Folding Doors, Opening Walls

The disappearing wall, made possible by an ever-increasing number of folding-door products on the market, accomplishes for residential architects what until recently had been seen mostly in restaurants and hotels. The folding door products available today for residential applications allow 30, 40, 50 ft. or more of wall to be opened up, unobstructed, to erase the line between indoors and out.

The most common residential applications for these folding doors are in great rooms, family rooms and kitchens, where they open a wall to outdoor living areas. Depending on the model and the level of engineering applied, unobstructed openings of 10 ft. to a hundred feet can be created.

“Typically these doors open to a large covered patio, and when people open them up, the family room and outdoor patio become one large space. We’ve also seen smaller three-door configurations used in kitchens rather than sliders,” says Greg LeFevre, vice president, sales and marketing, Architectural Traditions. “I’ve also seen curved units where the track itself is radiused. The other thing I’m seeing is units where two-door systems on adjacent walls meet at a 90-degree corner, so they actually open up the entire corner of a room.”

Architects are helping drive demand more than builders. “I see this product being specified across the design spectrum — all house styles,” LeFevre says. “From our perspective, demand for this product seems to be architecturally driven. It’s associated more with a client’s lifestyle, where they really want to create an indoor/outdoor space and be closer to nature.”

Ebrahim Nana, president of NanaWall Systems, likens the effect of a Nana folding wall to that of putting the top down on a convertible. “You can feel that exhilaration, feel the breeze blowing through your hair. It’s about the wow factor.

“Our business, our brand, delivers shelter, transformation and exhilaration. Shelter because it’s weather-tight, secure, comfortable, and creates a sheltered space, and with our engineering we transform a space into exhilaration,” he says.

Nana points out the architectural importance of the clean lines created by a folding door, compared to sliding doors which have panels that offset from each other. “Many of our architect clients use folding doors because when they’re closed, the panels are all on the same plane, creating a clean look, and clean lines are important to architects,” Nana says.

Some interesting applications have surprised manufacturers. The use of these doors as room dividers surprised Shane Meisel, marketing manager, premium and custom door division, Jeld-Wen. “We didn’t anticipate that. Also, the radius applications where the wall created by these doors is round rather than flat are different.

“This door can do many things architecturally. It presents the functionality of patio doors, and also increases the amount of light coming into a room, as well as the amount of perceived space. It opens up the home,” Meisel says.

Jon Sawatzky, architectural consultant, Loewen Windows and Doors, has seen two interesting applications of its folding door systems. One architect included the doors behind a bar so when opened, the owners could use the bar while outside, he says. “The second application was a shortened window system. They ordered shorter door panels, about the height of your average window, to create a folding window system rather than a folding door system,” Sawatzky remembers.

Yet another surprising application involves opening up the entire side of a house. The homeowner placed one door system on the lower level off the family room, and another folding door directly above it on the second level, says Frank Rutherford, sales engineer, Tostem America. “So when you’re in either room, you see a huge, open wall. But from the outside, the entire side of the house is open. It’s impressive to see, and a creative use of our door.”

Growing Market

Folding door systems, depending on the style, material, finish and other options, can be installed in homes with almost any architectural style, and in almost any location now that their popularity is growing.

“There was and still is a strong business market in the Southwest and California,” Architectural Traditions’ LeFevre says. “I’ve seen an increase in demand across the United States over the years, into the Midwest, the East Coast, Montana and mountainous areas. It’s because of an increased awareness of the product. There were only a few people in the past offering it, but now there are more.”

When Jeld-Wen launched its folding door product line, the anticipation was for most sales to be in Arizona and Southern California. “We sell a lot there, but there’s also demand all over the country, in Montana, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, Florida. It’s more of a lifestyle choice than it is a home style or location that determines who buys these doors,” Meisel says.

Manufacturers agree that, in general, these doors are used more in new construction. However, folding doors are capable of penetrating the remodeling market. “This will change because new construction is slowing, and remodel and renovation will be the strength in 2007 and 2008, so just by attrition the shift will change,” says Darrin Peterson, signature products manager, Marvin Windows and Doors.

Plenty of Options

A major player offering residential folding doors in the United States is NanaWall Systems, which first began playing with the idea in 1986, and now offers 16 different systems including commercial models, Ebrahim Nana says. The company is owned by the Nana family, but has a German partner which makes its roller hardware.

Nana’s material options include all-wood frames, clad aluminum, standard aluminum, thermally broken aluminum, and fiberglass reinforced plastic. If desired, a NanaWall also comes with a screen, which moves left to right to open and close. “There was an entire swath of the country for which we were not getting orders because of bugs, so we offer a screen,” Nana says.

Jeld-Wen’s folding door system, introduced in January 2006, is available in wood or high-end fiberglass. The number of door panels is up to the consumer, as is the width and heights, within set limits. The door is made from high-end truly customizable fiberglass, Meisel notes. “Typically when you hear fiberglass you think it’s an introductory product line. But this is made in a different process to get a door that visually is indistinguishable from wood,” he says.

