Historic Opportunities

By David Steele, Window & Door Dealers Alliance
August 9, 2011
COLUMN : Dealer Perspectives | Products, Segments, Markets & Trends

Older buildings, especially those located in our historic cities, provide significant opportunities for dealers, especially for companies that have seen dramatic decreases in their residential business. Considering the scale of the opportunity and the slow pace of the housing recovery, many dealers may be considering entering this niche. If you do, be careful.

Commercial sales can represent a big boost to sales volume, but large opportunities can also lead to big problems if you are unfamiliar with the requirements of material and processes. In this segment, the watchword should be seller beware. Small errors can lead to major losses. General contractors are unforgiving if they use your bid to secure a job and you want to back out because an error was made. Payment terms such as “pay-when-paid” and retainage practices can wreak havoc on cashflow, as well.

This market is demanding in other ways, too. Dealers must understand the standards laid out by the Department of the Interior for historic preservation. Specifications are exacting and deviations are rarely allowed.

Be sure you understand the difference between restoration and preservation. Certified restoration specialists use and repair existing materials. Preservation, on the other hand, may allow the use of modern materials, upgraded performance standards and replacement of sash, frames and casing when restoration is not feasible or desirable. It’s simply a fact of life that preservationists rarely prefer replacement over restoration unless they are financing the project or if they retain an ownership stake in the building.

Any dealer new to this niche may be dismayed by the effort required to land one of these jobs. Don’t be surprised if a job requires close coordination between concerned citizens groups, architects, historic preservation committees and government agencies. The ability to properly estimate material and labor, to produce detailed shop drawings and submittals is critical. There are particular details that are mandatory in this niche, including tall bottom rails on double hung windows, large sills and color matching, high definition muntins that create the depth preferred by preservationists, a wide range of exterior casings, mullion covers and panning systems.

Occasionally, restoration glass and specific species of wood are required. One job we did required old growth, heart pine sash and restoration glass that had to be sourced from Germany.

Not all older properties will have such stringent requirements. In addition, to the common aluminum-clad wood windows, even fiberglass and composites may be considered, especially if they can simulate traditional mortise-and-tenon construction and other historically-accurate details. When such factors as energy performance, interior comfort, and reduced maintenance are considered, property owners often prefer to take advantage of modern windows and doors.

David Steele is president and CEO of The Window Gallery, a window and door dealer based in Augusta, Ga., serving the Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina markets.  He is on the Window & Door Dealers Alliance advisory council, as well as the National Glass Association board of directors.