With economic uncertainties on the horizon, thoughtful selling can lead to success.
The scientific world was abuzz this past March when it was announced that Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s historic ship, had been discovered at the bottom of the Weddell Sea. It was 1915 when Shackleton and his crew were forced to abandon their ice-bound Antarctic exploration vessel and set out across the ice in a last-ditch attempt at survival. And survive they did, in no small part due to their garb—woolen long underwear, a woolen pullover sweater, woolen trousers and coat or vest, a wool muffler and balaclava, wool socks, fur mitts, and either leather hobnail, cotton-gabardine, or reindeer-fur finnesko boots, all topped off by a Burberry’s cotton gabardine coat.
These various layers all acted as an integrated, effective barrier against the elements, not unlike the protection provided by today’s building envelope products. And like the unforeseen early pack ice that doomed Endurance, the building products industry is facing difficult-to-navigate waters when it comes to product availability. While LBM dealers may be feeling as if they, like Shackleton, are on unstable ice, building envelope product manufacturers are providing both products and strategies that can help the LBM dealer thrive in turbulent times.
Cautious growth amid uncertainties
Compared to the surge the construction market has seen over the last few years, 2023 may signal a slowdown. For example, overall housing starts decreased 4.2% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.43 million units in October, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau. Existing-home sales dropped, as well. Comparing October of 2022 to October of 2021, sales of single-family, townhomes, condominiums, and co-ops were down 28.4% annually. That drop, experts say, could suggest a downturn in the repair and remodel market.
In response to this potential slowdown, manufacturers are focusing on new product creation. “We feel that 2022 will end pretty strong,” says David Delcoma, operations manager for MFM Building Products Corp. “However, we predict that 2023 will be flat overall. This is why we are so focused on developing new customers and products to introduce next year.”
Part of that new product development is focused on development of new products that offer increased efficiencies, both in installation and in performance. “To keep pace with market demands, we expect builders to continue to search for solutions that streamline jobsite installation to help keep jobs on track, which is why we keep a keen focus on innovating products that can support jobsite efficiency with easy-to-install methods,” explains Kristin Michael, growth marketing manager for Huber. “We’ve seen continued growth in our new product users and growing adoption of products that complement our panel products such as ZIP System liquid flash and AdvanTech adhesive products that help building teams get the most out of wall and subflooring assemblies.”
Neil Freidberg, building science manager for LP Building Solutions, agrees about the growth potential of products that deliver efficiencies. “Builders are increasingly looking for a system application,” he says. “Builders are realizing that the more efficient a home is, the more the envelope matters. Going into the next year, the building envelope segment will need to respond to builders’ calls for those more efficient envelope options. I predict that envelope systems that are designed for compatibility and with the same goals in mind—like efficiency and sustainability—will experience growth. Solutions like LP WeatherLogic Air & Water Barrier sheathing that are proven to create a tighter and more energy-efficient building envelope are well positioned to grow.”
And while statistics might be signaling a possible R&R slowdown, some manufacturers see growth potential in the category. “As we likely see a shift away from new construction and towards R&R, look for the exterior of the house to be a focal point,” recommends Doug Sloane, director of product management, building materials group, for PrimeSource. “Upgrades and updates will be a key driver, and there will be a trickle down to the envelope. Unless the homeowner was involved in the construction of their current home, there is a good chance they’ve never seen what’s behind the exterior or underneath the roof. We see a surge coming as homeowners now have the ability to upgrade their homes with weatherproofing and vapor barriers.”
High performing leads trends
Unlike other building materials where trends are often driven by changing aesthetics, trends in the insulation and building envelope segment are more often than not driven by changes in codes and increased demand for products that deliver on those updates. “Codes are driving builders to construct tighter homes,” says LP’s Freidberg. “Dealers should look to carry more accessories that aid builders in achieving more energy-efficient homes.”
One way in which codes are driving product trends is in water management, says Huber’s Kristin Michael. “The need to prioritize resilient building practices continues to receive more attention and interest each year. We’ve seen increasing response to FORTIFIED Home standards influencing codes around sealed roof deck requirements across the country. As an inherently ‘sealed’ roof deck with taped panel seams and transitions, ZIP System sheathing and tape is creating a simplified path for builders looking to meet this important criteria in the FORTIFIED Roof designation requirements.”
The roof deck isn’t the only surface where improved water management is a growing trend. Products that deliver increased moisture performance for walls are also on the rise, manufacturers say. “Use of enhanced drainage behind cladding systems continues to grow as do energy efficient measures,” says Xuaco Pascual, director of building science for Tamlyn. “Drainable wraps with a non-compressible structure are gaining momentum as moisture management is becoming more important.
