The new house build market has become ‘flat’, with little prospect of a significant upturn in the near future, according to latest indications.

And this situation has impacted adversely on mass production joinery sector sales of, most notably of all, windows and external doors, and to a lesser extent staircases. The market for internal doors appears to be holding up reasonably well, with one leading operator stating that ‘merchant sales and own branch sales had performed to expectations’.

With inflation apparently in check, interest rates fairly stable and a reasonably healthy econ-omy overall, there are grounds for anticipating what one key figure described as ‘another comfortable year’ in 2001.

Several key players in the mass production sector reported a slower than expected pick-up in the market for timber windows and external doors following the summer holiday period, with one leading figure suggesting that the market had not sparked back into life until late October – several weeks later than normal. It would not be possible to make up the lost ground, he suggested.

Some staircase manufacturers indicated a thicker order book than at the same time last year while demand for interior doors is said by some to have benefited from the ubiquitous home improvement programmes on television. ‘The market for interior doors seems to be expanding,’ said one contact. ‘These TV programmes have perhaps helped because they have taken home improvement beyond decorating.’

That said, interior doors in general remain a commodity market characterised by strong competition, so prices continue to be under constant pressure. A contact observed: ‘Some of the silly prices have gone out of the market for the moment but there is always someone who is willing to sell cheap.’

On the product development front, Premdor says it is increasing its promotion of interior doorset systems that require little additional work once they have been transported to site. This development comes in response to the increasing problems associated with getting skilled site labour and therefore provides customers in the housebuilding sector with opportunities for more flexible operation.

Factory finished demand

Meanwhile, nothing appears to be stopping the juggernaut that is the demand for fully glazed, factory finished windows, with some producers identifying insufficient production capacity and shortage of available workers as the main constraints on business.

One said this week: ‘Our output is tempered by the number of people we can get in here. We have got the order book but not the people to do it.’

A prominent producer of factory finished, fully glazed timber windows confirmed that selling prices had held well at ‘realistic’ levels and that there was little pressure coming from timber suppliers for a hike in raw material prices.

That said, the sterling exchange rate is such that the Scottish market in particular is being affected by cheaper imported windows from Scandinavia.

It has been a case of swings and roundabouts in terms of news about overall timber window demand. On the downside, operators have reported a slowdown in enquiries from the new housing sector, with several merchants pointing to the recent appalling weather and fuel protests as key factors in what one described as ‘the destabilisation of normal market patterns’. Another confirmed that his own company’s merchant sales had demonstrated ‘a clear drop’ in September at a time when the trade would normally have expected a post-summer pick-up in business.

On the upside, the recent pre-Budget statement from chancellor Gordon Brown that schools are to receive an additional multi-million pound finance package for refurbishment work, offers encouragement not only to timber window suppliers but to joinery firms in general.

Sounding an even more positive note, however, is the report from Palmer Market Research (TTJ November 11) that points to an almost threefold increase in timber window market share among housing associations over a two-year period – from 11% of the total in 1997 to 30% last year. The main reason for the increase, the report suggests, is the increased perception of timber windows as an environmentally friendlier alternative to PVCu.

Housing associations

The report’s findings are borne out by comments from the timber window trade itself. ‘More and more housing associations are getting the message,’ confirmed one window specialist. Another ventured: ‘Green issues are driving this. Housing associations are seeing that it is far better to use a material that can replenish itself than one that brings problems at the disposal end.’

While housing associations appear to be in the vanguard of this trend towards timber windows, housebuilders too – and particularly those in the higher quality end of the market – appear to be leaning away from PVCu and in favour of timber. One supplier noted this week: ‘A large housebuilder in the south has told us only recently that he wants to come back to timber from PVCu.’

However, demand for timber windows from local authorities is comparatively less exciting, with the Palmer Market Research report indicating that market share within UK councils had remained at a static 14% between 1997-1999. These figures are again borne out by experts in the trade, with one commenting: ‘Local authorities are dragging their feet a bit but many of them will change.’

The environmental issues surrounding PVCu and timber windows has come into even sharper focus with the official launch in early October of the British Fenestration Rating Council (BFRC). The organisation is promoting a 0-100 rating system to indicate the total energy performance of a complete window, taking into account everything from solar heat gain to air infiltration.

