House builders in the UK have turned to alternative materials like wood because of a severe brick shortage. But what are the long-term implications of this change for the industry?
Brick has long been the material of choice for many UK home builders, but the rapid rise in the number of homes being built in the last 18 months has taken brick manufacturers, who were forced to shut down production of kilns during the recession, completely by surprise….
Many brick manufacturers were forced to mothball their kilns when the housing market crashed in 2008, according to Andrew Dixon, policy advisor for the Federation of Master Builders (FMB)…
The process of re-establishing this capability is, of course, taking some time. Members have reported waiting periods of up to eight months or more for specific types of bricks, with wait times of 30 weeks or more being common. This has become one of the biggest obstacles for many smaller house builders to get on site and start building quickly.”
In the second quarter of 2014, the FMB’s latest State of Trade Survey found that half of all members were experiencing a shortage of clay products, including bricks. It’s affecting the industry in general, but Dixon says it has had the greatest impact on the housing sector. “This has been a major obstacle for some house builders over the last year to actually getting on site and building. “.
As a result, there is a significant amount of uncertainty, and this has slowed down delivery to some degree. Going back and changing planning permissions to change the materials you’re using is a hassle and a delay.”
Stewart Milne Group is in a unique position to see both sides of the coin as a house builder and a provider of timber system solutions. For bricks to clad its timber-framed buildings, its director of product development Stewart Dalgarno must wait up to 40 weeks.
Before getting planning permission, “we were ordering bricks to ensure supply,” he says. “We use timber frames, so bricks are not dependent on us – it is not part of the critical path for us – but clearly to finish the buildings we need bricks and so from a homes’ perspective it was still an issue.”
Many developers who have traditionally relied on brick homes are now turning to alternative building materials such as timber because supply cannot keep up with demand.
In light of last year’s block shortage, “some house builders have certainly switched from brick to block and render,” says Dixon. “This does not require drastic changes in design.” The use of timber is something that some may already be considering, while others may be considering it as well.
Some of the larger developers have shown interest in Stewart Milne Timber Systems’ timber frame products. Dalgarno said, “We’ve seen a significant increase.” As a result of the recovery from the recession, “I believe our order book will be up by 40 or 50 percent this year, and our business will almost double in size this year.”
In addition to the scarcity of bricks, Dalgarno says that masonry’s complexity, including rising brick prices and the time and labor required to build with brick and block, is leading more developers to turn to timber frames as a construction material of choice.
It’s clear that the major developers are interested in switching to timber frame and committing some of their output to it, according to this source. Even though they still prefer the look of brick and block, “they are concerned about skills and rising material costs, and as a result they must look at meeting their growth projections by changing the method of construction to timber frame.”
Aside from the environmental benefits of timber and the time and money savings of off-site production, Dalgarno points out that the industry has an abundance of high-quality, sustainable, certified timber and the processing capacity to fix timber prices for the year ahead.
It is possible to set timber prices for a year or more in advance because there is a good picture of the supply, he says. “We are less exposed to the rising price of raw materials,” he continues.
While working with developers who want a fixed-price and fixed-volume deal on an annual basis, “that has been quite beneficial.”
Obviously, the brick shortage won’t last forever, but when brick production is back to normal, will developers begin to abandon timber?
In the short term, the brick shortage won’t be a permanent feature of the landscape, but it may have some repercussions, says Dixon.
It’s possible that some home builders have already made the switch to alternative materials like wood and will continue to do so. Many people will continue to use brick, but smaller house builders will keep innovating, as they have always. In the end, the materials they use will be a compromise between what they want and what their customers want.
People who have made the switch to wood will stick with it, Dalgarno is confident. This is not just because we have a few missing pieces and people want to jump ship for a while; it is because it is very competitive and has these additional benefits that he believes many people will stick with it.
When it comes to timber frame, “I don’t think they will abandon it once they have had a taste of it,” says one developer, “whether that is 30, 40, 50 or 60 percent and different developers may have different views on how much they want to commit.”