High End, Higher Stakes

Retailers find opportunity, face challenges with custom projects
Katy Devlin
July 29, 2014
RETAIL

For many glass retailers, the days of working simple mirror and bathroom installations are coming to an end, as homeowners seek out more complex and sophisticated glass options for their bathrooms, balconies and other spaces. Glass companies of all sizes increasingly handle custom projects with high-end, premium glass options, including any range of decorative glass products, and oversized laminated glasses. Such custom jobs feature numerous challenges and additional considerations for glass companies.

Faour Glass supplied custom specialty glass for the hot tub of an oceanside home in Sarasota, Fla. The tub exterior was clad with ⁄-inch-thick tempered, laminated, low-iron glass that is fritted on the No. 2 surface. The glass for the top features an anti-skid surface. The glass was provided by M3 Glass Technologies. Faour also installed the surrounding glass railing systems.

Companies entering into the custom glass market should first expect higher price tags and longer lead times. “The value of the commodity product versus what we make, where every piece of glass is custom made, is drastically different,” says Bernard Lax, CEO of architectural decorative glass manufacturer Pulp Studio Inc.

Due to the premium prices, and the custom nature of the job, glass companies should anticipate larger deposits. A 50 percent deposit is standard on custom orders, “with the balance due when the materials are received,” says David Fitchett, co-founder and president of Carolina Glass & Mirror.

Lax says the larger deposit provides necessary protection for suppliers, in part because the custom nature of the project means a product can’t be re-used by a supplier if it is not used on the specified job. “From a business perspective, it keeps [an installer] invested in a project,” Lax says. “If they become disenchanted with a project, they won’t go and buy from someone else. It keeps them connected to the purchase.”

In addition to the larger monetary investment, custom projects also require more time. Glass companies should prepare longer lead times, and adjust the project schedule accordingly. “Know how to prepare for using specialty glass, time wise,” Lax says. “It’s going to take three or four weeks, and for some manufacturers, even longer than that [to receive delivery]. Glass companies need to understand how to manage a job when they have those types of restraints.”

The high level of investment puts glass companies at risk, as they will face greater losses if there is a problem with the product—anything from the product not functioning as expected, to a mis-specification, to breakage due to mishandling. Companies can protect themselves by training their employees, vetting suppliers, taking extra care with specifications, and paying additional attention to detail throughout the project.

Perhaps most important for companies entering the high-end market is recognizing the necessity of precision and quality. The margin of error allowed in more traditional glass applications is unacceptable for many homeowners, who are paying top dollar on these custom glass applications. “Glass companies might want to go by the industry standards regarding bubbles in laminated glass, scratches in glass, or heat marks from tempering. However, those basic quality standards don’t work in the [custom] marketplace like they might work in traditional commercial applications,” says Angelo Rivera, partner at Faour Glass. “In custom work, everything is looked at with excruciating detail.”

The trend toward frameless, all-glass installations has made quality fabrication and installation even more critical. “Everything is exposed. Nothing is hidden by metal or any type of framework,” Rivera says. “These projects require handling the glass with kid gloves.”

To ensure quality, glass companies should vet their suppliers, study the specifications, and educate themselves on the chosen product.

Carolina Glass completed a custom kitchen and bath for a residence in Wilmington, N.C. The kitch-en features a glass backsplash of -inch low-iron, back-painted white. The kitchen island features a glass skirt of -inch low-iron, back-painted orange, and a top of 1 ½-inch glass, consisting of -inch low-iron glass lites with orange frit between one of the layers, with back-painted white on the bottom surface. The skirt around the bathtub features ¼ -inch low-iron back painted glass, and incorporates LED lighting. Carolina Glass completed much of the painting in house. The designer was Susan Covington, Wilmington.

Rivera recommends glass companies research potential suppliers to find the best partners for a project. “We travel a lot to find supplier partners. We make support visits, do a lot of mock-ups and sampling. We force our suppliers to really jump through hoops, as the criteria are much higher than normal,” he says. “We spend a lot of time and energy finding out what suppliers are really good at—where they excel and where they make money. Just because a supplier has a laminating machine doesn’t mean he can laminate anything. It’s important to understand where the bulk of their business is, and where they want to spend their time and money.”

Lax adds, “many companies don’t do everything they can to protect themselves. They don’t go to the factory of their suppliers. They never see the cleanliness. They just send them a deposit and wait.”

In addition to vetting supplier partners, glass companies should further protect themselves by vetting the specifications themselves. “There is an expectation that the vetting is done by the designer, or that the [general contractor] is going to do it,” Lax says. “However, many times it doesn’t happen that way, and it comes back to the glazier. … Vetting the spec is the first thing I would do for every set of drawings I put in.”

Once the products and suppliers are settled, glass companies need to take the time to train and educate employees to ensure the installation is executed successfully. “Finding the product is the easy part,” Fitchett says. Companies need to have “qualified personnel to work as part of the design team, and have the technical skills to figure out how to get the material fabricated and installed,” he says.

Katy Devlin is editor for Glass Magazine. E-mail Katy at kdevlin@glass.org.