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Shady dealings: screens, shades and shutters

February 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

As awareness over the protections and savings offered by shading systems grows, screens, shades and shutters are finding wider acceptance and use, fueled by innovations in technology and fabrics. 

by Pamela Mills-Senn

While many people appreciate the outdoors, most folks prefer to be shielded from the elements, with their environment climate controlled. Products like screens, blinds, roller shades and mesh curtains accomplish this, helping to reduce heating and cooling costs, offering protection against wind, rain and insects, and enabling users to expand their living and commercial spaces, increasing not only enjoyment but—in the case of restaurants, for example—their bottom lines.

Demand isn’t even across the board. Pricing has affected certain shades and propelled sales of others. In some cases, increased competition has resulted in moves away from one type of product to another. But one thing can be said with certainty—wherever there are windows, patios and porches, walkways and other outdoor areas where people congregate and need coverage, shade or covering is going to be a necessity.

Pergola structures are generating a lot of interest from both the commercial and residential sectors. Some systems have a retractable fabric roof and some offer adjustable metal louvers that can move at the touch of a button, like the pergola shown here, installed at a residence by Sunair® Awnings & Solar Screens. Photo: Sunair Awnings & Solar Screens.

Commercial opportunities 

Headquartered in Jessup, Md., Sunair® Awnings & Solar Screens offers retractable interior and exterior shade solutions. Specialties include lateral arm retractable patio awnings, retractable zipper screens and pergola awning structures. The company also manufactures exterior and interior rolling shades, specialty shades for sunrooms and conservatory rooms. 

Most of the screens the company produces are exterior cassetted zipper screens, says Robert Martensson, Sunair president. These are often deployed for residential applications like verandas or lanais, where the polyester mesh fabrics—these include Serge Ferrari Soltis®, RECscreen by Recasens, SunTex® and TuffScreen by Phifer, and Nano by Twitchell—are used to create a retractable screened-in porch solution. The company also makes screens from Mermet fiberglass. 

These zipper screens, featuring (for example) Ferrari 502 vinyl and clear crystal windows, are also used commercially to create patio/porch enclosures for restaurants or hotels. The markets for both kinds of screens are growing, says Martensson, with mesh generally heading to residential customers, and the vinyl with windows primarily ending up in cafes and restaurants. However, both are sold residentially and commercially. 

Midtown Awning was asked to replace the zipper screens originally installed at the Ocean Prime restaurant in Indianapolis, Ind., with keder screens from Fenetex. The photo shows the project in process; the screens on the double windows are the old ones, those in the single windows are the new ones. Photo: Midtown Awning Works.

Michael Palmer, owner of Midtown Awning Works, says that while most of his company’s residential customers are using screens to block sun and avoid the associated heat gain, commercial clients like restaurants are more interested in expanding the amount of time their outdoor spaces can be used, with screens that keep out the cold, rain and snow.

Headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind., Midtown is a sales, design and installation company for all types of stationary and retractable awnings and shades, as well as vestibule and privacy panels and other items. It purchases ready-to-install screens, using products from Fenetex® and Sunair, and recently signed up to sell Futureguard® products. 

For its commercial screens, a vinyl like Ferrari 502 typically comprises the border with a clear vinyl used in the center serving as a window. The screens can be rolled up in agreeable weather, creating an open-space patio.

Palmer says Midtown is using Fenetex retractable screens with Somfy® motors and controls, preferring the keder-like side-retention system of these screens over some of the zipper systems available, particularly for restaurants situated in very windy areas, where zipper screens have blown out of the zippers. He describes the commercial market as growing.

Because the sun made the restaurant’s outdoor patio unusable from the afternoon until sunset, Midtown Awning was tasked with devising a structure that would provide shade without blocking the view. The product installed by the company, shown here, is a Sunair SC4000 with cable guides. The fabric is Ferrari Soltis 92. Photo: Midtown Awning Works.

“Restaurants are realizing they can add these types of screens to an outdoor space to make it available for seating all year,” Palmer says. “This adds a lot of revenue space that went unused in the winter months. And blocking the sun with screens makes the space more comfortable during the summer.”