An opening’s width restrictions are loose, as long as a substantial header beam is in place. “A 48-ft. opening is no problem if the header is built well. We provide builders and architects with information they need to build the headers properly,” he adds.

Jeld-Wen has created solid panels without glass, which typically are used on the inside of a home as a room divider. The majority of applications will involve one-light doors, he says, and installed in an outdoor living application where the doors are closed but owners still want to see out, Meisel says.

Introduced in 2003, Architectural Traditions’ bi-folding door system comes with hardware made in Australia, LeFevre explains, as do a few other manufacturers’ systems. The bi-folding systems are available in wood only, in wire-brushed cedar, mahogany, alder, cherry and walnut, and in a myriad of door designs, he says. “Any of our glass designs can be incorporated into these doors.”

Individual panels come standard in 3-ft. widths and 8-ft. heights. “We’re also seeing requests for larger units, like 10-ft. doors and thicknesses of 2 in. We can go beyond an eight-panel door; it’s almost unlimited. We can do 12- to 16-door units, but this requires special engineering such as steel-framed headers. About 30 ft. is as big as we usually see,” LeFevre says. The company is developing a powered roll-down screen.

Loewen’s bi-fold door system, introduced in 2005, also comes with many options with almost limitless configurations. Standard models are available, but customization is an option, such as the wood species — coastal Douglas fir and mahogany, Sawatzky says. “We can make doors in all-natural interiors and exteriors, or can do a clad option as well. We have nine standard colors, and 27 architectural colors from which to choose. We also have a full range of custom colors, plus custom anodized aluminum. We can do laminated, tempered, standard double-glazed glass or with bronze tints, and in decorative styles.”

Door panels are available up to 10 ft. tall, and in configurations of up to eight per side. “So on one track you can have two sets of eight panels for 16 panels total. The maximum width is 52 ft. of unobstructed opening,” Sawatzky adds. The load is hung from the header, so it must be able to accommodate the weight, which is 175 lbs. per panel, he says.

Marvin Windows and Doors’ bi-fold door was introduced in January 2006 at the International Builders’ Show. Two styles are available: clad wood and wood-wood, Peterson says. The extruded aluminum cladding is available in 19 colors and an unlimited number of custom colors. The clad model is also available in five wood species: pine, vertical grain fir, cherry, mahogany and white oak. The wood-wood model comes in pine, mahogany and vertical grain fir. The different hardware finishes include polished brass, oil-rubbed bronze and stainless steel, he says.

The maximum size for Marvin’s folding door system is 16 ft. wide by 8 ft. tall. “We make them in two- to eight-panel configurations. The largest panel width is 3 ft., and has a multipoint locking system on the service door,” Peterson notes. “Our system comes with screws that run up into the header track into the rough opening, and long screws at the jamb where the panel stacks together, for extra support.” Marvin’s hardware is made in Australia and customized for Marvin by a company in Canada.

Tostem America’s Symphony bi-fold door, introduced in April 2005, is an aluminum/vinyl hybrid with aluminum exterior and vinyl interior. The company first launched it in 2003, won a Cool Product award at the PCBC show, and sales took off. The company relaunched the door based on input from architects and builders, Rutherford says. The door also comes in a Japanese-style wood finish made of vinyl.

The largest size available from Tostem is 12 ft. wide by 8 ft. tall, and is available with a screen that operates from left and right and pulls together in the middle. In the 12-ft. model one side has two panels and one side has four. “You can get any kind of glass, be it laminated or with a dark tint, or whatever you want. The colors we have for the door are basically black, brown, bronze, gray and white,” he says.

One nice feature of Tostem’s doors, Rutherford says, is the ability to push opened panels to one side of the opening or the other. “You can even open the screen on the side that’s open and pull it across to the side that remains closed. So you don’t have to have the whole door open if you don’t want to. You can open the two-panel side or the four-panel side and pull the screen to fill the open space,” he adds. For Tostem’s folding doors, architects and builders must design the header to withstand 400 lbs. in the center without deflecting.

All This and Efficiency, too

With hurricanes getting so much attention these days, NanaWall Systems offers a system that meets both Miami-Dade and AAMA hurricane standards, as well as NFRC standards for energy efficiency, notes Ebrahim Nana.

“What we’re excited about is we took our original system and tested it to AAMA hurricane standards. But now we tested that same system with impact/hurricane insulating glass. Customers get the best of both worlds: a system that is both hurricane-resistant and has awesome U values. This is important because if you’re building a waterfront home in Long Island, or anywhere on the Eastern seaboard, you can spec a system that will meet impact and energy requirements,” Nana says.

Nana offers four systems that are NFRC-certified and Energy Star-rated. One of these four is the hurricane-approved model. Nana systems also are tested for resistance to sound transmission. “Ours are so well sealed, the same qualities that make them weather-tight make them soundproof,” he adds.

Tostem America’s folding door system is rated for air leakage, and many of the available folding door systems on the market have various other ratings. Check with manufacturers for details.