By Michelle Sahlin
The worldwide recession has affected both commercial and residential market sectors of the fabric awning and canopy industry. The collapse of financial and capital markets (needed for new commercial and residential construction), employee layoffs, and wage freezes or reductions have resulted in less discretionary income for home improvements. However, there is substantial evidence of opportunities for growth in awning and canopy markets.
In some parts of the world there is little or no marketing of residential awning products, perhaps because awnings and canopies have been used for so long. A walk down streets in cities in Africa, India or China reveals make-shift canopies hung between buildings and stretched out in front of shops. Interior and exterior space designer, Paula Rees, of ForeSeer, Seattle, Wash., says that while traveling in Hong Kong, parts of China and Japan, she noticed how fabric awnings and canopies were used in small, urban infill spaces, from alleys and courtyards to public plazas.
“I was inspired by this use of fabric and the flexibility this approach offered while softening a space,” Rees says. “As a designer, I can imagine how this kind of approach will become even more prevalent and desirable as our spaces around the world become even more dense. Instead of hard construction and its related expense, we are able to infill and create places that are more flexible and welcoming with fabric.”
Consumers in some developing nations may be unfamiliar with custom-made or prefabricated awning products, or may not have the means to purchase them. As consumer buying power in these markets strengthens, there will be more opportunity for awning and canopy fabricators.
In Europe the awning market is relatively mature, but it is being rejuvenated by motorization, new fabrics, energy conservation and government goals for reducing carbon footprint. Retractable awning products dominate the market.
Europe has traditionally used less air conditioning. In fact, in some European countries it cannot be installed without the building owner also providing solar shade products as part of the cooling solution. The fabric awing and canopy industry’s efforts to promote the value of their products are supported through the European Union’s (EU) goals to reduce energy consumption and dependence on oil imports. The EU has a directive to save energy 22 percent by the end of 2010; Germany and France have already amended existing laws to meet the new guidelines.
A General Information Shading Systems Study, released by the European Commission Directorate–Energy & Transportation, discusses how shading devices help to conserve energy, create comfortable living environments, and can be integrated into new and existing construction. Awnings and canopies are offered as just part of the overall solution of the new energy efficiency directive, and partnerships among supporting industries, such as heating, ventilation, windows, lighting and air conditioning, may provide the best results for marketing and selling awnings and canopies.
The popularity of air conditioning in post-WW II U.S. led to a significant decrease in the use of awnings and canopies, but Mike Gatti, business manager for Herculite’s Weblon Products, Emigsville, Pa., says that awnings were very popular from the turn of the century through the 1950’s. “View any photo from the early 1900’s of a U.S. city or town landscape and you will note awnings are quite popular on both homes and businesses.”
More recently, awning and canopy use has again increased in the U.S. as a result of improvements in fabrics, advancements in components and a renewed interest in energy conservation. It is estimated that 80 percent of new homes being built in the U.S. are built with patios or decks, suggesting that the potential for new residential awnings is enormous.
With rising energy costs, and worldwide concerns about global warming, the awning industry is positioned to focus on the energy conservation benefits of awnings. Some fabricators effectively used government initiatives to boost awareness of their products and foster sales.
In Japan, the Japanese Awning Association (JAA) has begun to pursue strategies to promote awnings to the consumer market. One project is the inclusion of awnings on the Ecology House Model sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment and establishing awnings as Ecology Point Products, for which consumers will receive economic incentives. JAA efforts are further supported by the Japanese government through a mandate to reduce CO2 gas emissions 6 percent by 2012.
Canada also has measures underway to incorporate shading devices into construction law. According to a report by the National Research Council Canada, “residential heating and cooling accounts for 62 percent of total energy of average homes.” The Canadian government offered home owners tax incentives on home improvements, including shades and awnings.
The Professional Awning Manufacturers Association (PAMA) has been promoting the energy benefits of awnings and canopies with information sent to state and federal legislators and energy-related departments in the U.S. This led to many state energy departments listing awnings as energy-saving devices on their websites and literature. PAMA is currently working with the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) to establish processes for rating awnings for energy savings with the goal of having fabric awnings eligible for energy tax credits for consumers.
Green building. The trend in ‘green’ building products and processes pairs well with the energy saving benefits of awnings. In the U.S. several organizations have established criteria for sustainable building products and practices; the best recognized in the construction industry is the Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. LEED certification notes products that include shade features, such as overhangs, awnings and interior blinds, to balance the effects of the building’s carbon footprint. Getting architects and designers to incorporate fabric awnings, canopies and other shade structures into building plans will also be an ongoing educational initiative for the awning industry.
Public shade. The International Code Council (ICC) is working on an energy conservation code that outlines features for public spaces such as parks, parking lots, bike paths and transit stations. Many communities will adopt codes specifying that shade be available in public places, either by trees or by shade structures.
Therapeutic gardens. Therapeutic gardens present an opportunity for awning and canopy fabricators to cultivate new clients. Healing, restorative or rehabilitation gardens are becoming a fundamental element in holistic health care. Fabric awnings and canopies can help make healing gardens more accessible by assuring year-round shade and sun protection, and providing reliable cover during rain and snow showers.
Design and graphics. Modern design, cutting and fabric welding equipment have enabled the awning and canopy industry to create unique, attractive and attention-getting awnings and canopies. According to Mike Von Wachenfledt, technical service manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, “ Digital printing is becoming a more important factor [in graphics], whether it’s direct print onto the fabric or whether it’s printing onto a pressure-sensitive vinyl or, more recently, thermal-activated films that can be printed on and then applied to an awning.”
Canopies over entryways on hotels, apartment buildings, hospitals and office complexes offer shelter from the elements. With the addition of graphics, they also can provide wayfinding and branding for commercial establishments. Advances in applying graphic elements give customers an almost unlimited palette for their ideas, and advances in computer-assisted design (CAD) systems help awning and canopy fabricators design quickly and creatively. CAD systems are frequently built into or provide electronic data to electronic cutting equipment that speeds up the cutting process and potentially reduces waste.
Remote and motorized controls. Awnings with high-tech sensors and controls make it easier than ever for homeowners to optimize their benefits. Advanced home-control devices employ wireless radio technology, making installation quick, easy and cost effective. They include sun and motion sensors, anemometer (measures wind speed so that retracting awnings are retracted when speed exceeds preset thresholds), timers and remote controls, and combination sensors.
The push for sustainable products and services has led to a need for fabric that can be recycled. Currently most recycling is of new fiber or fabric that is collected and sold, or manufactured into other products (for example, fabric scrap is used to make tote and storage bags). But in the future, fabrics might withstand the elements for 15-20 years and then decompose or biodegrade.
Other advancements include the development of self-cleaning awnings and canopies, and durable fabrics for awnings from natural fibers, such as coconut shell, hemp, corn, bamboo and—perhaps some time in the future—even fungus.
In addition, flexible solar panels are being used in beach cabanas and shade umbrellas, and solar fabrics have been used for rooftop, shaded parking structures and solar tent installations.
These developments are already being commercialized, assuring that well into the future fabric awning and canopy manufacturers and their suppliers will have significant and compelling new options to offer their customers.