IN TODAY'S COMPETITIVE AND energy-conscious marketplace, efficient windows aren't an option; they're a necessity. As more and more builders sign on with programs such as Energy Star, low-emissivity windows are becoming the standard. As a result, fewer builders are bothering with upgrades, and those who do offer them don't follow the typical good-better-best formula. Instead, they're giving buyers choices on size, placement, and a handful of accessories.

Come summertime, for example, all of the products by American West Homes will have low-e glass. “We started phasing it in a few months back,” says director of marketing Tina Schenkel for the Las Vegas builder. “It's all tied in with 120-degree summers and the power problems in the West.” Window upgrades aren't part of the company's upgrades program. “People don't ask for them,” she says.

What they do ask for is lots of windows, and the larger the better. While upgrades are one way to add profits, builders are investing a little more on standard features their customers appreciate. Greystone Homes' south coast division uses low-e glass in all of its homes, which range in price from $350,000 to $2 million. Purchasing director Niall Viney says the company is including more windows than ever before, and larger windows in the living areas. Divided lights are standard on most homes. “We don't offer any window options and haven't seen a demand for them,” Viney says. “Buyers want tight, sealed windows that are easy to operate.”

CLEAR CHOICE: Though buyers aren't always choosing window upgrades, they are demanding lots of windows; the bigger the better. Larger expanses of glass, with mullions to give them some scale, add a light touch to Morrison Homes' small-lot products in Houston. Its standard windows are double insulated aluminum frame with low-e coating. When area builders switched to low-e glass last year in response to the new building code, tinting options made less sense, says David Patton, vice president of purchasing for the Houston division, which serves entry-level and move-up buyers. “Most of the market down here is offering a pretty feature-packed window as standard, so upgrades aren't popular,” he adds.

Practical Matters When it comes to windows, builders say that after price, what matters most is a solid, dependable warranty, a brand that both the builder admires and home buyers request, and value, as well as suppliers with reliable delivery records. Window makers for their part are concentrating on delivering more value in the core package builders are offering.

Marvin Windows positions its Integrity line to deliver reliability to the vast move-up market. “We don't encourage builders to try to make a profit by optioning up windows, but to make more money by using a product that delivers quality-wise and is easy to install,” says Brett Boyum, senior marketing manager. In addition to low-e coating, the wood windows have a patented Ultrex fiberglass exterior that the company says is eight times stronger than vinyl. White pre-painted interiors, pre-assembled packages, and a 10-day-or-less delivery time are all features designed to save builders time and money.

NEW VIEW: Window options such as between-the-glass grids, blinds, and shades, and remote-controlled window coverings are popular choices with buyers—and can help set a builder apart. Andersen Windows, meanwhile, has been partnering with major builders and others, including DuPont Tyvek, on improving a home's overall performance through better window and door products and installation practices, according to Sarah Meek, residential and commercial trade marketing manager for Andersen. She cites D.R. Horton's Sierra Valley Oaks project in Northern California as one example. Homes are being built to Building America standards—31 percent to 39 percent more efficient than Title 24 requires, according to Richard Coyle, purchasing manager at D.R. Horton—and feature Andersen's 200 Series windows and 400 Series Frenchwood patio doors, with prefinished white wood interiors and no-maintenance exteriors. Others builders, such as Gary McDonald Homes, of Fresno, Calif., have started using all Andersen products in their base level homes; until recently, Andersen was offered as an upgrade.

JELD-WEN, which serves the upper-end market, focuses its research and development on low-maintenance good looks. The company's consumer research showed that while buyers love the look and feel of wood, they're not willing to sacrifice durability. To satisfy those desires, it introduced its AuraLast technology this year that comes with a 20-year warranty. Almost all the company's windows are made from western pine treated with this ecologically friendly, water-based vacuum pressure solution that penetrates all the way through the wood, making it virtually impervious to insects, warping, and decay. New product development manager Ken Hart says that treating the cut stock and then machining the wood enhances the fit and finish.

Most of Greystone's homes have vinyl-frame windows from MI Home Products, Milgard, and several local manufacturers, though clad wood windows from Weather Shield and Simco go on the higher-end homes. In choosing Greystone's window products, Viney looks for reasonable lead times, on-time deliveries, and installation ease. “About 50 percent of our products are installed by window manufacturers,” he says. “If there's an option to have them installed, we'll take it.”

According to a recent Pella Corp. survey, a new home gets an average of five call-backs costing the builder $500 each, and 23 percent of the problems are related to window installation. To eliminate such hassles, the window manufacturer has a custom design and support division for high-end builders, and it has developed an installation process for all of the products using its patented SmartFlash tape and Great Stuff foam, by Dow. “For a minimal investment—about $10—the system can have a positive long-term economic impact on the builder,” says Carroll Bogard, manager of trade segment marketing for Pella.

Optioning Up With today's sky-high housing prices, even when add-ons are offered, most buyers are sticking with the standards. At John Laing Homes, for example, where products top out at about $1.2 million, only 10 percent of buyers purchase items such as faux stained glass, divided lights, and window treatments. Particularly in high-density communities, “buyers like to capture as much light as possible, so they're choosing options on areas that need privacy,” says Marianne Browne, vice president of sales and marketing for the Irvine, Calif.-based builder.

By contrast, the $3-to-$5 million homes by Laing Luxury in Newport Beach, Calif., offer only one option on the green-building-approved Sierra Pacific windows: clear fir stain-grade on the interior, which costs buyers about $10,000. “When they add window treatments and dividers, it takes it out of the architect's hand,” explains Joan Marcus-Colvin, vice president of the design studio.

To preserve architectural integrity, Village Homes of Littleton, Colo., prohibits window modifications on front elevations. On the other walls, buyers are free to add or move windows, or choose larger ones for about $500 each. “Upgrade demand is usually in size and location,” says Hope Marie Dunlavey, director of research and development. “A couple of buyers have asked about windows with blinds between the panes of glass, but we haven't offered it because we're limited by what our installers can do.”

Pella's Designer Series products offer between-the-glass grids, blinds, and shades; and remote controls for adjusting the window coverings in hard-to-reach areas. There's also Rollscreen, an insect screen that rolls up and out of sight; and Vivid View, a screen that's designed to be barely visible while allowing optimal air flow. “It's another way builders can set themselves apart and create homes with distinction,” Bogard says.

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Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.