“The non-compressible nature is essential to providing consistent drainage behind different cladding systems,” he goes on to explain. “Some regions (marine and wet climates) are moving towards rainscreen cladding systems where unrestrained drainage and ventilation is required behind certain cladding systems. The 2021 code requirement changes behind stucco are driving this use but also applicable behind any claddings that store moisture such as stucco, stone, fiber cement and wood systems. Several jurisdictions are requiring rainscreen systems and some cladding manufacturers are recognizing them as a best practice so this trend is expected to continue and eventually become the standard nationwide.”
Because of these changes—and in no small part due to the continued shortfalls in the workforce—insulation and housewrap products that increase efficiency are increasingly in demand. “The market is trending towards products that require less labor-intensive installations which goes a long way as we continue to see labor shortages,” points out Alex Barrego, product manager of Grip-Rite branded building materials for Primesource. “One example is self-adhering weather resistive barriers…AKA housewrap. Traditional rolls take two to three people to install, while the new self-adhering rolls may be installed by a single person, which also saves time on install. On the roofing side we see the same trend in the market. Installers are embracing self-adhering underlayments to save time, and reduce labor, given these products are geared to a single person install.”
Changing lifestyles, changing products
This isn’t to say that codes are the only influencer of building envelope and insulation trends. Homeowner behavior is also having an impact on products that are in demand. For example, insulation products that can aid in sound deadening are also on the rise, driven in no small part by the percentage of people now working from home, either full-or part-time. According to the new 2021 American Community Survey (ACS) 1-year estimates released in September of 2022 by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people primarily working from home tripled from 5.7% (roughly 9 million people) to 17.9% (27.6 million people). And according to Gallup’s September 2022 poll on employment trends, that number may be even higher. It reports 45% of full-time U.S. employees worked from home either full-time (25%) or part-time (20%).
Says PrimeSource’s Doug Sloane, “You’re certainly seeing a focus on soundproofing and acoustics—both from room to room internally and to reducing outside noise coming in. In a post-Covid work environment where a large percentage of the working population is still working from home at least part of the time, the need to reduce noise from the landscape company or the neighbor’s barking dog has certainly increased.”
Labor and supply still uncertain
Knowing the trends insulation and building envelope products are headed in is one thing; being able to provide them to your customers is another, and it should come as no surprise that labor shortages and supply chain disruptions aren’t going away in the near future. “This is a big problem right now,” MFM’s Delcoma laments. “Some raw materials are still on allocation or have extended lead times. With the recent storms, some items may become even more difficult to find and stock. Our lead times have remained relatively short, but some items have been pushed out like 3-4 weeks. In terms of the labor force, there is a big lack of tradesmen and people willing to work in a factory setting. We continually advertise for production people and if they have a decent level of skill, we’ll hire them.”
Kelly Harmon Sr. national product manager of OSB for LP Building Solutions, shares Delcoma’s concerns. “There are still some lingering effects of the supply chain strain that builders and dealers are having to factor into their lead times,” Harmon says. “Weather is another huge factor. As severe weather events, often causing $1B+ in damages, become more frequent, the need for more resilient, energy-efficient, and combined-use products will only increase.”
PrimeSource’s Sloane also sees recent storm activity as a supply chain disruptor. “From a supply chain standpoint, recent hurricane damage will likely create some supply issues,” he cautions. “Consider that in a given year the asphalt shingle industry banks on 10MM squares of shingles for storm damage, and one hurricane has created the need for 12MM squares.”
Product manufacturers, however, have been doing their collective best to offset these labor and supply challenges. “While we haven’t been immune to the supply and labor shortages that has plagued our industry over the last 18 months, because we are nimble, we were able to pivot quickly to maintain production and were able to avoid being held hostage by the supply chain,” explains Bobby Byrd, executive vice president of Romex L.L.C., the sales, marketing and R&D agent for RoyOMartin. “Since the three RoyOMartin facilities lie amongst almost 600,000 company-owned acres, we have the unique ability to source from our own forest that are sustainably managed and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. This ensures that we can continue to provide quality products to our customers when they need them.”
Plan to provide solutions
Considering the current shifting nature of the LBM industry, it may feel like LBM dealers need a crystal ball to plan how best to provide product to customers. Rather than relying on some arcane divination system, however, manufacturers recommend LBM dealers work closely with them and their suppliers to manage their customers’ expectations.
“Forecasting is extremely important for all involved so that projects are produced and supplied in a timely manner,” suggests Tamlyn’s Pascual. “Labor shortages are easing in some markets but continue to be an issue for skilled trades in general. Tamlyn specifically has adjusted inventories to maximize availability of popular products and has managed supply well. We can typically deliver products to a jobsite within days. Larger companies with complex supply chains and global raw materials have struggled with delivery of similar product lines so it is important to communicate often and manage expectations.”
