In Depth: The Building Envelope

2022-05-14 23:00:17 By : Mr. Frank Zhao

In 1824, a Scottish chemist by the name of Charles Macintosh invented a type of waterproof tarpaulin fabric that was made by sandwiching a core of rubber softened by naphtha between two pieces of fabric. When tailors refused to use it, he launched his own company, and thus the Macintosh raincoat was born. Jump forward to 1898 when a New Zealand sailor named Edward Le Roy took worn-out sailcloth and coated it with a mixture of linseed oil and wax to produce a waterproof garment suitable for foul-weather conditions, and you have what we would consider today to be true waterproofing for the body.

When you stop to think about it, building envelope products aren’t that different. They provide protection from the elements under some of the harshest conditions, and the last thing a builder can afford is to have them fail. That’s where the LBM dealer comes in—providing innovative products that deliver protection solutions while reducing materials and labor costs where possible. But in this new environment of unstable supply chains and unpredictable sources of materials that may have dealers feeling a little shaky, building envelope product manufacturers see a lot to smile about.

Based on raw data, the 12-month outlook for products related to the building envelope looks promising—potentially as strong as last year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, new residential building permits in September of 2021 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,589,000. That’s about 7% below the rate from August, but it’s virtually unchanged from the previous year—meaning that housing starts are remaining consistently strong, boding well for the building envelope industry.

Numbers like this make manufacturers smile, and they share the optimism that’s reflected in the predictions. “Our research shows that the pre-wrapped sheathing category of water-resistant board (WRB) is growing and will likely continue to grow over the coming years,” says Casey Smyth, OSB/EWP brand manager for LP Building Solutions. “We believe that pre-wrapped sheathing WRBs are a better way to build versus traditional house wrap, and more and more this is also the perception in the market.”

Allen Sealock, general manager of ZIP System Products, also sees growth in the future, gains he attributes to a willingness on the part of homebuilders to try new products and solutions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Huber Engineered Woods is experiencing successful growth in our building envelope products, especially the ZIP System product line, every year and especially in 2021,” he explains. “The system can help streamline installation for teams needing to make up time due to delays and stay protected during extended exposure because it comes backed by a 180-Day Exposure Guarantee.”

Mike Wilson, senior vice president of product management for BlueLinx, also sees growth, especially as the market continues to look for innovation via products that provide solutions. “We expect growth in this segment over the next 12 months as more emphasis is placed on energy-efficiency in residential and commercial buildings,” he says. “Manufacturers are introducing new and innovative products to fit specific market needs.”

Of course, there are always variables that can’t be predicted. Changes in inflation and interest rates can dampen building starts. Nevertheless, manufacturers are still optimistic. “2020 and 2021 were fantastic years for sales,” points out David Delcoma, product marketing manager for MFM Building Products Corp., “however, we see the market leveling off in 2022. If home loan interest rates remain low, we would expect to maybe be a couple of percentage points ahead of 2021’s pace.”

Xuaco Pascual, moisture management product manager at Tamlyn, agrees, “I see demand staying strong. Permits are strong and an indicator for future demand, so I don’t anticipate a significant slowdown in the next year. Interest rates and material availability are the wild cards, but demand is there for entry, move-up, and multi-family units.”

It’s doubtful that anyone involved with the building industry would have thought there would come a day when basic product availability would become a product trend, but because of scarcity of materials, being able to simply lay hands on something has become a major factor in the buying decision. “At this point, LBM dealers just need the product to sell,” says MFM’s Delcoma. “Most manufacturers are just trying to fulfill current orders with existing products which does not provide much time for product development or line trials. Most time is spent right now in acquiring raw materials to keep producing what we currently offer.”

But hand-in-hand with that basic availability is the desire for an assurance the building envelope product will provide exceptional performance. As more builders seek to create tighter building envelopes, they’re looking for products that can reduce heat loss and air leaks, reduce water infiltration, improve indoor air quality and lower HVAC needs.

As ZIP System Products’ Sealock explains, “One new trend we’re seeing is the continued move toward tighter building envelopes and more resilient design. We’re seeing more builders seek to go above and beyond code requirements for their building envelopes, particularly in air barrier areas, as it’s a component of their long-term efficiency distinction for homebuyers. Tight homes discourage air from moving through the walls, which helps control temperature and air quality in the home.”

Tamlyn’s Xuaco Pascual also sees product performance as a growing trend and an important driver in product development. “There is a growing trend and adoption of enhanced drainage behind all cladding types,” he explains. “Drainable WRBs continue to grow in use and there is a growing trend towards rainscreen systems that not only drain better but also promote ventilated cladding with enhanced drying. This has prompted the establishment of several industry rainscreen committees and a dedicated trade association known as RAiNA. This trend is further supported by the ICC changes calling for required drainage and rainscreen systems behind stucco claddings in all moist and marine climates.”

The availability of an array of related products that speed installation and increase the efficiency of the construction process also continue to be high on people’s checklist, adds Sealock. “Teams who use ZIP System products have shown a strong adoption to our wide range of flashing tapes and fluid-applied products because they make completing the system easy to achieve and adaptable to the design. If there’s a recess window, for example, ZIP System liquid flash is a great solution in that flashing area, but our wide 12″ ZIP System flashing tape may be the right fit for the roof valley in that application. Builders enjoy having a wide range of options under a single manufacturer’s warranty for structure, water and air management around the entire enclosure.”

