Windows to the North
Northerm has a unique Arctic flavour.
May 4, 2023 By Carroll McCormick
A 2,400-kilometre drive north from Vancouver delivers weary travelers to the doorstep of Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital city. There, amongst the bustle of this fast-growing city, in a 55,000 square-foot plant, Northerm Windows and Doors manufactures its windows and doors. It builds them for single dwellings, multi-housing units, condos, hotels and commercial business – both for renovations and new construction – throughout the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alaska.
Founded in 1983, Northerm has grown to employ 60 people. Half of them work in its production plant where they manufacture exterior residential and light commercial windows and residential doors. The other half work in the commercial division and BUD’s Industrial Installations – Whitehorse’s local overhead garage door company, as they modestly put it. (BUD’s stocks a variety of doors and what it doesn’t stock it will order for residential, commercial, industrial and aviation uses.)
A sister company in Anchorage, Ala., called Capitol Glass Windows and Doors, distributes Northerm products in Alaska. Another company, Arctic Rim, in Inuvik, located not far inland from the Beaufort Sea, purchases Northerm products for distribution in the high Arctic.
Northerm, BUD’s and Capitol Glass are owned by RAB Energy Group Inc., a Yukon First Nation-owned, for-profit corporation. Dakwakada Capital Investments LP is RAB’s majority shareholder, with six other First Nations development corporations also owning shares. First Nations ownership, says Brian Wareham, Northerm’s production manager, “is a great way to conduct business in the north. First Nations investment and development is driving the northern economy and it provides excellent opportunities for First Nations citizens in the Yukon.”
While Northerm manufactures residential doors in off-the-shelf dimensions, it makes its windows to order. “On the PVC side we have software for turning customers’ wish lists into data for manufacturing the custom windows,” Wareham says. The commercial side of the business works out the custom details somewhat differently, producing engineered drawings for each project.
Testing the PVC windows for their adherence to various standards is carried out externally. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (“Pioneers in Extreme Environments,” its website announces) in Fairbanks, Ala., which carries out quality testing for Northerm, has certified the company’s windows as “Alaska Tough.”
“We regularly have our residential windows tested to make sure they meet current EnergyStar and other performance ratings and standards,” Wareham says.
Understanding that the concept of “standard” should include something a little extra in the often-frigid North, Northerm adds more beef to its windows. “The main difference between our windows and most other windows is the thickness of the profile. Our profile is more robust than the vast majority of windows found elsewhere. When you get 18 to 20 hours of sunlight a day it can have a large effect on lumber and other materials. It is not only the cold but the heat from the sunlight that affects the window’s profile. It’s solid. And it’s tough,” Wareham says.
Not only does Northerm offer triple-pane windows, it also manufactures a four-paned window it calls the Quad. “The Quad has an improved energy rating over three-paned windows and improved sound dampening qualities,” Wareham says.
Might the Quad be the future of energy-efficient windows? “Whether it is the window of the future, we don’t know,” Wareham says. But, he adds, “We are looking at opportunities to push the Quad into new markets.”
Before Wareham joined Northerm in 2021, he was an aircraft technician with the Royal Canadian Airforce, retiring with the rank of master warrant officer. His military career included working as an aircraft structures technician and substantial experience in production and manufacturing – skills he applies on the plant floor.
“We are constantly working to improve our manufacturing processes and purchasing new equipment. Probably our Erdmann 6000 secondary sealer, which we purchased in 2017 for sealing our windows and inserting argon gas between the panes, has had the largest positive impact. That is probably one of the largest pieces we have purchased here. It automates and makes the manufacture of sealed units more efficient and accurate,” he says.
Northerm’s PVC profile supplier, Vision Extrusions Group in Everett, Wash., has been helping improve its profiles. “Vision assists us to make them more efficient,” Wareham notes. Northerm ships its waste PVC to a recycling plant in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
Northerm has several Canadian suppliers but getting stock from its two Washington suppliers – Vision in Everett, and Cardinal Glass in Tumwater, Wash., from which Northerm purchases most of its glass – illustrate the challenges in shipping anything to northern destinations. The geography and climate challenge production schedules and the concept of “just in time” deliveries is nothing like what southern manufacturers enjoy.
An example: stock from Vision and Cardinal is loaded onto barges at the Port of Everett. They motor up the coast to Skagway, Ala., which is a mere two-hour hop from Whitehorse – on a good day. Wareham explains, “In the winter we get into avalanche season coming over the White Pass Summit [the 2,865-foot-high mountain pass that is the official border between the U.S. and Canada]. There can be washouts, floods, and forest fires – all of which we got last spring. They cause delays getting materials to our plant.
“Residing so far north has its unique challenges. We have supplies that arrive by sea barge, which requires ordering well in advance of need, and by truck and, at times, air. We keep more inventory on hand than companies down south to help alleviate these unpredictable events,” Wareham says.
Challenges abound as well on the outbound journeys to customers. Where barges are used, a missed departure during the short shipping season can mean the product goes nowhere until the following year. And as for those famous ice roads that provide such hysterical television, climate change is taking a toll. “More and more, it seems to take longer for the rivers to freeze. We work around the seasonal challenges and adjust our manufacturing schedule. This is just some of the enjoyment and challenges of our business,” Wareham says.
Northerm does not like to disappoint. “As long as someone wants a window, we’ll make it for them. We don’t take this lightly, either. One of the reasons we have lasted so long is our customer service, from contractors to residential owners. We find the solution. What we do for customers and clients up here is huge,” Wareham explains.
Wareham is doubtlessly well-versed in the military concept of “hurry up and wait,” but the Northern spin on this could easily be “hurry up and hurry up.” Like farmers making hay when the sun shines, contractors get positively hyperactive during the summer season when the sun gets up early and goes to bed very late – for a nearly 19-hour day on the summer solstice.
“Our building season is shorter, but the summer season days are longer,” Wareham says. “December, January and February are slow months. It picks up in March and April, and we get a better outlook on the schedule.” All these environmental constraints mean constantly adjusting the production schedules, something that Northerm is working to improve and make more efficient.
Northerm installs window and door systems on the commercial side, but a lack of hands means the company currently does not offer this service on the residential side. “We are one of the fastest growing cities in the country. There is a shortage of workers in Whitehorse, a shortage of younger workers in their early twenties,” Wareham explains. “An outflow of people is also part of the problem.”
Northerm takes great pride in its ability to provide employment and contribute to the community through sponsored programs. Its website lists 44 groups and organisations it has sponsored, as well as its Northerm Innovation Scholarship. “We are keen on giving back to youth and the community. The youth demographic has the most potential. The Yukon is a tight-knit territory that supports each other. Northerm would not be here if not for the support of our communities,” Wareham says.
A lack of experience or a home situation, say, are not necessarily impediments to employment at Northerm, Wareham says. “If a person is keen and wants to learn – or they are a single mom or someone who can only work three days a week – we will work with them on a flexible work schedule,” Wareham says. “This is the way I think society is going: get good employees and be flexible to keep them.
“Northerm is a family-oriented company – we really support our employees. We have great benefits. Even the vacation time is exceptional. The attitude, the way we treat people on the plant floor…if there is a problem everyone pitches in to solve it. Everyone pitches in to meet the demand. It is a fun and enjoyable place to work. Let’s put it that way.”
Print this page