Restaurants have also become excited about pergolas, eschewing standard lateral arm awnings and instead embracing a fabric structure that can be used in the rain and sun and outfitted with LED lights and heaters, says Martensson. The architecturally pleasing pergolas can be fitted with roll-down, motorized screens for year-round use. Some also offer a retractable fabric roof, while others have metal louvers that can adjust with the push of a button.

“Restaurants are looking for an alfresco dining experience for their patrons, being able to serve on beautiful afternoons and evenings, and to also be able to protect patrons on rainy and cool days,” he says. “These products increase the restaurant’s margins and use of the outdoor space.”

There’s also strong commercial demand for interior screens, Martensson continues, describing this market as much larger in the U.S. than that of exterior screens (think office high rises, which could easily have 1,000 or more interior shades, he says).

“This is sort of the opposite situation to Europe, where the commercial exterior screen market is much bigger,” Martensson says. “Although for sure, in the U.S., the exterior screen market is growing faster right now—as you know, it’s better to block the sun from the outside before it hits the glass—but it’s still much smaller in numbers.”

Consequently, because of intense competition in the commercial interior screens arena, many interior-screen resellers are now eyeing the exterior market, he says.

This house had a bank of south-facing windows that caused the space to overheat during the summer. Fabricon installed motorized vertical roller shades on the windows, as well as a pair of lateral arms over the deck. Since the shades were installed, the homeowners have not had to run the air conditioning. Photo: Fabricon LLC.

Residential demand

Fabricon LLC provides custom exterior shade systems, says Mark Welander, owner of the Missoula, Mont., company that offers a full spectrum of custom fabric products. In addition to shades, the company makes custom tents and tensile structures. 

Its roller systems are either motorized or manual, constructed mainly with woven, solution-dyed acrylic and polyester fabrics, PVC meshes and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) shade mesh—textiles also used in the company’s awnings and shade sails, says Welander. Currently, demand for its exterior window roller shades is evenly split between residential and commercial customers. Although the company’s fabric structures are available throughout the U.S. and overseas, its roller systems stay local.

Welander describes a residential arena that is very price-focused, a concern inhibiting the interest in automation/smart controls, although the use of motorized systems has increased. Customers are also less concerned about energy savings (“There still seems to be a general lack of awareness of these products and how they can help reduce energy usage,” he observes) and more driven by aesthetics.

For Palmer, the growing residential use of screens he’s experiencing is being fueled in part by their ability to block out unwanted direct sunlight, heat and glare without getting in the way of the view.

“Or, some people like to add screens for privacy from their neighbors,” he continues. “Screens can be lowered to separate spaces and then rolled up and out of the way when not in use. We’re seeing much more interest in these products over the last few years.”

Most screens directed to the residential market use an open mesh or insect screen fabric, depending on the customer’s objective. In fact, more custom homes now include retractable insect screens as part of the back-patio package, says Palmer. He also considers automation a must-have.

“I always tell customers they will use the screen more if they can just push a button to roll the screen up and down,” Palmer says. “If you’re spending the money on a screen, why not pay a little more to add a motor and controls?”

Martensson says screens today are “almost always motorized.” He notes that just as in the commercial market, the residential arena is favoring zipper screens. Previously, solar screens over windows were a popular choice.

“But now, zipper screens are used more for open-porch applications where the retention of the zipper in the tracks adds value and function by creating a mosquito-free environment,” he explains. “Even in Arizona, homeowners are looking to enclose their outdoor space with zipper screens for evening use. Although mosquitos aren’t as prevalent there, other pesky bugs and critters are. And on the East and South Coasts where mosquitoes are becoming more prevalent, homeowners are looking to protect themselves and their families from the diseases they may carry.”

The openness of the mesh fabric is another draw, Martensson says. Openness is shifting from 14 or 15 percent to a 3 to 5 percent openness, affording much better solar protection yet still allowing for a satisfying view through the enclosure. Given all these qualities, he finds customers are willing to spend “high dollars” for the screens.

