The Might of Fiberglass

When it comes to innovation in the window and door market, much of the recent change can be traced to the use of fiberglass as a structural and design component. Today, manufacturers are providing more fiberglass-based options as consumer awareness and acceptance of the material grows.

The look of fiberglass windows and doors rivals that of its elite competition. Fiberglass doors are increasingly detailed to mimic the appearance of their wood and steel counterparts and can be easily painted, unlike vinyl. Because of higher demand for these products in the market, several window and door manufacturers are also introducing fiberglass in their window and door products.

“Being able to customize to design taste,” says Duane Putz, director of sales and marketing for Pella Impervia, “this is where fiberglass windows and doors are going in the marketplace.”

Consumers love their choices and fiberglass windows and doors are no exception. Homeowners buying these products are pushing the trend of choice and forcing manufacturers to continue to be innovative.

“Research has shown us that customers want choices,” says Marty Diklitch, vice president of fiberglass products at Milgard Windows. “Exterior colors, interior wood grain options, custom sizes and, since fiberglass is still really focused at the high end of the market today, customers want high-end hardware and glazing packages.”

Jim McElroy, general manager of product marketing at Therma-Tru, agreed with this trend and indicated that for Therma-Tru, its biggest request from consumers are expanded wood-look options. “Homeowners are looking for different types of wood grains and styles,” says McElroy

In Therma-Tru’s National Home Valuation Study, conducted by independent research organization Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC in 2002, 2,400 consumers from across the United States were asked to estimate the prices of homes based simply on the homes’ exterior appearance.

Enhanced entryways added as much as $24,000 to a home’s perceived value. The increased perceived value was as much as five times the actual cost of the new door entry setup. The homes with heightened door, side lite and transom arrangements used in this study were from Therma-Tru’s fiberglass lines.

A growing category

“Most people in the market for windows and doors are looking for an inexpensive product, and vinyl manufacturers cater to that,” says Colin Mori, general financial manager for Fibertec Window and Door Manufacturing. “But people looking for efficiency and a higher quality product are looking at higher-end wood windows and fiberglass.”

Consumer reaction toward many manufacturers of fiberglass window and doors has been positive at this point. Putz indicated that consumer response has been tremendous so far for Pella, who entered the fiberglass market only four short years ago. But Pella is not the only one excited by the feedback.

“Response to date has been phenomenal,” says Diklitch of Milgard. “Our growth rate in fiberglass has far outstripped our healthy growth in vinyl.”

But while response is good, the market for fiberglass isn’t where some would like it to be.

“While we are experiencing a great growth curve, this is still a high-end product and is a relatively small but growing segment of the total market in units,” says Diklitch.

Despite the growth in fiberglass products and their subsequent success with consumers, awareness of fiberglass as an option remains low. Today’s world is one of educated consumers who do their research before major purchases, and it is this trend that is bringing fiberglass options to light. “As we see more and more awareness in the marketplace,” says Putz, “we see more and more people asking for it.”

Although fiberglass windows are gaining ground all over the United States, companies indicated that the coastal regions are the No. 1 area for fiberglass windows and doors due to the harsh saltwater climate and fiberglass’s natural resistance. The Southern states, with extreme heat issues came in second. The Northern region with its harsh cold came in third.

The pros and cons

Fiberglass can be a maintenance-free, long-lasting solution for homes, but come at a cost. These windows and doors tend to tip higher on the price scale due to the longer, more expensive process currently needed to make these products. Yet as consumers weigh the short-term vs. long-term costs, fiberglass is becoming the choice for some homeowners because of what fiberglass has to offer them.

“Fiberglass is a low-maintenance, durable and secure answer to a trend,” says Shane Meisel, stile and rail door marketing manager for Jeld-Wen. “Consumers want hassle-free products that they don’t have to worry about and still want a traditional wood grain.”

Fiberglass windows and doors are also highly energy-efficient, offering five times the insulation level of wood, and tout long-term performance and life term. Fiberglass windows and doors have one of the best warranties in the industry simply based on their versatility. These products can handle both extreme cold and heat; they are nonrotting and don’t corrode or peel.

