The awnings and canopies industry responds to challenges with improved products and a renewed resolve to educate clients and consumers.
Specialty Fabrics Review | January 2011
By Holly O’Dell
The world of awning manufacturing and fabrication, particularly in the U.S., continues to evolve, thanks to technological advances, improved buyer education and better relationships with architects and engineers. However, the industry has not been without its challenges—most recently the economy and increased competition from non-fabric structures.
Leaner and stronger
Since the economy started tumbling in late 2008, awning companies have been adapting to new realities during the recession. Not surprisingly, the economic situation has affected buyer behavior. “In the last six to nine months, customers are looking for quality at low price,” says Mitch Pietruszka, owner of Sunstate Awnings in Englewood, Fla. “We have a significant upscale territory, but everyone is talking about dollars, dollars, dollars. I don’t even get budgets from them anymore.”
A tight economy is forcing awning manufacturers and fabricators to reevaluate their sales and marketing methods. For its part, Durasol Awnings Inc. of Middletown, N.Y., has enhanced the awning-buying process, likening it to the purchase of the latest big-screen TV. “The well-trained salesman knows that the fully loaded 50-inch top-end LCD model on display in his showroom triggers the buying emotions of potential consumers coming to browse,” says Alan Pedersen, Durasol’s national director of sales. “Much the same way, our current economic conditions should be cause for awning dealers to outfit their showrooms with the latest and greatest awning innovations to trigger that same buyer switch.”
The awning industry has had to collectively tighten its belt in response to a drop in business, but Pietruszka predicts a pent-up demand for awnings. “We’re seeing little spurts of activity, and on the other end we’re going to be definitely leaner but significantly stronger,” he says.
Marie Hoyle, sales and marketing director for Caravita USA Inc., Mount Pleasant, S.C., says she has noted a shift in the commercial sector. “Restaurants and hotels are looking to purchase shade products not just as a ‘quick fix’ but for a solution that will last. With renovation budgets still very stringent, it’s imperative to concentrate on the value of shade solutions.”
A 2007 report commissioned by the Professional Awning Manufacturers Association (PAMA) shows that awnings reduce direct solar gain through windows, resulting in energy savings. In fact, consumers in some climates can save 20-25 percent in cooling costs simply by having an awning. But these benefits aren’t necessarily capturing the interest of the end users.
“The topic comes up occasionally from customers, but it’s not their most pressing requirement,” says Jerry Grimaud, president of Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures Inc., St. Louis, Mo. “As far as our customers go, the residential market wants to keep the sun off their decks and windows.”
Pedersen’s experience has been similar. “The unfortunate reality is that most consumers tend to think about controlling solar heat gain from the inside of a home with interior window treatments, rather than from the outside of the home with awnings or exterior screen shades,” he says. “Consumers are substantially unaware that an exterior shading system far surpasses the energy savings attributes of an interior product by preventing the heat from ever entering the home.”
Consumer awareness, however, may be in the process of changing. Byron Yonce, MFC, president of TCT&A Industries in Urbana, Ill., and PAMA chairman, says that PAMA’s recent “Awnings Today” campaign to help educate the consumer about the benefits of awnings is paying off. “We’re finding that there’s more getting written about the benefits and we think that it’s because of our efforts,” Yonce says. PAMA was initially focused on educating residential customers—particularly about energy savings, UV protection and expanding outdoor living spaces. “Now we’re trying to do this in the same way with the commercial user,” he says, where there is a similar need for information.
“Commercially, awnings are mainly driven by the architectural design and the way the awning enhances the building,” Grimaud says. “The commercial customer is more concerned with marketing their store or business, rather than energy savings.”
Awning fabricators and dealers can prime their geographic markets by educating the end-users about the energy saving benefits of awnings and canopies. Kevin Kelly, president of Globe Canvas Products Co. in Yeadon, Pa., cites tax credits as an example. He questions why a glass window can receive an Energy Star rating and qualify for a rebate credit “when the awning that reduced the heat gain from hitting the glass cannot,” he says. “Certainly if that program covered awnings, there would be no question that dealers would be selling them. Customers are thirsty for content, and they would love to see some kind of endorsement or rebate.”
Awnings and canopies are going high-tech, integrating everything from motorization to solar capabilities. Although manually operated retractable awnings still grace many a patio, other shade solutions are now controlled automatically.
Rainier Industries Ltd. in Tukwila, Wash., recently released fully automated screen and retractable awning systems. “Most consumers do not want to worry about hand cranking exterior screens or awnings if they need to be raised or lowered,” says Wayne Davidson, vice president of business development for Rainier. “Statistics show that screens and awnings are used more often if they are motorized and usually have less damage from being left out in severe weather.”
In fact, consumers are starting to integrate their shade solutions into an overall motorized experience. “Home automation is growing in popularity, as well as having the ability to operate screens and awnings through the Internet while away from the business or residence,” Davidson adds.