This photo shows a Flat Roman shade with a self-fabric valance—one of the options offered by Gotcha Covered. In addition to Flat, the franchise operation carries several different Roman shade styles—Hobbled, Classic, Relaxed and Balloon—along with a variety of fabric options that customers can have made into a custom Roman shade. Photo: Gotcha Covered.

Innovation & improvements

Technology advancements are also sparking interest in shade products. Martensson mentions that smart controls are becoming more common and more important. For example, Sunair offers the MyLink™ app from Somfy, which, along with a simple integration device, enables communication with the screen’s radio motors. Sunair is working on developing its own app so users can operate shades and awnings from their smartphones or tablets identifying the Sunair brand. 

Palmer also says more customers are requesting smart controls. 

“I have a custom-home builder in Indianapolis who adds automated insect screens to every house they build,” he says. “The Somfy motors are integrated into the entire house’s smart control system. In addition, it’s possible to add sun and wind sensors so the screens can operate on their own.”

Manufacturers are always devising new and more energy efficient products and refreshing their offerings, says Connie Meints, product support specialist for Gotcha Covered. Headquartered in Denver, Colo., the franchise operation with more than 100 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada offers custom window treatments, like shades, screens, blinds and drapery, among other non-shade items. The customer base is primarily residential, with a fair amount of commercial work thrown in.

The shades category consists of cell/honeycomb shades, roller shades, solar shades/screens and sheer shadings, explains Meints. 

“Roman shades are very popular because they serve a dual purpose, providing sun control, privacy and decoration all in one treatment,” she says. “Cell/honeycomb shades have the best insulating properties. Manufacturers will update the number and size of the cells in a shade or their colors based on trends, although whites and neutrals comprise the bulk of their offerings.”

Meints says the roller shades category is really taking off, propelled by their affordability, ease of operation and the ability to print on them, especially appealing when it comes to commercial branding and logos. The solar shades are also experiencing strong demand because of their fresh, contemporary look.

“Plus, if a client has a great view that they want to protect but the sun is blinding them and they have no need for privacy, solar screens are perfect,” she says. (In fact, Martensson says that while once solar screens were more popular on the West Coast because of sun issues, the East Coast market for those screens is rapidly growing.)

However, regardless of what kind of window covering is involved, automation is the future, says Meints. “Be it a single blind or shade or a whole house, that’s where the real growth is.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Long Beach, Calif. 

SIDEBAR: Staying Put

This yellow and white beach awning canopy from Husteads Canvas Creations encloses the patio of an outdoor cafe in a Virginia Beach, Va., hotel. The company created the custom-designed clear vinyl windows, where the top windows are stationary and the bottom windows slide up and down on a track. The fabric is Ferrari 502 Soltis. Photo: Husteads Canvas Creations Inc.

Located in Norfolk, Va., Husteads Canvas Creations provides a variety of shade systems to commercial and residential customers, as well as to Navy ships and the marine industry. The company makes everything from the frames up, says Patricia Butler, president of the 30-year-old business. 

“We have a welding shop, a sewing shop and an installation team,” she says. “Although we do shutters and rollup curtains, the bulk of what we do are awnings.”

Unlike other shade manufacturers that are experiencing a customer preference for retractable systems, Husteads is seeing more action in nonretractable commercial awnings, says Dennis Hustead, co-owner of the company.

“In the commercial sector, people want a mix of fabric and metal, a standing seam roof that’s always up,” he explains. “If a restaurant has 30 people under a retractable awning, they’d have to retract it in bad weather and reseat those people; not the case with a stationary awning. Retractable awnings are great for shade, but they can’t hold up in heavy wind, rain or snow.”

The company’s stationary awnings are rated for snow and wind load (up to 120 mph) and incorporate a fire-retardant/resistant vinyl. Vinyl is also easier to maintain and offers a wide variety of color choices, says Hustead.

“Retractable awnings are very popular in the residential arena, but ours are fairly expensive,” says Butler. “So, we find people are utilizing discount awning providers. Consequently, demand is less for our residential awnings.”