Window manufacturers differentiate their products in terms of aesthetics and performance, but the fact is that windows are like cars: If one big company comes out with a popular design, before too long the other brands follow suit. So as the industry climbs out of what one manufacturer described as “the rubble of recession,” most are putting resources into keeping up with three industry-wide trends.
We asked manufacturers and dealers what types of windows customers are asking (and paying) for, as well as what we will be seeing in coming years. Although the big trends they identified weren’t surprising, some of their interpretations were.
The growing share of windows with simple lines, lots of glass, and metallic hardware finishes has been big news for a couple of years now. “We’re seeing a huge move from traditional to more contemporary designs,” says Mark Kuckuck of Sedona Window and Door in Arizona. “It is permeating everything from windows to hardware to interior and exterior architecture.”
But does this movement have legs? As recently as a year ago some manufacturers weren’t 100% sure; now they all answer with an unequivocal yes. “Contemporary style is filling a longstanding void in the market,” says Kolbe product and marketing manager Lance Premeau. “Modern architecture is more than just a passing fad. It has been on our radar for several years.”
Explanations for why customers are flocking to this style range from younger buyers looking for products with the sleek lines of an iPhone to a more well-traveled populace encountering contemporary architecture globally. Whatever the reason, manufacturers are selling more windows with minimalist designs and expect that to continue. “We’re investing in the fact that it’s a long-term movement,” says WeatherShield’s Dave Koester. “We think this is a seismic shift in the industry.”
Contemporary design puts high value on natural light and maximizing views to the outside, so it makes sense that buyers want lots of glass. Growing demand for glass is at least partly a generational shift: A survey of actual and potential home buyers under 35 released by Ketchum Global Research and Analytics in January found “desire to have outdoor space” the most important criteria when choosing a new home.
Manufacturers are responding with an expanded menu of large operable windows. “We’re pushing the envelope on what’s possible with size,” says Marvin’s Kris Hanson, whose company has added casements and double-hungs with 102- and 107-inch-tall frames, respectively, to its standard catalog.
There’s also more demand for banks of windows. “Not only are the windows themselves getting bigger, but we’re seeing more large assemblies where multiple windows are placed side by side,” says Marshall Baser, business development manager with A.W. Hastings, a distributor in Enfield, Conn.
Even More Choices
Most manufacturers also report growing demand for options. This is due in part to sites like Houzz.com—the ability to browse an endless array of completed projects makes it easy to imagine the possibilities.
“Consumers are more educated,” says Kolbe’s Premeau. “The internet has helped to spur the demand for more options because homeowners are being inspired by homes they see.”
Baser reports that his company has been fulfilling more special orders, and not just at the high end. “We’re seeing more calls for personalization in mid-range homes,” he says. “Customers really want to put their signatures on the project.”
This also may be partly generational. In a survey published in January by Better Homes and Gardens, nearly two-thirds of millennial respondents said that having a home customized to their tastes and needs is a top priority. Not taking advantage of that priority would be a missed opportunity.
Although the options buyers want include a choice of hardware and wood species, the strongest demand by far is for more colors. According to WindowandDoor.com, 39% of window manufacturers added color choices last year and another 21% will do so in 2016. As an example, Andersen recently expanded the available interior finishes on its A-Series windows from three to 11 in response to what brand content manager Jon Phelps describes as “constant” requests for more choices.
Color preferences are regional, but seem to be changing. White used to be popular in the South Central and West regions but beige has surpassed it. “For example, in Dallas, 80% of new construction vinyl window sales are beige or clay rather than white,” says Mark Montgomery, VP of marketing for Ply Gem Windows.
More people are also looking for glass options, including choices in tints and privacy packages. “We added glass packages that we didn’t have before to allow more or less light in,” says Milgard’s Chad Martinez.
Dealers who sell vinyl windows—a full 82.6%, according to a recent survey by The Farnsworth Group—will be glad to hear that WindowandDoor.com also reported a 39% increase over the last year in these products. More of them than ever are being installed in high-end homes.
"There's still a misconception that all vinyl windows are the same, but they're not," says Martinez. "A lot of thought and engineering goes into a simple looking vinyl window."
New coating technologies allow a wider range of colors. And today's high-quality frame profiles offer improved performance. "Manufacturers are offering frames with pockets that optimize energy efficiency," says Jim Plavecsky of Windowtech Sales, a Columbus, Ohio, company that sells components to window manufacturers.
Of course homeowner satisfaction depends on the installation as much as the product, but just 29% of dealers responding to the Farnsworth survey reported having such a program. Is that a missed opportunity?
Kuckuck believes that taking advantage of that opportunity requires the dealer to stand fully behind the installation—his company not only sells windows but also offers a 30-year warranty. He credits his confidence to do so to a flashing product called RainBuster, a combination of self-sealing membranes and plastic corners. His field crew got trained on it (RainBuster has written protocols for every installation type) and use it on every job. "We spend more time flashing the window than installing it," he says.
He claims that his warranty has helped him capture more than 90% of the local builder market. And there have been "virtually no callbacks."
Most manufacturers talked about adding high-tech touches to residential windows. While some of what they’re experimenting with is past the bleeding edge, such as windows that act as speakers or TV screens, other technologies are closer to reality.
There seems to be interest in dynamic glazing. Electrochromic windows that automatically darken or lighten depending how bright it is outside have been available for years, but the market remains small. Most forecasters expect it to grow—to as much as $5 billion by 2020—but most of that growth will be for commercial buildings unless prices come down significantly.
The most promising technologies will be those that enhance security. These are already showing up and include Andersen’s wireless VeriLock sash latch, which transmits the window’s current state—open or closed, locked or unlocked—to a mobile app or a home security system.
The next step may be remote operation. “No one uses a key to unlock their car door anymore,” says Koester. Despite the price and technical obstacles—an electronic window lock would need to be hard-wired or require improved battery technology—he expects to see prototypes at trade shows in the next two to five years. “As demand and interest grows, we will see a lot of tech companies marrying their products with ours. We’re already in quiet discussions with some of them.”