Fully retractable awnings made a statement at the IFAI Expo Americas 2010. Durasol, for one, debuted two waterproof awning structures—GENNIUS and Gallery—that provide a protected area during inclement weather and completely retract at the push of a button. The products also can be fitted with side screens and built-in lighting, sound and heating systems, which help consumers create their own flexible outdoor living spaces.
Additionally, commercial clients are looking for retractable solutions that are not only easy to operate but provide a distinctive architectural element. Lawrence Fabric Structures built a canopy for the upscale Copia Urban Winery & Market in downtown St. Louis, Mo., that provides year-round weather protection for guests in a garden-style, outdoor patio seating area and retracts in pleasant weather. The fabric canopy comprises three sets of half-barrel canopies, each measuring 20-by-60 feet. Each side of the canopies also includes a water trough guttering system that empties into a large downspout. “The restaurant is ecstatic about the project,” Grimaud says. “In less than a minute, 2,400 square feet of the canopy opens to fresh air with the push of a button.”
Awning manufacturers are also beginning to explore the feasibility of awnings that capture and store the sun’s energy using thin-film photovoltaic (PV) cells integrated into the fabric. The energy generated could be used to power everything from the awning’s own motorization system to personal electronics. Although some shade structure companies have unveiled prototypes, the technology is still in the early-adopter stage.
Printing. In the last decade, digitally printable fabrics have made waves in the retail/POP, flag and signage markets. Commercial awning customers are exploring opportunities in this field, but in many cases a traditional graphics system still dominates awnings shops. TCT&A Industries has explored both avenues but more commonly uses Glen Raven’s Sunbrella® Graphics System.
“About 80 percent of our awnings are made of solution-dyed acrylics, so we print on a thermal film, plot it out and then heat transfer it to the material,” says Yonce. “It allows us to add very vibrant colors to the awnings. It is now easier to put graphics on awnings, but local sign ordinances sometimes limit the amount of graphics allowed.”
Don’t expect digitally printable fabrics to simply fall by the wayside. “Digital printing on exterior awning fabrics is a growing share of the market and will continue to be so as designers become more familiar with what it can do,” Kelly says. “The durability is decent enough that most commercial applications will get an attractive result, but it remains a little more expensive compared to other traditional means.”
FR standards. Another hot topic in awning fabrics is flammability. “With more commercial properties having to abide by stricter fire-rating guidelines, umbrella and pavilion structures have to uphold to the rules of permanent structures,” Hoyle says. “As restaurants and hotels look to expand their outdoor dining areas, they want to incorporate heating and lighting systems. The use of these electrical components is cause for required use of fire-resistant (FR) fabrics.”
Title 19, the California Fire Marshal’s flammability requirement for textiles, which is often referenced elsewhere, is about to change. The potential outcome of these standards and their effect on fabrics has given pause to some awning companies.
“My concern is that the new standards will be so stringent that awning fabrics may have to be retested to meet those codes, and that could take a while,” Yonce says. “And until the fabrics can meet those codes, we may have to use alternative coverings such as metal and glass. As an industry, we have to do our part in convincing [the committee] that they cannot go to the extreme.”
IFAI information and technical services manager Juli Case serves on the California Fire Marshall’s flammability committee and says that any time a regulation such as Title 19 is revised, particularly after being unchanged for so many years, there is going to be an adjustment period. “The revision of Title 19 is currently ongoing and there will be a public comment period as well, so it isn’t too late to impact the revision,” Case says. “The CSFM staff members have made it clear, however, that they are the final authority on what will be included in the finished Title 19. Of most concern to the industry at this point are new fabric certification procedures and requirements, a changed field test procedure and a test method for outdoor fabrics that has been part of Title 19 for years but never enforced.”
Fabric awnings’ competition may come from many sources, but perhaps the biggest buzz these days is about metal and glass awning structures. Fabric awning manufacturers respond by promoting the benefits of fabric. “We tell customers about the ease of changing their appearance with all the choices in colors, epoxies and powder coatings,” Yonce says. “You can change out fabric awnings in five to 10 years to redo their look, but with a metal awning it’s more expensive to do so.”
Although he acknowledges that metal and standing-seam roof awnings offer greater durability over a long period, Kelly believes that in the long run, fabric awnings will pervade as the lowest cost solution for outdoor shelter, citing “ample amounts of information.”
Others have adopted the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” position. “About five or six years ago, our customers asked if Lawrence Fabric could manufacture metal standing-seam awnings,” Grimaud says. “We said we’d like to try, so we did. We’ve learned how to compete in the metal awning market and have progressed into glass and polycarbonate canopies.”
Grimaud foresees metal awnings hanging around for a while but never replacing their fabric counterparts. “Metal awnings right now happen to be an architectural fad, much like backlit awnings dominated the industry in the mid-1990s,” he says. “The flat metal canopies with adjustable hanger rods mimic the 1950s-60s canopy look, and that seems to be a hot item for architects.”
Yonce’s company has considered entering the alternative awning marketplace. “We’re going to see a continued trend of alternative coverings for awnings until we can convince architects that fabrics are still an economical and environmentally friendly option over metal or glass,” he says.