Another brick in the Wall
Bricks. Literally the building blocks of our towns and cities. They’re such an integral part of our urban and suburban landscape that we simply take them for granted. But the construction industry doesn’t take them for granted: at the moment, they’ll be happy to take them from almost anywhere at all. You may not know it, but we’re in the middle of an industry-wide brick shortage and bricks are, almost, worth their weight in gold. So, why is there a shortage at a time when house building is beginning to revive?
A lesson from the Recession
Not so long ago, the construction industry was mired in a recession. There were fewer requirements for new builds, which, in turn, meant fewer jobs for contractors and tradesmen. It also meant fewer orders for building materials, such as the simple and reliable brick. This decline in orders meant that some brickworks cut their workforce by a third, while others, in fact almost half of the UK’s brickworks, shut their doors completely. The overall result was a substantialreduction in the industry’s actual ability to manufacture bricks in significant quantities and to short lead times.
Rising from the Ashes
Recently, the demand for bricks has begun to build up again. Last year, the Government’s Help to Buy scheme began to revitalise the construction industry. As a result, builders suddenly needed bricks. Lots of bricks. And they wanted them right now. The problem for the industry is that bricks take time to manufacture, up to ten weeks for a premium product. This means extended lead times for construction projects, with contractors being unable to move jobs forward. In the worst cases, builds are grinding to a halt and trades are left waiting to work.
Not supporting importing
Usually, short-term shortages in materials can be alleviated by importing. But the model of importing from outside the UK isn’t a viable one in the brick industry. Bricks are simply too heavy to transport in substantial quantities. Although Belgium and Holland do export bricks to the UK, it hasn’t made a big enough impact on shortening lead times. The suggestion of new manufacturers entering the market is also not a workable one. Not only is a large initial investment required but there needs to be a high-levelof expertise in a complicated process, But, more than that, any manufacturers also have to be situated near a quarry, in order to excavate the clay used to create the bricks. Those three factors are more than enough to deter new enterprises.
Ironically, there is also a shortage of bricklayers, roofers and plasterers, as a result of the same historic downturn in demand. Before the recession there were more than enough tradesmen and contractors to choose from. But, as work dried up, they had to turn to other forms of employment, with some leaving the industry completely. Now, according to some building companies, trying to find enough bricklayers, carpenters and plasterers to cope with the upswing in work, is as difficult as getting hold the actual building materials themselves.
Planning for the future
There is, however, optimism in the industry. Some believe that all we’re seeing is a gradual return to the status quo. They point out that, prior to the recession, construction companies would build in adequate lead times to purchase and receive materials. During the recession, stocks of materials built up and, as demand slowly increased, those stocks were available to short lead times. The argument is that contractors simply got used to bricks ‘on demand’ rather than the traditional longer lead times for manufacturing materials. So, logic dictates that, as manufacturing increases, bricks will be available in reasonable quantities to a sensible lead time. All contractors have to do is respect those lead times and build them into their projects.
For now, with the process of quarrying clay, molding the bricks, firing them and shipping them taking up to two and a half months, the construction industry just has to wait for another brick in the wall.
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