Just when the U.S. economy was poised to bounce back after COVID-19 forced closures and social distancing, a new problem reared its ugly heads to cause headaches for both manufacturers and LBM distributors: a severe shortage of materials.

According to the Associated Press, at the end of October 2021, there were more than 100 container ships off the shore of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California waiting to unload their goods. As well, the U.S. Trucking Association was reporting a shortage of 80,000 drivers—an increase of roughly 30% from the beginning of the pandemic. “Currently, raw material availability is a struggle in the industry in general,” says LP’s Smyth. “Disciplined and proactive management of our production has helped us to avoid many issues that we might otherwise face in this realm, but raw material availability has been an added challenge that we’re navigating.”

MFM’s David Delcoma also sees material shortage as a critical impactor. “This is probably the single biggest problem facing the market today, along with the outrageous price increases from the raw material producers,” he explains. “As a manufacturer, we have no choice but to pass along some of the price increases, but we could never justify passing on the whole amount. All of this gets passed down to the ultimate buyer who is paying more and waiting longer for building materials. The only good thing about this situation is that it has taught us to be multi-sourced for all the items we purchase.”

And like the materials shortage, an extreme lack of manpower is contributing to the conundrum the industry is finding itself in—from the manufacturers who struggle to keep lines properly manned to the distributors who don’t have enough staff to get product to jobsites, not enough people are available for the jobs that need to get done. “I think this has hurt all levels of the distribution chain,” says Delcoma. “This is part of the problem with securing raw materials: not enough people to make it, or truck it, or sell it.”

Tamlyn’s Xuaco Pascual agrees. “Labor challenges have gotten worse,” he points out, noting that it’s the projects that are suffering. “Quality of installations with mix/match product use is growing due to limited or scarce availability of full systems. Some contractors are using whatever they can get their hands on regardless of suitability for the application.”

To best deal with these conditions which, to a great extent, are beyond the control of the LBM distributor, manufacturers are doubling down on their relationships with dealers and recommend they in turn strengthen their communication and strategic planning skills. “Customers who have been less impacted by these challenges were more strategic around forecasting needs,” points out BlueLinx’s Mike Wilson. “Ordering on a consistent basis and working very closely with your suppliers and/or distributors helps avoid having a lack of inventory when you need it.”

ZIP Systems’ Sealock also sees communication as key, both for the LBM distributor and for the manufacturer. “We know the relationship between manufacturer reps and lumberyard reps is key,” he explains. “That’s why we’ve continuously invested in programs to support lumberyard employee education such as our Prove It Tour product demonstration events held at hundreds of dealer locations each year. Continued education for LBM dealers of new products and, maybe more importantly, innovations to existing products could seek to further their already phenomenal work into 2022.”

“The only thing that the LBM dealers can do is to keep an open line of communication with their suppliers,” says Delcoma. “This way, they can inform their customers of the situation at hand and most customers appreciate that. I know that our customers want us to be transparent, even if it is bad news, but at least they are informed.”

It’s not enough, however, for LBM distributors to only provide exceptional communication to their customers, building envelope product manufacturers point out. They need to know their customers and be prepared to make product recommendations that will help their customers save time, reduce labor costs, and set them apart from the competition.

“Take the time to understand very well the challenges that builders face in the field,” says LP’s Casey Smyth, using LP’s WeatherLogic panels as an example of how those challenges can be met. “At a time when labor is scarce, LP WeatherLogic panels can help cut down on labor time (and labor costs) and helps provide peace-of-mind to builders by providing a 30-year limited warranty. LP WeatherLogic panels create a much cleaner and more professional looking jobsite than house wrap, which is very important to many of the builders we speak with. Lastly, LP WeatherLogic panels help builders distinguish their offering to homeowners—the product is more energy efficient than traditional house wrap, which is a key consideration for many homeowners currently.”

In order to make smart product recommendations, LBM distributors should lean on the expertise of the manufacturer so that they, in turn, can support their customers. As new products are launched, tap into the training resources available to them in order to make selling those products a success. “Research consistently shows builders look to LBM dealers for product education, to make economic tradeoff decisions and ultimately understand the pass-through value to their clients,” explains ZIP Systems’ Sealock.

“At Huber, our representatives are there to partner with LBM dealers every step of the way, from driving builder demand to providing OSR education to developing collaborative marketing solutions.”

“Knowing the products you sell is the most important aspect to selling the right product, for the right application, at the right price,” says MFM’s Delcoma. “LBM dealers do not have to be technical experts, but knowing the intended application and proper installation techniques is critical in keeping customer coming back.”

By the time of this story’s publication, one can only hope that solutions have been identified and put into place to ease some of the product and labor shortages. Still, even if ports remain clogged, trucks sit idle, and LBM distributors and builders alike struggle to fill open positions, building envelope product manufacturers have a cautious voice of shared optimism. Through careful planning and understanding of their markets, dealers can succeed with these products despite the challenges.

It’s a feeling best summed up by a single piece of advice from Tamlyn’s Xuaco Pascual. “Communicate and manage customer expectations realistically,” he encourages. “Promote the use of quality systems and compatible materials versus mix and match what you can get your hands on. Dealers may need to offer expanded inventory options beyond what they have been comfortable carrying in order to supply compatible system components.” When it comes to the building envelope, it’s advice that spells success for dealer and customer alike, and like the Macintosh overcoat of old, will leave you feeling warm, dry and happy.

Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past 20 years.

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