Fiberglass windows also have strength nine times that of vinyl windows and two times that of its aluminum counterparts. Because of this strength the size range of windows is very wide, without additional supports. “One thing you can do with fiberglass is build large windows without a big bulky frame,” says Fibertec’s Mori. “It allows for a wider and higher window.”

Of course, everything can have its drawbacks, including fiberglass windows and doors which tend to have longer lead times. It’s much harder to talk to a distributor and have fiberglass windows sitting on-site the following week. The process of manufacturing the fiberglass and then assembling the window can be quite time-consuming.

“One of the biggest disadvantages of fiberglass windows is the lead time,” says Mori. “Vinyl is mass produced and fiberglass is very labor intensive. Fiberglass production time is comparable to a custom wood window.”

Fiberglass windows and doors are relatively new to the marketplace and as such, innovation is still taking place with these products. Manufacturers are trying to find ways to master the look, feel and design capabilities that the other more popular materials have.

“Fiberglass is able to get a very good wood grain look, but in the end it’s not wood,” says Meisel. “It doesn’t have the design freedom of wood and is limited to what is available as it is molded or manufactured with skins or dies.”

Product offerings

Several companies entered the fiberglass window and door market using varying techniques, designs and combinations of materials. Their overall goal seems to be universal though: to bring fiberglass products up to speed to that of its counterparts.

“Making radius and round tops in a fiberglass material is a significant challenge,” says Diklitch. “Some manufacturers chose a molded approach that leads to a limited set of standard sizes. Milgard pioneered a new patented process that allows us to build custom sized radius windows to provide customers and architects with more choices.”

Milgard Windows currently makes a full line of fiberglass windows and doors, offering many operating styles such as double-hung, single-hung, slider, picture windows, casements, bay and bow windows, and awnings. In Milgard’s fiberglass patio door lines, they have included in-swing, out-swing and sliding glass doors.

Therma-Tru currently manufactures three lines of fiberglass doors. Its longest running line, Fiber-Classic, launched the fiberglass door market and today falls into a mid price point. The second line of fiberglass doors is Therma-Tru’s Smooth-Star line that follows the look of a steel entry door.

“Many builders are asking for the Smooth-Star door because they’re finding that it survives the construction cycle nicely without damage,” says McElroy. “It won’t dent like a steel door and can take much more impact before being damaged.”

With Therma-Tru’s Classic-Craft line of fiberglass doors, it introduced its Accugrain technology. This technology takes on a real wood grain appearance allowing finer wood species to be mimicked in fiberglass.

This, of course, is just a sampling of the products currently available. There are several companies in the fiberglass window and door market today. A small sampling of the companies making headway in this area include: Marvin Windows and Doors, Pella, PlastPro, Duxton Windows and Doors, Jeld-Wen, Comfort Line, Graham Architectural Products and Fibertec.

Moving ahead

Besides continuing to build on the product offerings already out there, companies see a bright future for this young category. “We will continue to see substantial growth with fiberglass,” says Meisel of Jeld-Wen. “It has grown 15 to 19 percent and we’ll continue to see that. There’s always new stuff and things in the pipeline. We certainly see a future in fiberglass and that’s why we are investing in fiber facilities.”

Fiberglass seems to have a path all its own right now. Expansion of options and lowering costs are a strong focus for fiberglass window and door manufacturers, and overcoming these obstacles will only make fiberglass a stronger force in the market.

“In the short term we see expanded colors, including custom, and additional veneer species added to give options,” says Therma-Tru’s Diklitch. “Longer term we think technologies that lower the cost of manufacturing will make fiberglass rival vinyl.”

Fiberglass windows and doors appear to be making quite an impression on homeowners as it continues to build its market share. Manufacturers of these products are constantly looking at where they will take fiberglass in the future.

“There will definitely be continued growth in fiberglass products,” says McElroy. “We are expanding the range of sizes and trimability to retrofit into any opening no matter when it was built. We also have new grains and designs in development and plan to add to the collection each year.”

With any new product or technology, education and awareness play important roles in its success. Manufacturers are increasingly stressing the array of options and the benefits to homeowners in choosing fiberglass.

“The more promotion there is to the public, architects and spec writers to educated them on this wonderful product that’s been available for 24 years, the more demand will continue going up and up,” says Mori. “People are building their dream homes and want all the best from cabinets, flooring, fixtures, windows and doors.”

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