a happy home. “It’s fun to help people enjoy their homes more,” Gregory says. “Whatever space they’re trying to create, showing them how it can be done, enhancing original designs, and making people happy with it—it’s satisfying work. It’s a great way to stay involved with architecture and stay a part of people’s lives and make them happy.”

Dealer Tips

Our sources had some quick tips and insight to share for dealers looking to make multi-panel door systems a part of their business:

  • Know your product. Know your options.—Dan Pompeo, Architectural Glazing Systems
  • Pay attention. We’re a detailed business.—Damon Gregory, Fenessco Inc.
  • Go the extra mile in the install. You’re putting a very expensive door system in. Why not spend a little money to install the best type of flashing system and sill pan system?—Scott Thurber, ABSi
  • More expensive is not always best. To decide on the best brand, owners or contractors should visit a showroom that has full size displays of the products.—Trisha Egge, Maui Windows and Doors
Thompson is editor of Window & Door, WindowandDoor.com, and WDweekly. Write her at ethompson@glass.org.