According to reports, the entire UK construction industry is having to navigate shortages of steel, timber, paints, adhesives, and other essential building materials, from architects at the planning stages to workers at the ground level.
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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and myriad other reasons, the United Kingdom is currently experiencing significant shortages of construction materials.
While some construction businesses have been nimble enough to handle these shortages, some have not.
The long-term effects of these shortages will likely be devastating, and while there are some solutions available, a resolution of the situation is seemingly out of reach.
The first wave of lockdowns in 2020 led to a massive slowdown in the production of construction materials across Europe.
Since then, supply chains have faced their own issues and struggled to keep up with the spike in demand that occurred after those initial lockdowns were eased. In June 2021, construction production in the UK hit its highest point in 24 years.
Unfortunately, the production of construction materials has not kept pace.
Brexit and Labor Challenges
While the Suez Canal blockage in March and the closure of a key Chinese port have played a role, a lot of the current headaches can be traced back to before the pandemic—to Brexit.
According to the Construction Leadership Council, approximately 60 percent of imported construction materials in the UK come from Europe. Brexit has rearranged the supply lines for these materials and complicated matters for private companies.
Although a trade deal signed this year between the UK and the EU has addressed some issues, it did not resolve one of the biggest pain points for construction companies: a new certification called UK Conformity Assessed (UKCA).
Any European products coming into the UK for use in construction must be UKCA certified as of January 1, 2022.
Unfortunately, there are only 45 testing facilities in the country that are authorized to provide certification. Furthermore, none of these testing facilities are qualified to certify specialized construction materials, including certain types of glass and adhesives.
In addition to complicating trade, Brexit has also muddied the waters when it comes to immigration.
The UK construction industry has traditionally relied on migrant labor from Europe, and many of these laborers were forced to return home due to the pandemic.
On top of that, many migrants who returned to Europe were employed in supply chains, and the country is now facing a shortage of greater than 100,000 truck drivers, according to a survey conducted by the Road Haulage Association.
The labor shortfall has caused many companies to attract potential workers by increasing wages.
Although this is a boon for workers, it translates to higher construction and materials costs.
Rising Prices and Delays
In September, building materials giant Jewson announced that current shortages will trigger near-term price increases of around 20 percent.
In the announcement, the materials supplier said that manufacturers were rationing materials, specifically cement, insulation, and plasterboard.
Jewson said it would therefore be forced to restrict the availability of these and other rationed products.
The company said it would be forced to raise prices of some other products, and customers should brace for delivery delays.
Shortages and delays have had a major on-the-ground impact.
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In a survey by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), 63 percent of construction companies said they were forced to deal with on-site delays, and around 25 percent said they had halted work due to shortages.
The survey also found 18 percent of respondents had experienced a delay in the design phase of their projects.
According to a report from Dezeen, design-phase delays are largely attributed to architects needing to select alternative building materials with delivery times that would keep projects on track.
Casting a Wider Net and Becoming Leaner
A recent survey of more than 1,400 tradespeople by building materials supplier Travis Perkins was not all negative.
More than 70 percent of respondents said that they were casting a wider net to manage material shortages, and 41 percent said they were effectively compensating by stockpiling materials.
About half of the respondents said that they have started looking at alternative products and brands as a way to address shortages.
More than 60 percent of respondents said they had yet to experience significant setbacks due to shortages.
Although some companies seem to be managing well in the short term, the industry itself would benefit greatly from a leaner, more efficient approach to using materials. in addition to buffering against future shortages, a more efficient approach to construction would reduce environmental impacts and minimize waste.
This shift would take time, and would likely require a massive industry-wide training effort from top to bottom.
Companies could also shift more quickly to a leaner approach by adopting the latest project control technologies, many of which are available on mobile platforms.
The latest project management solutions enable better decision-making and lower risk, and reduce waste by using insights gleaned from real-time data.
A Glimmer of Optimism
A recent study from IHS Markit and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply showed a decrease in home building, commercial construction, and even infrastructure projects due to shortages and supply chain issues.
On the other hand, the RIBA survey of 240 construction practices hinted at some optimism coming from the industry.
Even as they were trying to navigate delays, 38 percent of survey respondents said they anticipate having more work in the coming months, and 58 percent said they expect demand for construction to remain steady.
Just 7 percent of respondents said they expect to see a drop off in construction demand.
References and Further Reading
PBCToday. (2021). Construction materials shortage: How UK contractors can become leaner. [Online] Available at: https://www.pbctoday.co.uk/news/planning-construction-news/construction-materials-shortage/97085/
Stein, J. (2021). SMEs ‘finding ways round’ material shortages. Construction News. [Online] Available at: https://www.constructionnews.co.uk/supply-chain/smes-finding-ways-round-material-shortages-17-08-2021/
Carlson, C. (2021). Materials shortages affecting more than 60 per cent of UK architecture practices. Dezeen. [Online] Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2021/07/20/materials-shortages-uk-architecture-riba/
Woodfield, J. (2021). Construction Materials Shortage: Transport Issues a 'Pressing Concern'. Homebuilding & Renovating. [Online] Available at: https://www.homebuilding.co.uk/news/construction-materials-shortage
Partington, R. (2021). Jewson warns of price rises amid shortage of building materials. The Guardian. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/sep/06/uk-building-firms-materials-staff-construction-industry