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Architects voice alarm over ‘worsening’ UK brick shortage

A ‘massive’ shortage of bricks and lead-in times of more than a year threaten to cause delays to projects, architects have warned

Waiting times for bricks have soared, with architects reporting lead-in times, in some cases, of more than 60 weeks as suppliers struggle to keep up with demand.

Leading housing architects have said the delays have become an ‘enormous issue’. Gerard Maccreanor, of Stirling Prize-winning practice Maccreanor Lavington, said: ‘You just can’t get bricks in the UK.

‘We are seeing rising prices due to this shortage and also the specification of cheaper bricks. The quality of brick buildings going forward could suffer.’

Project Orange director James Soane agreed. He said: ‘There is a massive shortage. We had [German brick manufacturer]Wienerberger in this week and it is saying 60 weeks.’

Many architects have had to re-specify, or face delays to schemes as a result of the shortages. DSDHA architect Tom Greenall, who is working on the Link Primary School project in Croydon, said the practice was having ‘lots of problems’ with brick supply on the school.

He said: ‘We are having to re-specify facing bricks because of excessive lead times. Apparently many suppliers have stopped taking new orders until 2015.’

Meanwhile, Michelmersh, the UK’s largest brick manufacturer, has warned of unprecedented low stocks. Speaking to the Telegraph on Sunday, Michelmersh chief executive Martin Warner said: ‘I am seeing the lowest brick stocks in living memory across the UK.’

The shortage has been blamed on the housing boom, the mothballing of brickworks during the recession and the current trend for brick cladding, dubbed the ‘new London vernacular’.

According to the Office for National Statistics, brick prices were up 7.2 per cent in the year to March and, as bricks become harder to obtain and prices increase, architects have begun to look to the continent for supplies.

Alex Ely of Mae Architects said: ‘We are specifying bricks from Germany and Belgium. The forecast is that UK brick prices will go up 15 per cent next year and European bricks by only around 5 per cent with much shorter delivery times – which is great, because [their bricks] are generally much nicer.’

But, Maccreanor said, this solution might come unstuck as European supplies begin to struggle with the uplift in demand. He said: ‘A lot of factories in Belgium and Holland have gone bankrupt, or have downsized during the recession, and I fear they will soon have full order books as well.’

But Noble Francis of the Construction Products Association played down the fears. He said: ‘Pre-recession, housebuilders were used to planning weeks in advance for materials and there was little issue. After the recession hit, housebuilders got used to ordering materials days in advance. The rise in demand in the housing market and consequent rise in house building means that prices have risen and housebuilders have to plan in advance again.’

Further comments

Matt Ollier, director, Ollier Smurthwaite
‘We have been affected by the brick shortage on numerous jobs. One job was delayed by four weeks as a result and we had to change from an Ibstock product to a German Weinerberger. We’ve also had this problem with blockwork which has been respecified. This has been affecting jobs with brick/block for the last twelve months. We understand that the volume house builders bought up all the bricks and have been stockpiling them.’

Neil Deely, partner, Metropolitan Workshop
‘There is a perfect storm of brickworks having been shut down in the recession and the rise of the New London Vernacular. The shortage is - in a way- a good thing because it forces architects to think harder. We were recently cited 64 week lead-in times on bricks. There is a good supply form Europe but contractors are reluctant to pay the premium to import.’

Jerry Tate, founder, Jerry Tate Architects
‘We have just submitted planning for a scheme in Sevenoaks. [The developer] has been told that the lead in time for the bricks they want to use is 40 weeks, which is really long. We are looking for alternatives but the client is also thinking about pre-ordering now even though we have not got planning yet’.

David Cross, director, Coda Studios
‘We ran out on our Dunfields project and had to go to builders merchants and builders across the UK to source the last 10,000. It’s a nightmare. I’ve already looked to choose and order bricks on a job before we’ve even submitted the planning application. We are always looking for alternative solutions but bricks are pretty much the cheapest option for lower value areas. Lots of developers are angry at the big housebuilders who have put covers on brick stocks across the UK.’

Paul Karakusevic, partner, Karakusevic Carson
‘We are tending to use bespoke brick makers, many in europe who have a range of very beautiful bricks at reasonable prices. They don’t seem to have any supply issues yet because of the lack of demand from their domestic economies. We still find brick facades very affordable, with the added benefit of durability and timeless qualities.’

Phil Doyle, director, 5plus architects
‘Bricks are an issue everywhere. It’s not just the lead in time but the cost – the brick we had on Fabrica has doubled in price. Great Eastern Street in London is being quoted as 60 weeks. On a small scheme up here we have had to go to a concrete brick from clay.’

Tom Dollard, head of sustainability, Pollard Thomas Edwards
‘I have worked on several projects that have been affected in the last year,  but this is becoming less of a problem with larger contractors as they have significant buying power to guarantee a supply. In one of my projects in Cambridge, we specified a local brick, but it was not possible to procure, so in the end we had to accept a brick from Holland. The vast majority of buff bricks now come from Holland.

‘In my role inspecting sites for the Zero Carbon Hub, I have seen more than 15 sites affected by the brick shortage in the last year. The major housebuilders have been surviving with guarantees by the brick suppliers for a regular supply. They buy a million or so bricks every month, and then allocate this amongst their sites in the UK.’

Steve Turner, head of communications, Home Builders Federation
‘In the past year, we have seen a significant increase in house building activity and there has inevitably been pressure on the industry’s supply chain – including brick supplies.

‘But the industry has responded, with many suppliers running production through winter and Christmas last year for the first time since 2007, while we have also seen a number of new or mothballed factories open in recent months.’

Readers' comments (2)

  • Nothing new - seen this at least 4 times in the last 30 years - Just make sure that the lightweight blockwork is not too fresh from the factory and has been allowed to cure otherwise you end up with lots of cracking with resultant water ingress problems and breaches in fire compartmentalisation.

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  • JustFacades.com

    just plan ahead guys and don't let your MC leave it to the last minute in placing an order. There are great UK bricks still on 2 weeks if you are prepared to increase your budget and get quality rather than commodity.

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