Conquering the Elements
AVCON Commercial Railing Systems Blends Beauty, Durability
Anyone who spends a brief time speaking with Larry Stanley can’t stop seeing railings: as roll bars on race cars at theme parks, as guardrails atop air traffic control towers, as the structure behind historic features on a landmark building—and in the usual places, too, running along boardwalks and pedestrian bridges, rimming hotel balconies, lining the stairways of multilevel water play structures or providing crowd control and serving a variety of functions at sports stadiums.
Larry’s utter openness to exploring all the ways railings can be used and his drive to constantly improve the performance of railing systems have enabled him to grow Lakewood, New Jersey-based AVCON Commercial Railing Systems, LLC from a small startup into a major engineering and manufacturing company that serves customers across the United States and around the world.
Before he founded AVCON in 1991, Larry owned and operated a distributorship for roofing, siding and windows. He knew quite well the toll certain elements—such as salt water and salty air, chlorine and ultraviolet light—could take on exterior building materials. He also saw a need that wasn’t being met.
“We were major purchasers of Reynolds Metals Company aluminum building products when it was just beginning to offer vinyl siding,” he says. “We learned quickly that typical plastics, while offering some maintenance benefits, would not withstand the abuses of heavy commercial use. We started experimenting to create this in one part of our warehouse. Fast-forward about five years: we decided to phase out the other products and turn the warehouse into a factory. We shifted our focus to manufacturing and selling the thermoplastic railing that is the foundation for what we do today.”
Perfecting Product and Process
One of the key decisions was determining which plastic to use. Plastics are made from different recipes, so developing the right recipe was critical for the product’s performance.
“After extensive testing for weatherability, color retention and longevity, we chose an ASA (acrylonitrile styrene acrylate) formula,” Larry explains. “ASA recipes differ significantly. It took a lot of experimentation to perfect the formula and processes we use for AVCON’s ASA thermoplastic railing system.”
“We started by developing a custom ASA formula,” Larry continues. “ASA plastics are best suited for outdoor weather, but they don’t have the strength that some other plastics do. So, we experimented with co- and tri-extrusion. For the past 15 years, we have been using co-extrusion to produce a very heavy-walled product. We co-extrude our ASA over a rigid PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic. Our specific ASA formula, married to high-grade PVC then strategically reinforced with metal tubing, results in a railing system that is unique. It is only available from AVCON. It is strong, durable, sustainable and can be produced in custom colors.”
AVCON railings stand up to the elements so well, in fact, that some building owners keep them intact while updating a building’s exterior finishes and features around them.
“We have pictures of a Holiday Inn hotel we did about 20 years ago in Virginia,” Larry says. “It’s right on the beach, so you can imagine the impact salt spray has over time. When the owners decided to give the building a whole new face, the only thing they didn’t touch was our railing on the balconies. It looks as good today as the day it went in. Our products are used by every major hotel chain I can think of.”
Precision and Problem Solving
“Initially, I never intended to go beyond the thermoplastic,” Larry says. “Then I realized, ‘Hey, not everyone wants pipe rail.’ So, we added two powder-coated aluminum railing systems to our product line. We also sell a variety of infill panels and other related products.”
This variety and Larry’s decision to add engineers and CAD technicians to his staff of about 30 employees enable AVCON to custom-design railing systems to achieve specific, and often quite unique, project goals.
“We pay incredibly close attention to details,” Larry says. “One of our chief engineers, John Clelland, has 30 years of experience working with concrete. Since 99 percent of the time we are mounting onto concrete, his knowledge is invaluable. Before the first piece is made, we know how long the railing needs to be, whether it is straight or curved and whether it rises or runs. This precision matters a lot to big general contractors. They may be building a hotel with 10-foot balconies, but the railings needed for these are never the same—one is 10 feet long, another is 10 feet and ¾-inches, and so on.”
“Let’s Make this Problem Go Away”
Larry continues to channel his knowledge, experience and ingenuity into resolving unique problems as they arise, such as finding a way to hide the seams on aluminum pipe railing.
