Bricks And Mortar

A serious brick shortage in the UK has seen many house builders turn to materials such as timber but what will the long-term implications of the shift be for the industry?

Brick has long been the building material of choice for many house builders in the UK but the speed of the upturn in house building over the last 18 months has caught brick manufacturers – who were forced to closed down production of kilns during the recession – by surprise.

“When the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008, brick manufacturers found themselves sitting on increasing stock piles of unsold bricks and were forced to mothball many of their kilns,” explains Federation of Master Builders’ (FMB) policy advisor Andrew Dixon.

“Understandably, it is now taking some time to build up that capacity again. Members have been reporting waits of up to eight months and longer for certain types of bricks, with waits of 30 weeks or more being quite standard. For many smaller house builders this has become one of the biggest obstacles they face to getting on site and building quickly.”

According to the FMB’s latest State of Trade Survey for the second quarter of 2014, half of all members are finding clay products, including bricks, to be in short supply. “It is having an impact across the industry, but its main impact has been in the house building sector,” says Dixon. “For some house builders over the last year this has been one of the major barriers to actually getting on site and building.

“Not knowing if you are going to be able to access the materials you need is the cause of significant uncertainty and there is no doubt that this has slowed down delivery to some extent. It is a cause of further hassle and delay if you need to go back and change planning consents in order to change the materials you’re using.”

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As a housebuilder and provider of timber system solutions Stewart Milne Group is uniquely placed to see both sides of the coin. Its director of product development Stewart Dalgarno waits of up to 40 weeks for bricks to clad its timber frame buildings.

“We were having to pre-order bricks before we had planning permission just to secure supply,” he explains “We use timber frames so we are not dependent on the brick – it is not part of the critical path for us – but clearly to finish off the buildings we still need bricks and therefore from a homes’ perspective it was still an issue.”

As supply struggles to keep up with demand many developers who have traditionally relied on brick homes are choosing alternative building materials such as timber.

“Some house builders have certainly switched from brick to block and render, as the shortage of blocks which was seen last year now appears to have eased, and this doesn’t require drastic changes in design,” says Dixon. “That said, some will already be using timber and others may be looking at doing the same.”

Stewart Milne Timber Systems has seen a positive uptake of timber frame orders from some of the larger developers. “We have seen quite a substantial increase,” said Dalgarno. “I think we will be up 40 or 50% in terms of order book this year, we are almost going to double the size of the business this year from where we were at last year coming out of the recession.”

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While the brick shortage is no doubt having an impact Dalgarno that the complexities of masonry including the rising cost of bricks and the time and labour that it takes to build in brick and block are also leading to more developers using timber frames.

“Some of the main developers have shown a very keen interest in moving to timber frame and committing a proportion of their output to timber frame,” he said. “They still like brick and block but they recognise that there are only so many houses they can build and they are worried about skills and about material costs rising and as a consequence of that they have to look at meeting their growth projections through changing the method of construction to timber frame.”

Aside from timber’s environmental credentials and the cost and time savings of off-site production there an abundance of good quality, sustainable, certified timber and plenty of capacity within the industry to process that which means that timber prices, can be fixed for the year ahead says Dalgarno.

“Because there is a fairly good picture in terms of timber supply we can fix prices for timber typically a year sometimes a bit further so we are less exposed to the rising price of raw materials,” he explains.

“That has been quite advantageous when we have been engaging with developers who are looking to do a deal on an annual basis and fixed prices and fixed volume.”

Of course the brick shortage won’t last forever but when brick production is back at full capacity will developers start to turn their back on timber?

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“The brick shortage won’t be a permanent feature of the landscape – it’s one of those temporary mismatches between supply and demand caused by unpredictable swings in the market – but it may have some knock-on effects,” says Dixon.

“Some house builders will have switched to alternative materials like timber and may stick with these. Brick is likely to remain the material of choice for many, but smaller house builders will continue to innovate, as they always have. Ultimately their choice of materials will remain a balance between what works for them and what works for their customers.”

Dalgarno is confident that those who have made the switch will stick with timber. “It is not just the fact that we have got a few bricks missing and people want to jump ship for a period of time it is very competitive and because it is competitive and has got these additional benefits I think a lot of people will stick with it,” he says.

“I think they will say we will always want a proportion of our output in timber frame so whether that is 30, 40, 50 or 60% and different developers may have different views on how much they want to commit, I don’t think they will move away once they have had a taste of it.”

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