Window market banking on energy efficiency

Even with tax credits soon to expire, manufacturers expect market to stay strong

September 15, 2010
The Simonton StormBreaker Plus series.

The Simonton StormBreaker Plus series.

Even in these tough economic times, window sales have generally been steady. This is due in large part to a boost in the remodeling market to somewhat offset the new construction crash. But perhaps the largest single buoy for the window market has been the energy efficiency tax credits that are set to expire at the end of the year. But instead of dreading the upcoming deadline, most manufacturers are hopeful the energy efficiency trend - and window demand - will continue.

Manufacturers have geared up for a surge in window orders this fall in anticipation of the tax credit's expiration, but they are also gearing up for a continuation of the demands that spurred people to take advantage of the credit. "Windows aren't a luxury item like a steam shower," says Berit Griffin, company spokesperson for Marvin Windows. "They may choose to replace a few windows at a time as opposed to all at once, but we expect they'll still demand a window that delivers the best value. That doesn't mean the cheapest model, but rather one that is good looking, fits with the style of their home, saves them money on utility bills, and will last."

Consumers crave value

As Americans stay in their homes longer and existing housing stock ages, the fact remains that millions of windows are due for replacement - and the same will be true next year and the next. That part of the sales market is independent of the economy, but the current economy has shaken consumer confidence and manufacturers have been offering more features for less money - because that's what is being demanded of them.

"We see consumer confidence as low to cautious, but people are still willing to spend money if they'll get a good return for it," says Stacy Einck, manager of brand PR for Andersen Windows. "Nobody remodels and puts a 'cheaper' model in than what they had before. They'll find a way to pay for a good product at a reasonable price."

And today, a "good" window product to most consumers means one of high quality and durability that requires very little maintenance - and provides extensive customization options. In short, a little bit of everything. Andersen's A Series is their new product launch that aims to satisfy today's more discerning window consumer.

"Customers can get virtually any Andersen window or door product in virtually any custom size," says Einck. "It's done very well even in the current economy, and we have a pipeline full of other high-performance, high-value products ready for the market when the time is right. When the market improves, we feel we'll be in a position to do some great things."

Ply Gem's Contractor Series 2000 is their most recent introduction to the market and it aims directly at those customers who don't want to pay for a premium window, but want to cherry-pick the technologies most important to their needs and suitable for their budget. An entry-level option that offers premium technologies at a value price, the series serves as a multipurpose platform to which energy-saving features in the future.

"We're still seeing strong demand for our premium window and door products from high-end custom builders, but more of the customers who typically purchase at a central price point have been choosing to move down a level," says Chris Pickering, vice president of marketing for Ply Gem Windows. "This is partly due to the fact that windows on the next level down are no longer simple white windows. They are available with a variety of upgrade options." The creation of custom-look windows at affordable prices certainly includes options such as distinctive grilles and blinds or shades between the glass panes.

"We've expanded our size offerings and styles in many product lines to help consumers create a focal point in their home," says Kathy Krafka Harkema, spokesperson for Pella Windows. "And customers love the between-the-glass blinds and shades because they stay clean, provide light control and increased privacy, and are safer for homes with children and pets because there are no exposed cords in which to become tangled."

Boomer habits still a big influence

Not all that long ago, builders and manufacturers were trying to capture big chunks of the baby boomer market by serving their needs when they purchase their retirement homes or downsize once their children have left the nest. Now boomer housing habits are changing - more and more of them are choosing to stay in and renovate their existing homes rather than sell at a loss and buy or build new. This aging-in-place trend has continued the focus on universal design, and for window manufacturers, that means features like tilt sashes for easier cleaning and hardware that is easier to grip and operate. Marvin's Ultimate Casement line satisfies customers' demands for expansive windows to let in abundant light and views, and its unique wash mode allows access to both sides of the glass for cleaning from inside the house.

"We're seeing a big demand for products that allow homeowners to age in place with ease and style," says Griffin. "Our French Push Out window products have also been very popular because they open completely with two quick cranks of the handle and with a few simple moves, they can be turned around to wash the outside glass surfaces. Our customers love the ease of use."

There are still some boomers who don't want to stay in their oversized home, but they're not building new homes to move into - they are instead choosing to move back into existing homes in urban areas. "We're seeing many consumers in that demographic move back to downtown areas and away from suburban settings," says Sid Spear, vice president of sales and marketing for Simonton Windows. "These individuals are keenly aware of the need for sound control to make their homes more comfortable. We believe this will continue to favorably enhance sales of our StormBreaker Plus products, which are designed for impact-resistance in coastal settings but have such excellent sound control features that they're being requested inland in greater numbers."

Another window trend spurred by boomers (and others) relocating to urban settings is the desire for more windows and natural light without sacrificing privacy. This has caused a jump in the sales of operable acrylic block and decorative glass windows.

"Those have been our hottest sellers over the last year or so," says Tom Rachfal, vice president of sales and marketing for Hy-Lite. "People want privacy, but they want fresh air, too. The ability to hide unsightly views of a garage or a neighbor's house are primary reasons for homeowners selecting these products. These specialty windows become the 'view' for the homeowner."

While most consumers are emphasizing energy efficiency, durability and performance, many are still placing great importance on style. Finish and color options and grille styles continue to rest high on homeowners' list of priorities, and they're willing to pay a little extra for added style as long as the other performance features are there.

"Homeowners are asking to create diversified looks to stand out from the rest of the homes in their neighborhoods, so we're seeing more and more customers that are interested in architectural shapes to differentiate their home," says Ply Gem's Pickering.

Efficiency to remain the watchword

At least for the foreseeable future, window manufactures are confident that energy efficiency will remain at the top of consumers' list of wants and needs - even with the tax credit expiration. That is due partly to the Department of Energy's new Volume Pricing Program (VPP), which aims to lower the costs and make more readily available highly insulating R-5 windows. Nearly all the big window manufacturers are stepping up and joining the program because they feel that's where the future of window sales is headed.

"Kolbe is an inaugural participant in the VPP," says Cindy Bremer, vice president of marketing for Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork. "And we see super-efficient windows as a trend that will continue to grow for the next several years." Kolbe's Windquest EP Series is among those window products listed at the D.O.E.'s VPP web site and the 1" triple-glazed products exceed 2010 Energy Star criteria for all U.S. climate zones.

Another piece of government legislation has manufacturers feeling optimistic, as the Home Star legislation, recently passed in the House, (commonly referred to as "Cash for Caulkers") will continue to spur consumers to perform energy efficient upgrades to their home.

"Windows continue to be one of the best investments, with one of the shortest paybacks, so we foresee replacement window demand remaining strong," says Pickering.

Manufacturers see this demand for efficiency as a great opportunity to expand their selection while improving their manufacturing processes. From entry level windows all the way to high-end custom units, they recognize that homeowners want the chance to choose the window options that best suit their needs. And while some customers may want decorative grilles and others may not, nearly everyone wants a window that will keep them comfortable and save them money on utility bills.

"In the past, these notions of conservation and energy efficiency have come and gone," says Einck. "But this current trend definitely doesn't feel that way. We're going to stick with it for a long while."

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