• The business makes windows to withstand Australia's extreme weather. (SBS)Source: SBS
As the Bushfires Royal Commission hears how Australia can better prepare for natural disasters, one Victorian manufacturing company is working on ways to keep homes safer. It’s the vision of a migrant couple, Edith and Tony Paarhammer.
Sandra Fulloon

11 Jun - 3:42 PM 

Keeping Australian homes safer during bushfires is a focus for this family business in rural Victoria. The Paarhammers have drawn on European energy efficiency techniques to develop fire resistant windows for Australia.

“If you have the highest bush fire event happening, the house might be still heavily damaged but at least there is no loss of lives,” former cabinet maker Tony Paarhammer explained.

Many homes built or renovated in fire prone areas must now comply with strict new regulations. Since the "Black Summer' fires, this business has defied a downward manufacturing trend and the impacts of coronavirus, remaining busy with almost 40 per cent of their orders fire-related.

“There’s not many manufacturers in Australia making windows like we do,” Edith Paarhammer explained at the factory in Ballan, an hour’s drive north west of Melbourne.

The Paarhammers have developed a bushfire safe range to meet varying levels of risk in fire-prone areas.  

"The testing is 90 minutes altogether, so 30 minutes with flame straight onto the product at 850 degrees plus.

"After two minutes the outer glass pane of the double glazed unit breaks and the intumescent layers of the internal inner glass pane start to swell up to create a heat blanket against radiant heat getting inside and igniting furnishings. 

"And then after the first 30 minutes when the flames are taken away the window has to keep its integrity for another 60 minutes,” Mr Paarhammer explains.

Manufacturing is one of Victoria’s largest employers, supporting over 272,000 jobs, with the sector valued at almost $30 billion annually.

The family is understandably proud of the business they founded 30 years ago, after migrating from Austria.

“I was born in the western part of Austria and Tony comes from near Salzburg, where the movie ‘Sound of Music’ was filmed,” Ms Paarhammer said.

“It was really, really tough in the beginning,” Ms Paarhammer said.

Arriving in 1990 during the previous recession, and struggling to find work, they started a high-end furniture business and later manufactured and sold kitchens.

While building a house and unable to find the windows they grew up with in Austria, the couple decided to make their own, gradually laying the foundation for Paarhammer Windows and Doors.

They drew on knowledge of cold climates, to manufacture double and triple glazed windows and doors that they say can cut energy costs by up to 85 percent.    

“The window is one of the weakest links in the building envelope,” Mr Paarhammer explained.

“It's very easy to fix up the roof, insulate the walls, but the windows are the most difficult and expensive.”

As their orders have grown, so has the team and they now employ 23 staff from a diverse range of backgrounds.

“When we really needed staff and couldn’t find anyone local, we contacted the multicultural society in Ballarat and Dau came via that.

“Dau was a refugee from Sudan, who spent quite a few years in Kenya in refugee camps, and then came to Australia. And so now he is with us,” Ms Paarhammer explained.

The Paarhammers have invested in modern equipment, and say a new robotic spray painter has improved their workflow.

“It gave us a large step ahead to be an efficient manufacturer and it solved a lot of problems. We get consistent paint, finishes and colours,” Mr Paarhammer said.

Financial support and advice has been crucial in helping this business to grow.

“Business Victoria helped us in the earlier years with a business evaluation as well as a business plan, and that made a big difference for us,” Ms Paarhammer explained.

“Later on, we also were very, very lucky to be the recipients of a grant when we built this factory.”

They’ve also taken part in Business Victoria courses including the ‘Cluster’ program, a two-year program on manufacturing and exporting.  

It’s one way Business Victoria supports manufacturers in regional areas, offering strategic connections, training and practical assistance with product innovation, upskilling, scaling up trade and supply chain opportunities.

Paarhammer Widows and Doors has won numerous awards over the years, but the 'Manufacturer of the Year - Small Business' 2017 by the Victorian State Government was a highlight.

“That was the biggest award that we ever received,” Ms Paarhammer said.

“The manufacturer award is for what we actually do here, and it is not just an award for us, its for all our staff really.”

Tony and Edith Paarhammer are planning for succession, as they approach retirement in the next three to five years. Their 22-year-old  son Thomas will gradually take over the family business.

“The secret is this: you have a dream, you plan towards and work towards, but at the same time you always change and evolve and adapt to the demands within the market,” Tony Paarhammer said.