It equates to having a plan that can be easily implemented by your customers—one that’s driven by the products you offer and delivers both efficiencies and performance. “Have a clear vision of what products have to be on the floor,” MFM’s Delcoma points out. “No product equals no sale. Purchasing needs to find out lead times for items and order accordingly.”
Don’t, however, sacrifice quality simply because another, lower-priced option is available, manufacturers recommend. Instead, they suggest offering high-performing product options as opposed to those that require more labor to install or of less quality. “Dealers should work closely with manufacturers to ensure compatible systems are being installed,” says Tamlyn’s Pascual. “They should also promote high performance and reputable brands over stocking low cost and often low performance alternatives. Manufacturers offer compatible system components that are tested to work together and offer enhanced warranties that benefit the contractors. For reference, Tamlyn offers a 25-year system warranty for our water management system. Full system components can easily be ordered from Tamlyn and typically delivered to a jobsite within days.”
Of course, customers may have an inherent fear of switching products, especially if there is a higher price involved, and LBM dealers need to be prepared to mitigate those fears with sound product information. “As builders continue to consider higher-performance products to help streamline installation time, we find reducing risk of trying new products like promoting manufacturer rebates, samples or training help build confidence for trials,” explains Huber’s Michael. “We also offer enhanced guarantees for combined products that are engineered to work together for long-term performance. For instance, builders can receive a leak-free guarantee when using ZIP System sheathing, tape and peel and stick underlayment in roof applications or a squeak-free guarantee for subfloor assemblies using AdvanTech subfloor paired with AdvanTech subfloor adhesive.”
Similarly, PrimeSource’s Sloane suggests not missing out on the opportunity to upsell based on the benefits they deliver, pointing out that builder education is key. “How often do you take your car in for a specific repair, but are not asked about replacing or repairing something else on your car as well?” he asks. “There’s a similar opportunity for dealers and their builder partners in exterior work. As a builder, I’m removing and replacing the old exterior. While I’m going through the process, especially on homes 10+ years old, there is an opportunity to upgrade vapor barriers, weatherproofing, insulation, acoustics, etc.”
Don’t just sell — teach
If, as manufacturers point out, builder education is the key, it’s more vital than ever for LBM dealers to stay on top of product education so that they can serve as an educational resource to their customers. “Dealers can play a critical role in educating their customers on good system practices to avoid growing compatibility and suitability issues exacerbated by mix and match, off-the-shelf purchases,” says Pascual. “Dealers can promote best practices like non-compressible drainage products, WRB permeability of 15-30 perms for suitability in all climates, proper application of self-adhered flashing with a hard roller or applicator, air barrier detailing and a full system components approach. Contractors are looking to dealers as a resource for information rather than just transactional.”
In the case of Tamlyn, it offers LBM dealers PK training sessions, AIA CEU Lunch & Learns, online training courses and installation videos, and downloadable product literature. In addition, it works with contractors for on-site mock ups, observations, and general support.
LP provides installation manuals and offers onsite training opportunities, along with technical teams that can assist with product recommendations and feedback, training that can include mill trips or site visits, and education on specific product installation. As well, the company’s online LP SkillBuilder program provides free tools and resources on everything from distribution and installation to maintenance and trends, which can expand the knowledge set of dealers to enable them to be better partners to their customers.
Huber also takes education seriously, offering a variety of resources to LBM dealers. “We are fortunate to partner with some of the leading voices in the industry to offer top-of-mind education on building science through our Home Building Crossroads seminar series offered in person and through webinars,” Huber’s Kristin Michael points out.
PrimeSource has recently made serious investments in a training platform that includes a virtual library of educational material for its customers, along with product knowledge sessions. And with RoyOMartin, it has been investing in education as well, working with the building science community and with the building trade in general on a best practices for building multi-story buildings in unique marine layer climates. “In the challenging market we will endure in over the next year, it is important that builders understand the products that they are utilizing, and are abreast of the best installation practices,” explains Byrd. “We are continuously researching ways to improve our products and experimenting with installation methods so that the builder can build better, build smarter, more efficient, and more confident.”
Considering the various and constantly shifting components of the building envelope market, it’s difficult to say with certainty what the next twelve months will bring. The potential of a recession, along with the continued challenges of a diminished workforce and supply chain bottlenecks may make 2023 a year that’s difficult to navigate. “While current housing market conditions and projections are all over the news today, it is no doubt that the next 12 months will look quite different than the previous 12 months,” muses Byrd. “Every metric is down year over year, including starts, permits, and home sales.”
Nevertheless, manufacturers are doing everything they can to ensure LBM dealers can effectively meet the needs of their customers. And when used together like the clothing components of Shackleton’s crew, the individual elements of smart planning, product education, and strategic selling can mean the difference between foundering in treacherous waters and a successful year that’s one for the history books.