Last edited 28 Dec 2021

Examining the 2021 construction materials shortage



[edit] Introduction

On 10 June 2021, a webinar entitled "What can the industry do to best combat the materials shortages?” was presented as part of an examination of the state of the building materials market.

[edit] Some factors related to the shortage of materials

The session opened with Peter Caplehorn, Chief Executive of the Construction Products Association (CPA) and co-chair of the Construction Leadership Council’s (CLC) Brexit Movement of Building Products and Materials Group, which was established in mid-2020 due to concerns about Brexit. Since that time, other issues have arisen, and noting that many of these issues are global, he predicted the trend would continue for some time.

Caplehorn said, “it’s perfectly fair to describe it as a perfect storm.”

[edit] Materials

In an examination of the 2020/2021 COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on different countries, Caplehorn noted that the Chinese and US economies appear to be recovering earlier than other countries. As a result, they are “sucking up large amounts of global commodities.”

This is having an impact on the availability of several products, including steel, aluminium and timber as well as the components related to these materials. He also noted that the timber shortage - which started before the pandemic - was made even worse by production issues caused by earlier warm weather in Scandinavia.

Caplehorn also pointed out that the pandemic in Italy and India had an impact on the production and delivery of materials such as ironmongery (in Italy and India) and white goods (in Italy).

[edit] Containers

The placement of shipping containers around the world has also had an impact on materials. At the end of 2020, there were a large number of empty containers in Europe and the US; correcting that balance has taken several months. This pushed up the cost of containers significantly.

This issue was exacerbated by the ship that blocked the Suez Canal, which had a ripple effect on deliveries throughout the world. Rebalancing the location of those containers has required additional measures.

[edit] Continuation of construction

For the most part, construction continued during the pandemic. But by June 2021, demand began to increase substantially, particularly in domestic operations and refurbishment and maintenance.

In manufacturing, the pandemic has had an impact on shift patterns, which has added to production challenges. Caplehorn acknowledged that measures have been effective, but “ chains that normally run smoothly through the UK have been patchy.”

[edit] Deliveries

At the beginning of 2021 there were some issues with border crossings. This has been resolved for the most part, other than in Northern Ireland. However, SMEs may continue to struggle with the administrative changes brought about by Brexit.

There has also been an issue with drivers, and the haulage industry is feeling challenged by changes to the way businesses operate. As a result, drivers are being enticed away from construction and over to the supermarket sector, which has experienced increased customer demand for home deliveries.

[edit] UKCA mark transition

Another Brexit related materials availability issue is the rollout of the UKCA mark. The transition from CE to UKCA is meant to be complete by the end of 2021, but Caplehorn explained, "...the UK does not have all of the testing and certification and capability and capacity that it actually needs.” If the UK intends to meet the 1 January 2022 deadline, “...there will be no testing and certification for certain products.” Unless certain strategic measures are put in place, he predicts additional product delivery disruptions.

To clarify, he stated, “...products can’t be placed on the market because they’ve not got a UKCA mark. And because we transition over to a UKCA mark only, it means that products from Europe that are CE marked will also not be allowed onto the market.”

European manufacturers have not rushed to address the issue and are expecting the UK to provide the relevant certificates. In certain product areas, the capacity to deliver the information doesn’t exist at all, he admitted.

According to Caplehorn, some of the products that could be affected include radiators, types of ironmongery, sealants and adhesives, specialist glass and new forms of glazing. He also mentioned a similar problem with chemicals covered by the REACH certification and testing process.

[edit] Price increases

As a 30+-year veteran of the industry, Dean Averies, Director at Beard Construction, said, “I’ve been through some boom times and some recessions, but I don’t ever recall being in this situation where supply and demand is so out of balance.”

One of the consequences is pricing increases on a frequent basis. Another is materials shortages, sometimes resulting in incomplete deliveries. Averies cited an unusual example of issues with cement, where it is not the material itself in short supply, but the plastic packaging (which comes from China). A fire in a factory in China had a major impact on the supply of plastic packaging, as did the weather-related problems in Texas earlier in 2021; some of the ingredients that go into plastics are produced in Texan factories that had to shut down.

[edit] Creative options

Unlocking the potential of existing buildings was the focus of Rachel Hoolahan, an architect at Orms Architects. Although she admitted that not all buildings could be reused, she stressed the importance of evaluating the reuse option at the outset, particularly in terms of carbon impact.

While material reuse is not a solution to supply issues, Hoolahan suggested that it could help. “We have got to stop pulling virgin materials from the earth, and we need to move towards a circular economy.”

[edit] Material Passport

One possible way forward is a Material Passport. Hoolahan explained how the process of deconstruction could be based on the concept of viewing a building as a potential material bank. Rather than seeing an existing building as a structure, she suggested evaluating it as “...a repository or a stockpile of valuable, high quality materials that can easily be taken apart and recovered.”

The idea would be to procure a smaller quantity of new material while incorporating a greater amount of reused materials - perhaps mixed with some additional new or reused materials.

Obstacles to reuse include cost, the current design and construction processes and a lack of knowledge about - or trust in - the reused materials. A Material Passport would address the trust obstacle by providing information about key aspects of the product. A database of products with Material Passports would make it possible for designers to base their projects on items that are available.

The Material Passport is still in its early stages, but work will continue. “Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” she said.

--Heidi Schwartz

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