Glass News’ Editor, Chris Champion, meets up with Alan Shearer, General Manager of Howarth Timber (Windows and Doors) Ltd. to talk about the timber market and how partners such as Glassolutions and Swisspacer are helping their business to thrive.

We are so exposed to PVCu in the fenestration industry that one can easily forget the influence of both timber and aluminium. With aluminium being very much the new kid on the block and with a steady increase in its popularity and application, timber can easily be an afterthought although it too is having a very definite resurgence. Maybe surprisingly, the regrowth of timber (no pun intended!) is not just with the more exotic hardwoods, but softwoods, too. The use of redwood, scot’s pine and the rest, many sourced from Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic states, is prevalent, and much is owed to the vastly improved painting of the finished products, in this case windows.

It was always thought that softwood windows were the cheap option and prone to early rot and, indeed, I experienced just that with a new build in 1972 when the windows seemed to crumble before my very eyes. So what is the difference now? Talking to Alan Shearer, General Manager of Howarth Timber, at their vast production facility at New Holland in North Lincolnshire, was the best possible way to understand the changing dynamics in an industry that has seen timber windows and doors not just maintain its market but seen it start to grow again.

“The biggest difference in timber window production is the finishing process,” says Alan Shearer. “In the past the majority of softwood timber framed windows were supplied unglazed and unpainted. This meant that a builder would be responsible for that painting and glazing and, time being money, it meant that this part of the process may not have received the attention it needed and deserved. Poor glazing and insufficient preparation for, and application of paint, meant that moisture would easily penetrate the timber and cause rot. Now, the majority of timber windows are supplied ready glazed and fully painted. The paint process today would require 5 coats of paint if hand finished on site, to match up with a factory finish.”

This alone is why Alan says that timber can, with minimum maintenance such as touching up any scrapes that may admit water, perform as well as PVCu. “Well finished softwood timber can still be going strong and looking good some 60 or 70 years after installation. Certainly, after about 10 years a recoating of paint will be required, but if the window frames are wiped down twice a year and any damage made good, it’s a product that will last a very long time. You’re looking at a product that is from a harvested source as opposed to a manufactured source. Timber is renewable and grown as a crop as is barley or wheat,” comments Alan, a council member of the British Woodworking Federation.

Another important and very significant factor is the U values that can be achieved with timber. With timber windows the IGUs are predominantly argon filled and utilise warm-edge spacer bars. “We buy-in finished glass units from Glassolutions using Swisspacer warm-edge spacer,” said Alan. “The largest market for Howarth Timber (Windows and Doors) Ltd. is new build. As everyone is aware, new build is all about price and for us to compete in this market we have to ally quality with cost to make a product that the large housebuilders will buy. Reliable and energy efficient IGUs are essential and Saint-Gobain softcoat glass with Swisspacer provides the right product to achieve the price point and energy requirements.”

Gone are the days of mass production of standard windows and if I expected to see a conveyor belt of windows being produced, I was definitely in the wrong place. Every window is made to order with its own style, size and colour. Again, Alan Shearer, “We make around 360 windows and doors per week. It may not sound that many but we started doing the maths on possible configuration – style, handles, locks, colours and so on – we gave up at 85 million!” Bearing in mind that Howarth is manufacturing for a cost averse market, it’s testament to their sourcing of materials and efficiency of production that they can compete in the ultra-competitive new build market.

And the future for Howarth and timber windows and doors? The market has returned thanks to the energy efficiency of a natural product and its renewable credentials… something that is utmost in the mind of architects and specifiers who want to be seen doing the right thing. So surely with a bit of standardisation, production could be more efficient and reduce that number of 85 million alternatives? “If only that was possible!” muses Shearer. “Architects are required to put their mark on the built environment which leads to many variants being requested.” Colour, too, has played its part in popularising timber and the wide choice of colours available with RAL or BSI equivalent colours makes it that much easier to get windows in a colour of your choice over the equivalent PVCu product. “We used 32 Shades of Grey last year,” said Alan, “and that was paint not the title of a saucy book.”

As you expect, Howarth is committed to timber and sees growth for windows and doors, year on year. A hiccup caused by a 1-in-500 year flood earlier in 2014 won’t stop them nudging an £8 million turnover. A last comment from Alan Shearer: “We are planning for growth and committing a sizeable budget to extending our 100,000 square feet of production area. With additional space and the continuing support of our suppliers, from paint companies, to Glassolutions and Swisspacer, all of who play an important part in helping us produce the right product for the market, we can continue to supply a modern energy efficient product and all from a sustainable and renewable source.

Reproduced with kind permission of Glass News.