Will European Products Remain Confined to Niches?

John G. Swanson
May 24, 2010
COLUMN : Opening Remarks | Markets & Trends

When I first started covering this industry, European profile extruders were still in the midst of their first push into the North American market. Vinyl had a relatively small market share, limited largely to a few replacement products, and the European suppliers saw huge opportunities.

Those opportunities weren’t realized quickly, however. One of the main reasons was the tilt/turn product designs that the European companies brought here to sell. The windows may have been “better.” They may have been stronger, more energy efficient, and who knows what else. But they weren’t what North Americans wanted. Most of us in the United States and Canada were content with our double-hungs, sliders, casements and awnings. We wanted our screens and drapes too—challenges for these inward opening products.

As a result, the European profile suppliers adapted to our ways. They focused their efforts on developing window systems suited to North America. They were rewarded as vinyl window sales grew, with a few bumps along the way, for the next 20 years or so.

Tilt/turn products were not forgotten, however. European hardware suppliers, which had gained a foothold in North America with multipoint locking systems, continued to promote their full range of hardware options. A handful of manufacturers and importers also found success with a range of European style windows and doors in niche markets in both the U.S. and Canada. Tilt/turn windows, lift/slide doors and similar products gained favor among architects and builders looking to add dramatic style and large glass areas to luxury homes.

That style trend appears to still be gaining steam. While they may not be tilt/turn, or specifically European in design or origin, lift/slides, fold/slides and other less traditional styles continue to gather momentum in upscale homes. Whether it’s due to a desire to be green, demand for more daylight and glass or simply a shift in homeowner and homebuyer design tastes, the fact that it’s a trend that represents growth opportunities for a variety of window and door companies is clearly evident.

That’s one of the reasons we decided to look at tilt/turn and European products in this issue. Another, perhaps more significant, reason was renewed interest in such products that had become apparent among vinyl extruders and window manufacturers looking in what many would consider a relatively untapped market—commercial applications.

Vinyl windows in commercial applications aren’t new by any means. One can point to hotels, dorms, office buildings, high-rise apartment buildings where they’ve been installed for years. In Europe, they not only use vinyl windows, they also use vinyl curtain wall systems. Vinyl products made with reinforced profiles to meet the structural demands of commercial projects have definitely been around the market for a while. Their appeal has been limited here, however, because of the cost relative to aluminum systems.

What could change the equation in vinyl’s favor now is the demand for greater energy efficiency. Code and government officials continue to ratchet up performance requirements. The green building movement—which is transforming the commercial market—is also focused on long-term energy performance. Aluminum systems have been able to meet most of the established energy codes to date, but as government and the green movement push the envelope further, aluminum products will be challenged.

Just as getting to R-5 requires a big change in residential windows. Going from double- to triple-glazing—the next round of changes in commercial building codes at least for Northern climates—may require big changes in many commercial window products. Aluminum product manufacturers are looking at redesigns with more effective thermal break systems. Some companies are attracted to fiberglass. It’s likely, however, that commercial products are going to cost more, which starts to make vinyl, which is even more expensive European systems, more competitive.

Vinyl extruders and manufacturers have had an eye on this market for a while now, it’s also worth noting. Even prior to the housing market meltdown, these companies were seeing vinyl’s further growth potential in the residential segment limited and were looking for new opportunities. Whether the commercial sector offers that opportunity is a question many companies in this industry will be looking to answer.