The Next Big Thing? The New Steel Carriage-House Doors

© 2004 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Summer 2004
Author: Tom Wadsworth
Pages 50-54

The Next Big Thing?
The New Steel Carriage-House Doors

By Tom Wadsworth

The year was 1980.

As the Reagan revolution took hold in America, a new residential garage door fueled a revolution in the garage door industry. This striking new door mimicked the good looks of a classic wood door design, yet offered all the advantages of steel. The door had it all: strength, durability, reasonable cost, short lead-times, the look of real wood, mass-production capability, and virtually no maintenance.

Some called it the SRP door for "Steel Raised Panel." By 1985, this stunning design had changed the garage door industry throughout America and eventually the world. Homeowners and builders couldn't get enough of these doors, and every manufacturer invested major dollars to retool their manufacturing operations to produce this wildly popular new product.

Fast-forward to the year 2000. After 20 years of flooding the American landscape with hundreds of thousands of these doors, virtually every town in North America sports rows and rows of the now-boring SRP doors. The newness is long gone. The industry is hungrily in search of "The Next Big Thing" in residential garage door design.

Pent-Up Demand

"Nearly anyone who has ever had anything to do with home design has complained about the repetitive nature of the steel raised-panel doors," says John Jellá, president of First United Door Technologies. Jelláshould know. He’s been in the industry since 1972 and holds numerous garage door patents.

Few would dispute that the SRP design is old and tired. But, for at least a decade, the burning question has been, "What’s next?"

"Because little has changed to the exterior look of a steel door since the introduction of the raised-panel design more than 25 years ago," says Richard Brenner, CEO of Amarr Garage Doors, "we felt it was important to develop another option for the homeowner and the builder at a reasonable price."

Amarr’s "other option" is their new Classica Collection, a steel carriage-house garage door announced in January 2004. Classica sets "a new industry standard," says Brenner. "Due to its affordability, we believe this will truly change the look of subdivisions across the nation."

That’s quite a statement. Is he right? Is the steel carriage-house design "the next big thing" for residential garage doors?

The Carriage Marriage

It would appear that 2004 is 1980 repeating itself. Since the raised-panel design actually dates back to the 1950s, the 1980 revolution was a retro movement, returning to a classic old design. The carriage-house design is even older, hailing back to the side-hinged swing-out doors of the 1920s and earlier. Once again, the old has become new.

The 2004 carriage-house look, like the attractive raised-panel design of 1980, seems to be the new classic wood design that has captured the consumer’s eye. And now, almost every manufacturer is arranging the marriage of carriage with the appeal of steel.

Clopay, for example, launched its new Coachman Collection of steel carriage-house doors in January 2004. Steve Lynch, vice president of marketing at Clopay, says this new steel product emerged from the success of their wood carriage-house Reserve Collection doors that launched in 2000.

"We found that the Reserve Collection’s appearance and craftsmanship resonated well with consumers and builders," he says.

The groundswell of support for the carriage-house look actually began several years earlier. "The carriage door has long been the Cadillac of the garage door industry in both price and design," explains Jellá. "We give a lot of credit to Designer Doors for doing a remarkable job marketing the wood carriage door."

Kent Forsland founded Designer Doors in Minneapolis in 1987, crafting ultra-high-end custom wood doors one by one (see "The Father of the Carriage-House Door Movement," p. 58). But Forsland’s concepts didn’t attract national attention until the late 1990s when his elegant ultra-upscale designs grabbed positive publicity in the national news media.

Between 2000 and 2003, every major garage door manufacturer picked up on the growing trend and began to offer similar wood doors. By 2004, the popularity of the wood carriage-house design naturally led to efforts to offer a more affordable version in a non-wood material.

Steel: The Inevitable Evolution

The appeal of natural wood is indisputable. Historically, however, wood has carried the drawbacks of fluctuating supply and material costs, labor-intensive manufacture, and potential problems of rotting, splitting, and regular maintenance. That’s probably why the steel raised-panel door sold so well.

Jellásays he saw the potential appeal of the SCH (Steel Carriage House) door many years ago and has been working on the project since 1996. In 2000 and 2001, he filed some patents for his design. Then, First United Door Technologies introduced the industry’s first SCH door, an innovative 3-section design, in Nashville at Expo 2002.

The latest SCH surge may have begun when Overhead Door announced their Renaissance Collection in September 2003. Their design uses flush steel insulated sandwich Thermacore sections with vinyl overlays to create the carriage-house look. Overhead introduced the door as an upscale product with heavy-duty track, hinges, and 13-ball-bearing rollers.

By early 2004, at least six manufacturers had announced steel carriage-house designs. In February, Windsor Republic Door launched their Model 765, which also features insulated steel sections and vinyl overlays.

Sherry Booles, Windsor Republic vice president of marketing, explains, "Builders and homeowners like the look of the carriage-house door, but they wanted something more affordable that requires less maintenance than the high-end wood doors."

"With today’s busy way of life and the maintenance required with wood," adds Steve Lynch of Clopay, "many consumers are searching for a solution for their on-the-go lifestyle."

Thus, just as in 1980, steel became an obvious alternative.

The Gangpile Effect

But there’s a key difference between the SRP revolution of the 1980s and the SCH movement of 2004. That difference is speed … how quickly manufacturers can jump on the bandwagon.

In 1980, all manufacturers had to learn how to mass produce punch-pressed steel doors. The product development time was substantial, and manufacturers struggled to remove nagging bugs from the process. But today, the production process is second nature to all steel door manufacturers.

By the May 2004 International Garage Door Expo, at least 13 manufacturers were displaying their new steel carriage-house designs. Within a short six-month time span, more than 10 companies had announced their SCH products. Such a gangpile on a new design is perhaps unprecedented in the history of the residential garage door.

