New solutions

David Young explains why necessity is the mother of invention and needy times lie ahead

David Young explains why necessity is the mother of invention and needy times lie ahead

We are already well in to what looks set to be one of the most difficult years for the construction industry in recent memory. But one of the positives we can take from this is that an industry that is incredibly slow to adopt new and innovative products will be driven by circumstance to break its inertia. Practices we establish now to combat material shortages can change the way the industry works and lead it to a more efficient, more sustainable future.

In recent years, government legislation has pushed a drive towards recycled products in new builds. This has been notable in the plastic drainage market where pipework with recycled content within the core has become the first choice. But the bulk of innovation has resulted not from legislation, but from necessity – builders are being forced to look for new solutions to very traditional problems.

PIR Insulation has been in short supply after China’s problems with MDI production. We’ve seen a rise in the sale of rock and glass insulation products because of this shortage and because, post-Grenfell, they are perceived to be safer. Brick and lightweight block orders have been delayed, sometimes for more than six months. Ten years ago we manufactured five billion bricks in the UK. This year it will be less than two billion. The mothballing and closure of brickworks during the last recession has led to the problems we now face. We can import bricks, but this is increasingly expensive due to the exchange rate fluctuation.

Global issues
The supply of timber can only get slower due to increased demands for European product from America, India and China. Floods in Latvia late last year led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the country’s logging sector further exacerbating the timber crisis. Global issues are having a very real impact on home development in the UK – the rising middle class in India and their need for toilet paper, the increased need for timber in the US, the US imposed import levy on Canadian timber, and China’s continued expansion are combining to pull resources away from the UK.

In many cases we have yet to find a substitute for timber. The efficient production of sustainable forests still remains an achievable ideal both practically and environmentally. But until that is accomplished we can minimise our reliance by using alternatives at every possible opportunity. Obvious substitutes are posijoists, metal studwork, composite decking, concrete fence posts and gravel boards and as timber prices rise, large-scale builders will have no choice but to use them. A large part of Bradford’s Builders’ Merchant work is to help steer our clients towards these workable solutions. We work constantly to identify new innovation and our challenge is to educate our customers in the use of new techniques and materials.

Need to innovate
The industry does move at a slow pace and this is not helped by the fact that, more often than not, innovation comes at a price. The pioneers of building tend to be self-builders where a once in a lifetime build means more money is spent and more research is undertaken on construction techniques and sustainable solutions.

Another hindrance is the shrinking workforce. It is increasingly difficult to attract young people to the industry and we don’t yet know how a Brexit agreement on freedom of movement will affect it. The skills shortage has been widely publicised and we need to think differently about how we are going to build and maintain homes in the future. There is progress in offsite manufacture and even 3D printing but we are still building just half the homes we need and these processes are not going to fill the gap in the short or even medium terms.

Offsite manufacture and 3D printing are much less relevant to the repairs, maintenance and improvement market. And that is the biggest challenge – 80 per cent of the homes that will be standing in 2050 are already built. Innovation is key to keeping them in a good state of repair while complying with new regulations and improving their efficiency and performance.

This innovation must change the way we live and behave in our properties. Renewable energy systems, new cladding techniques, thinner insulation for roofs and floors and improved window and glass technology can all make a massive impact. But these solutions are not cheap. We must look at these changes as long-term investments. Maintenance is no longer just a fix – it is preparation for a cleaner, cheaper way of living.

Investment in this change is vital but with Brexit looming, research and development budgets are under threat. The market outlook is uncertain and a doldrum period awaits. More than a third of UK construction suppliers are foreign owned – with concerns in the UK market, short and medium-term investment looks to be heading away from the UK rather than towards it. We are depending on some pretty shrewd Brexit negotiations to attract this investment back.

All of this signals that we are entering a very tough few years. The construction industry, and local and national government, are left with a stark but simple choice: innovate or stagnate. And we must all work together, suppliers, builders, architects and big government, to make sure it is the former.

David Young is Managing Director, Bradfords Building Supplies, and has worked in the construction materials industry throughout his career including 18 years at Wolseley. Founded in 1770, Bradfords Building Supplies is a familyowned company with c. 145 shareholders.

Today, Bradfords Building Supplies Ltd. has 49 branches throughout the South West, Herefordshire and Worcestershire and is one of Britain’s oldest and leading names in the building supplies industry.

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