“Normally, you can see the seam where the pieces are joined together,” he says. “That seam opens and closes based on temperature variations. Whenever we’d receive a complaint about this, we’d explain the product must be allowed to move. Finally, I said, ‘OK, let’s make this problem go away.’ I designed a paper-thin sleeve that slides over the seam. It is glued into place at one end, but still allows for expansion and contraction. Since the day we started using it about a decade ago, we haven’t had a single complaint.”
AVCON has also addressed issues that arise in the field. According to Larry, it takes about one-third the time to install an AVCON railing system compared to conventional systems. “Other companies send a bunch of boxes and the workers on site have to do the measuring and cutting before starting installation,” he explains. “With our product, all you do is stand it in place and anchor it.”
“If you’ve stood in line at a Disney theme park you’ve had your hands all over our railings,” Larry says. “All the colored railing that matches the theme of each attraction comes from us. We’ve done everything from the stanchions at Cinderella Castle to the roll bars on cars for the Tomorrowland Speedway. The roll bars we make look like painted steel. Unless you go up and bite them, you can’t tell the difference.”
Winning the chance to work with Disney took confidence and perseverance.
“I began sending Disney information in the 1990s,” Larry explains. “I felt we had what they needed because they have a lot of high-traffic areas where people are rubbing or leaning against railings. One day, I received a call from the head of procurement for the Magic Kingdom Park. He said: ‘Unless I wanted to speak with you, you’d never be able to talk to me.’ I said: ‘Thanks for the call.’ He asked me to send some more samples. Shortly thereafter, he wanted a test section for them to install near the turnstile for the Snow White attraction. We built this and he said he’d send me monthly reports about how many people went by it. After six months, he called and said, ‘We have the money allocated and we are going to move forward.’
Since then we’ve done one project after another for Disney. We did all the railings for the Hong Kong Disneyland—everything from the ground up. We were shipping truckloads of products via overnight delivery because when Disney says they are going to open, they open.”
Not all AVCON projects are this high profile. In some instances, the company’s railing systems are only visible from an unusual perspective and in others, the client hopes no one will notice them at all.
A Birdseye View
“A couple of years ago, we did three air traffic control towers for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),” Larry says. “The architect specified our railing around the perimeter of the radar antennas and other equipment on top of the towers because our thermoplastic rail acts like an insulator. They don’t have to put lightning rods on it and it doesn’t deflect radio waves like metal rail does. I recently received a call saying the FAA has approved the redesign of 50 more control towers around the country and wants to make sure we are on board for doing all the rail.”
The exterior renovation of the historic Woolworth Building in New York City illustrates the other end of the spectrum.
“We do a tremendous amount of design work with architects,” Larry says, “so we offer a high-quality, powder-coated aluminum product we call ‘HorizAL by AVCON.’ We import it from France and are the exclusive distributor in the U.S. The client for the Woolworth Building project wants us to install code-compliant railing while keeping all the old Gothic terracotta from 1912 in place. Since this client wants our rail to be almost invisible, we are using HorizAL because its posts are shaped like I-beams and are very thin.”
Making a Memorial
Although AVCON has completed projects of all scale and complexity from coast to coast and around the world, Larry says one close to home goes straight to the heart: the 9/11 Memorial erected on Breezy Point, on the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in New York City.
“The memorial is within sight of where the Twin Towers stood,” he explains. “Members of this small community lost 29 residents on 9/11. So, they built a memorial that includes some of the Twin Towers’ steel. It has a walkway that is several hundred feet long and when you get out to the end of it you can see the Freedom Tower. An artist etched the face of every person who perished—and a short bio, too—into very thick glass panels. We donated the thermoplastic railing system, which was made in a custom color, and mounted all the glass in between the posts.”
While Larry recognizes people visiting this memorial are unlikely to notice the railing system, he also knows he won’t have to worry about AVCON railings and posts deteriorating. Visitors will be able to focus on the artistic elements of the memorial and its contemplative, scenic location for many years to come.