The Early Numbers

The product is so new, assessing sales success is a dicey business. Overhead Door, selling its Renaissance Collection since last September, has had some time to assess the sales promise of the new SCH door.

"When we introduced the door," says Robert Deisher, product manager, "we projected conservative sales levels for the first several years. As it turns out, we underestimated the potential. We’re already hitting our projected sales levels for 2007."

Clopay’s Coachman product seems to be finding similar success, and not just domestically. "We are finding Coachman is having huge appeal in all parts of North America and Europe," says Steve Lynch.

Amarr also reports "an overwhelming response from dealers, builders, and homeowners," even though their Classica is not even available yet. CEO Brenner says dealers "have phoned everybody they can within our company in an attempt to get the Classica Collection doors before they are available in their area."

If indeed this door is "the next big thing," such a preemptive demand is understandable. Savvy dealers like to be the first to promote a new product.

Variations on a Theme

As with the early SRP doors of the 1980s, manufacturers are now using different approaches to create the new look. About half of the companies are stamping a carriage-type design directly into the steel skins, avoiding the labor costs of attaching overlays.

Most of the other half are using overlays of materials such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or steel. Those who use overlays cite the advantage of a higher-definition design and greater fidelity with the true carriage-house appearance.

Some sing the praises of the look and durability of PVC overlays. Overhead Door, for example, is so confident in their adhesive and PVC overlays that they offer a 10-year warranty on the overlays.

First United Door Technologies has elected to use steel overlays to avoid dissimilar surface materials that might expand and contract differently under temperature extremes.

A few companies don’t use steel sections. Northwest Door’s Infinity Classic, due out in August, offers the unique approach of aluminum stile-and-rail sections with no overlays in a novel two-section configuration. Gadco uses HDPE (high density polyethylene) sections, and Jeld-Wen sections feature a fiber-composite material.

The Three-Section Attraction

Some of those striving for faithfulness to a carriage-house look have broken the traditional mold and switched to a three-section design. Amarr and First United Door Technologies, for example, have adopted a three-section approach, while Wayne-Dalton’s new Model 9700 Series, due out this fall, will offer three- and four-section configurations.

"The 28" section was the key to making it all work," explains John Jellá. "There were a lot of dealers who just didn't believe you could get the 28" sections through a 15" radius track." He adds, however, that a three-section door is not a new concept.

The wider section requires a variety of adjustments, including structurally reinforcing the sections, adapting delivery trucks and trailers for new section spacing, and changing installation habits.

Just a Niche?

Those who already have been selling the new door hold differing views of the potential of the SCH door. Will the door merely occupy a tidy small niche of the massive residential market, or does it have the universal potential that the SRP door eventually earned?

"I think it is definitely a niche product," says Sherry Booles of Windsor. "The distinctive look of these doors does not necessarily complement all home designs."

"I think it’s going to be a strong niche," adds Overhead’s Robert Deisher. "The door enhances the appearance of many homes, but not every home."

Jelláá, however, is more optimistic. "There is no question that these types of doors enhance the appearance of any home. The potential of the steel carriage door is unlimited."

Most of the new SCH doors are clearly upscale niche products. Yet, some companies appear to have already developed design and production efficiencies that may drive down the cost.

This same evolutionary development was evident with the SRP door in the 1980s. It began as an upsell product, but volume selling and mass-production techniques eventually reduced the cost of manufacture.

Good-bye to Raised Panel?

If the steel carriage-house door does revolutionize the residential market, will this new SCH door mark the last hurrah for the tried-and-true but old-and-tired SRP door? Will America’s residential communities finally get some relief from the repetitive monotony of raised-panel garage doors?

"The market is hungry for a new look," says Tim Miller of C.H.I. "In the years ahead, (the SCH door) will only increase in popularity, taking more of the market away from the raised-panel style."

SRP may indeed decline, but most believe the trusty design is here to stay. "We believe that the standard raised-panel doors still offer a good value and appearance solution for most home styles," says Clopay’s Lynch.

"There are now more choices available," adds Overhead’s Deisher. "We have five different major product categories for the residential builder or homeowner. In the past, it was only one or two."

The increase of SCH and the decline of SRP may ultimately be decided by the price tag. "As long as there are lower-priced doors than steel carriage house," says Amarr’s Brenner, "this new line will not overtake or replace traditional raised-panel steel doors."

Upsell or Undersell?

Herein lies the rub. As in many industries, competing manufacturers continually battle to produce a quality lower-priced product. The result may be a lowball world where manufacturers and dealers scrape for the meager crumbs of profit that fall from the sales table.

But those on the leading edge of the SCH movement see the potential for a brighter future. "People are finally spending a little more on their doors," notes Deisher.

Yes, the garage door is finally getting some respect. Perhaps our industry no longer needs to be jealous of the high-priced front entry door.

More homeowners are attaching greater value to bigger, better, cleaner garages and better-looking, better-performing garage doors. Plus, the wood carriage-house door movement has spawned a new generation of homeowners who are willing to spend thousands for a garage door that looks different and special.

"I’m not sure we have ever had this opportunity before," says Jellá, "where everybody wins … the manufacturer, the dealer, the builder, and ultimately, the homeowner."

Steve Lynch offers a similar view. "We see this as a great opportunity for our dealers to upsell and increase their profitability while at the same time serving their customers — a real win-win situation."

"As an industry, we need to let the secret out of the bag," he continues. "Upgrading your garage door is a quick and inexpensive way to dramatically improve the look of your home. Instead of continuing to undersell our entire industry, we need to find new and innovative products to spike consumer demand and interest in our category."

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