How one window manufacturer, Paarhammer, is coping with Covid

Edith Paarhammer

Covid has hit a lot of people hard, but not Australian window manufacturer Paarhammer. The company prides itself on sustainable – and fire resistant – windows and doors that it produces out of its purposed built factory at Ballan, about 80 kilometres north west of Melbourne.

Edith Paarhammer, who owns the company with husband Tony, says business is actually stronger than this time last year, with inquiries up significantly. “Though people are a lot slower to pay,” she adds.

Demand is coming from people who were already poised to go ahead with their projects and have used the Covid lock down time to prepare for getting back to action.

What made all the difference was the government’s business support payments.

“When JobKeeper was announced confidence went up overnight and inquiry almost exploded,” she says.

In the construction sector, there’s some concern with talk about work going “straight downhill”, Paarhammer says, “whereas for us we can’t say that at the moment.”

Instead, people call, noting they are interested in Australian-made products, “so there is still plenty of work in the factory.”

About 20 per cent of the work comes from repeat business mainly from architects, designers and home owners. About 40 per cent of work comes from NSW with the balance spread between other states and territories other than the Northern Territory.

“As a business owner, we’re prepared for all sorts of things, just in case. Thank goodness we didn’t need it,” Paarhammer says.

In recent times, however, the company has won a Victorian government manufacturing modernisation grant that it will use for new technology.

In the immediate term, the team has been busy getting ready for the post Covid world.

“We’ve spent the time rejigging the showroom, while customers are not coming in and editing the back of the website, so we are nice and fresh when we re-open.”

Television appearances

Recognition for this company that likes to spruik a strong sustainability commitment is growing in the wider market.

The business has been featured recently on the Australian Grand Designs television program when it profiled a narrow vertical house in Melbourne known as the “mini skyscraper”. Another profile will be aired on SBS between 24 May and 16 June in a show called Small Business Secrets, which focuses on migrant success stories.

Not a bad way for a company to celebrate its recent 30th birthday, after its founders landed in Australia from Austria.

But then again, it’s clear from a conversation with this half of the Paarhammer founding team that there is a passion for quality and innovation in this company that makes for great storytelling.

What initially caught the attention of the SBS team is the company’s work on producing flame proof windows and doors, including sliding doors that are notoriously drafty and hard to insulate.

It was this alongside the team’s determination to be sustainable, using timber as its primary material, plastering the factory roof with 100 kilowatts of solar panels, installing rainwater capture and repurposing sawdust and shavings into briquettes used for heating in the drying room of the factory.

Paarhammer says creating bushfire resistant windows and doors was not an easy road.

After the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 the company initially applied for a sizable government grant – of around $750,000 – to develop a product that would withstand the fire intensity experienced on that devastating day, to a Bal FZ flame zone, the highest flame intensity zone. But it lost out to two competitors one of which cancelled its work after failing to achieve the stated objective.

“We wrote a whole book on it, but we didn’t get anything. But we were always told to keep up the good work,” laughs Paarhammer good humoredly.

“It doesn’t matter. We took out a second home loan – we knew we could do it – and invested a lot of money. After a few months we had windows that tilt and turn, fixed windows, hinged doors and sliding doors, all built to resist a Bal-FZ threat.

“The tests were really, really difficult,” Paarhammer recalls.

They involved the product resisting a direct jet of fire at 850 degrees centigrade “sprayed on for half an hour and for another 60 minutes, the product, including the glass, had to keep its integrity.”

The trick, Paarhammer says, was to create airtight frames that did not burn and a flame proof double glazed unit to achieve energy efficiency with an outside layer of sacrificial glass and an internal intumescent glass panel of about 14 millimetres in thickness that swells up to act as a heat blanket when the temperature reaches 500 degrees.

Here is a video that demonstrates the testing process.

“What is allowed is a heat transfer of 15 kilowatts per hour and we had 6 kwh. So, it was only slightly warm inside instead of hot.”

But this kind of bushfire proof research represents just 20 per cent of the work by the company.

“What we tried to concentrate on was making energy efficient windows. We hope that all our clients never have to use the windows as a safety feature for themselves but instead enjoy the energy efficiency.”

So what will the SBS television show focus on?

“They wanted to know about the bushfire zones and they were impressed we installed the solar panels on our roof,” Paarhammer says.

The day before the television crew visited, earlier this year, the factory was meeting 84 per cent of its entire power needs through solar and it’s hoping for a full 100 per cent soon.

On the weekend, when everyone is at home, the excess power is fed to the grid.

This is a big savings for the company, which normally has to fork out around $50,000 a year for electricity, including around $20,000 as a fee to have a three-phase power system connected.

The solar installation, by contrast, costs $170,000. Going off grid is not an option because of the consistent demands of the factory and the lack of guarantee that the sun will shine as strongly as needed at all times.

Staffing and investment

A major investment for the company was the purpose-built factory completed in 2010, a move that facilitated growth averaging around 10-15 per cent a year.

“We needed that extra space and needed to have a proper production line for windows and doors and to make space for a painting robot. So, no more spray painting by hand.”

Right now, staff numbers are at 22 and include the couple’s 23-year-old son who is keen to take over the family business.

Staff numbers will probably remain steady, for a number of reasons.

First, finding apprentices is a challenge, Paarhammer says. Over the company’s 30 years she estimates her team has trained more than 50 apprentices.

“Some now own their own businesses, some work elsewhere and some are still working with us.

“To tell the truth we’ve invested more in technology because it’s hard to find good staff. Even though we pay above award it’s very hard to get younger people to learn a trade and not drop out to work at McDonalds,” Paarhammer says.

man using camera to sell windows during COVID-19

Paarhammer staff working during covid-19

“Also, their parents think if they go to university, they have very good opportunities for the rest of their lives but it’s not always the case.

“Tradespeople in the future will be very few.” This means they will be able to ask for higher wages, she says.

The recent grant win, of $85,000 will enable even greater technological efficiencies and provide for more equity in future staffing needs that do occur.

The money will be used to buy lifting equipment for the “very heavy” bushfire products and for a veneer press for the entrance door range.

The better machinery means that more gender-neutral work can be made available (four women are currently employed on the floor) and also offer opportunities to people with disabilities because the equipment is safer to use.

“So, you don’t need two to three people to lift a frame because anyone can click a button on a gantry.”

Paarhammer is a member of The Green List. Read the profile.

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