In general, timber windows are expected to emerge very positively from the ratings process although BFRC project co-ordinator Robin Kent has warned about the need to maintain high standards. ‘A well-designed PVCu window… will be better than a badly designed timber window and vice versa,’ he said.

Among the organisations trying to maintain this positive momentum towards timber is the British Woodworking Federation (BWF) which has recently mailed a new brochure to 5,000 companies that had previously expressed an interest in timber windows. It includes technical information on the federation’s Timber Window Accreditation Scheme (TWAS), details of how members’ timber windows comply with NHBC and British Standards, and an outline of the windows’ environmental credentials. Also incorporated is a directory of TWAS members.

Windows conference

Circulation of the brochure is being supported by an advertising campaign aimed at local authorities, housing associations, housebuilders, architects, timber/builders merchants, and other timber window companies that might be interested in joining the accreditation scheme.

In addition, BWF is hosting a ‘Windows for the Future’ conference – scheduled for April 25 next year – at which all issues relating to timber windows will be open for discussion. One of the aims, said a federation spokesperson, was to ensure that the high profile for timber windows was maintained.

As for the BWF’s Certifire fire door scheme, the spokesperson reported the completion of a highly successful series of joint seminars with the Builders Merchants Federation aimed at providing training on all of the issues surrounding fire doors. He commented: ‘In the past, builders merchants have sold fire door leaves, but the seminars have shown them that they need to sell the full fire door assembly – from glazed apertures to intumescent seals – that is compatible and certificated.’

For its part, BM TRADA has just issued enhanced fire door scheme requirements designed to: raise the profile of factory hung doorsets; identify to what extent the doorset and its component parts are covered by the scheme; and to toughen the audit test requirements. The same organisation also expects to have a ‘Secured by Design’ certification scheme up and running by the end of this year for a range of products.

According to many joinery companies, ‘Secured by Design’, is becoming mentioned ever more regularly in tender documents – such as for social and local authority housing.

Chiltern Fire, meanwhile, is conducting a series of seven one-day seminars entitled ‘Timber fire doors explained’ – the first of which is scheduled for December 5. Aimed at manufacturers, installers and specifiers of fire doors, the events will feature a full-scale fire test.

In the main, architectural joinery companies contacted by TTJ this week reported a reasonable flow of business over recent months and a fairly favourable outlook at least as far forward as the early stages of next year.

Particularly strong demand has come from the commercial sector – notably, banks, building societies and corporate offices – as well as from the high quality residential/apartment end of the trade. Meanwhile, shopfitting has taken something more of a back seat, while tender work is reported by several contacts to be a little slower coming through of late.

Despite a generally positive order book position, the reasonably common view is that margins could be better, with one contact complaining about the degree to which increasing ‘red tape’ was damaging company profitability.

‘Contracts managers need to do so much more work these days on all the contracts, particularly on health and safety compliance,’ he explained, estimating the additional administrative costs to his own com-pany at around £50,000 a year.

Another source expressed irritation at the trend among some of his larger customers to ‘protract payment beyond the agreed time limits’.

Price pressure

And there was regular mention of the substantial price pressure imposed on architectural joinery firms by labour costs. Even those companies that have maintained a reasonably stable full-time workforce were complaining about the high cost of agency workers, particularly in London and the south-east. One noted: ‘There doesn’t seem to be much movement in the skilled labour force but there is a core of semi-skilled workers who seem to go from one company to another.’

There was a need, he said, for more skilled workers in the field and his own company had responded with its own training programme. But he added: ‘We don’t see a lot of other com-panies doing the same – and nobody wants to be a training ground for their competitors.’

In terms of timber fashions, all contacts confirmed the continuing popularity of North American maple despite its recently spiralling price. Oak has also enjoyed a reasonable level of demand while American black walnut has begun to appear on an increasing number of specification documents, according to several contacts.

One source also pointed to an increased requirement for western red cedar and added: ‘I expect it to be a big mover in the next year or so.’

The higher prices of some species have generally been offset by static to falling prices elsewhere, such as for a range of board products. One joiner said: ‘There are still enough timber suppliers competing out there, and so prices are not really a problem’.