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Architects: 'Brick shortage still an issue'

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Architects are still reporting significant difficulties getting their hands on the bricks they need for projects - despite industry efforts to step up production

The widespread shortage made headlines last summer with 60-week lead-in times reported for some products. Data suggests imports of foreign bricks had more than doubled to meet demand.

Industry body the Brick Development Association (BDA) has since reported a 17 per cent increase in production during 2014 and a 5 per cent increase in the first quarter of 2015.

However architects have told the AJ that the lack of bricks remains an issue and were having to take a long-term view on supply, were managing projects around lead-in times and availability and had begun to look to other construction materials.

Tom Dollard, head of sustainable design at Pollard Thomas Edwards, said general consensus at the practice was that the situation was worse than last year, but that it was still specifying bricks as a robust cladding solution.

‘We are having to be more creative in terms of the construction techniques,’ he said.

‘More contractors are looking at structural insulated panels and timber frame as an alternative to traditional brick and block.’

Matt Ollier, director at Ollier Smurthwaite, said the practice was also still experiencing problems and was finding that the bricks it was specifying on most jobs were from mainland Europe.

‘Our starting point now, when looking to specify bricks, is to ask which bricks are available on short lead-in times,’ he said.

‘UK bricks are still a minimum of 20 weeks lead in. Things don’t appear to be as bad as they were, however, last year we were given a waiting time of 44 weeks.’

Barry Stirland, associate at Project Orange, said the black and white brick façades of one its projects - a 216-home development in east London - had been detailed to take brickwork ‘off the critical path altogether’.

‘The building can be made watertight before a brick is laid,’ he said.

‘Brick samples were submitted to the planners well in advance of commencement on site, and their timely approval has allowed to the main contractor to place their order in line with the construction programme.’

David King-Smith, director at 5plus Architects, said the practice had not noticed any availability changes but was being more selective in its specifications to head off supply shortages.

‘Shortages in effect seem less of an issue simply because we have adapted to the market reality,’ he said.

‘I don’t see a particular problem with the current position and I no longer see it as unique versus any other lead in periods in the industry in general.’

King-Smith added that a number of clients had specifically asked the practice to avoid the use of brickwork in general, but that the move was as much to do with a shortage of skilled labour as supply.

BDA chief executive Simon Hay said the industry had responded rapidly to 2014’s shortages and had made major capital investments to keep up with demand.

‘The provisional stock levels at the end of Q1 2015 stood at 415m, this is the highest figure of stocks since Q1 in 2013,’ he said.

‘At the end of Q1 2013, production was only 389m. Production now is 464m in the first quarter in 2015, therefore, stocks are rising in parallel with production, but it still takes time to replenish all brick types as the industry makes over 1,200 bricks in the UK.

‘Contactors may always have to order ahead for the most popular bricks.’

Imports of bricks have increased by 117%

Noble Francis economics director at the Construction Products Association, said that while brick production had increased by 17 per cent in 2014, deliveries had only risen by 4 per cent. He said imports of bricks had increased by 117 per cent compared with the previous year.

Francis said the market had essentially returned to the pre-recession model.

‘In 2008-09, housebuilders were able to order days in advance due to the sharp fall in house building leading to rises in bricks stocks despite falls in capacity,’ he said.

‘Over the past two years housebuilding has risen considerably and, as a consequence, housebuilders are being asked to plan in advance once again. In addition, prices have risen due to the rise in demand. That is not a brick shortage, that is a natural consequence of demand.’

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