SP Custom Carpentry and Windows: Reinventing the Past
Sy Phandanouvong came to the U.S. from Laos at age 15 in 1979. Since then, he’s become a master craftsman of older American homes. Specifically, of their windows.
The inventive Phandanouvong, founder of SP Custom Carpentry and Windows in Burnsville, has filed four patents for window components that provide modern functionality while respecting a house’s historic aesthetics. His company specializes in homes built in the 1950s or before, most from the late 19th or early 20th century. Since it began in the 2001, the business has grown primarily through word of mouth, to $2.7 million in revenue last year—more than 50 percent above 2010 numbers. “My customers refer, refer, refer,” Phandanouvong says.
Phandanouvong studied to be an aviation mechanic at Hennepin Technical College, which taught him how to bend wood, weld, and read schematics. While in school, he went to work for a vinyl window manufacturer; with jobs in the aviation industry tough to get, he stayed where he was, working his way up to supervisor. New Morning Windows in Lakeville hired him to produce specialty vinyl extrusions for a larger window manufacturer. There he learned about the finer details of older window construction. After earning his general contractor’s license in 2001, he founded SP Custom Carpentry. While installing windows he learned by comparing the construction of century-old windows with newer, less reliable designs.
“That’s what got me to design the new windows,” Phandanouvong says. “If I build something, I build like the old-timer built and make it like the original as much as possible, using more modern weather-stripping and technology.”
While Phandanouvong was still installing other manufacturers’ windows, a homeowner challenged him to find a storm window without visible aluminum for her Victorian home. His solution was to wrap the aluminum frame with wood that can be finished to match existing trim. He also incorporated weep channels—holes in the frame that allow moisture to escape—along with hardware that allows the pane to be tilted for cleaning.
Working with the St. Paul Preservation Commission, he designed a maintenance-free storm window with hidden screws and finishes that match the dimensions of older-style wood windows. A contractor suggested that Phandanouvong get the invention patented. He did, and in 2003, he shifted from window installer to window manufacturer, using $200,000 from a home equity line of credit and his wife’s 401(k).
Two of his most loyal customers are Jill and Fred Taylor, who have some 50 SP windows in their circa-1890 home in Minneapolis’ Tangletown neighborhood. Phandanouvong has also completed numerous custom projects on the house that others said could not be done—all replicating the originals. “I won’t do work with anybody else,” Fred Taylor says. The Taylors were willing to give up $15,000 in noise abatement money from the Metropolitan Airport Commission unless they could work with Phandanouvong. SP was a designated contractor and reconditioned all of the Taylors’ second-floor windows to minimize the roar of overhead aircraft.
Phandanouvong’s newest product is a patent-pending window jamb liner wrapped in wood rather than vinyl. The homeowner can color-match the jamb liner with the existing trim when replacing a window. The key innovation here is a spring assembly that can be replaced, if needed, without having to remove the entire window box frame. The jamb liner also allows SP to recondition a set of historic window sashes by weather-stripping them and building a box frame that fits into the existing window opening. The homeowners retain the look of the original window sashes with improved thermal and noise performance.
Phandanouvong now plans to expand via partnerships with out-of-state contractors specializing in historic homes.