The UK still has some way to go before most householders – and contractors – don’t automatically think brick when it comes to the exterior finish of a home. According to the latest report on the market from analysts AMA Research, it remains by some distance the default option; the cladding choice of the majority (as it has been since the 19th century), either in the form of solid throughand- through brick wall or as facing to other forms of construction.

In fact, in its Wall Cladding Market Report – UK 2020-2024, AMA says that the key driver for cladding market growth from 2015 to 2017, when it hit 46.7 million m2, was increased demand for facing bricks, “particularly on higher value detached homes”.

Recent years, reports AMA, have been more challenging for the UK cladding sector generally. From 2018-19, new housing completions contracted (and office new build slowed) and then, in 2020, as the pandemic hit construction, overall cladding sales shrunk to 40.6 million m2. Business has since picked up in line with building recovery from 2021 through 2022, although, says AMA, the ending of CERT grant scheme funding for exterior wall insulation and its succession by the ECO funding programme, which was “more limited in scope and take-up”, has adversely impacted cladding retrofit. But throughout these more turbulent times, one thing remained constant – brick’s status as market leader.

All that said, however, AMA also maintains there have been, to date modest, but nevertheless clear signs of an accelerating diversification in UK cladding as construction methods, aesthetics and buyer priorities change and new products enter the market. There has been growth in demand for alternative materials such as cast stone and rendered blockwork – and, it stresses, timber.

“Among other product sectors, demand for timber cladding continues to increase, due to both design trends and the ongoing move towards sustainable construction, which favours the use of timber over materials that require more energy to manufacture, such as concrete, metals – and bricks,” AMA states.

In particular it sees growth in timber building, notably in the offsite and modular housing sector, as influencing specifier, consumer and developer cladding choice. The argument goes that, with greater sustainability regarded increasingly as a key reason to opt for a wood-based building, so it becomes increasingly logical that more architects, builders and buyers should opt in conjunction to have the most sustainable cladding, ie wood.

“And continuing growth in offsite and modular construction suggests timber’s market share will [increase further] in future years,” says AMA.

Timber cladding suppliers generally concur with AMA’s market interpretation and outlook.

“Cedar has been more difficult due to costs, but [otherwise] the cladding market has been pretty positive for us, with solid sales and margins in modified softwood and recently success in modified meranti,” said one importer distributor.

“The timber cladding market in the UK has been growing and is forecast to grow more over the next five years,” said another supplier. “Ever since 2020 at the start of the pandemic and the increase in property refurbishment, demand from home owners has grown and timber has increasingly been their go-to product.”

Some suppliers say the home improvement boom, which helped drive cladding sales through the health crisis, has increasingly worked its way through the system, with consumers now free of health crisis restrictions and free to spend on travel and other leisure activities. One supplier said, consequently, that most of their cladding sales are now B2B or via merchants.

Others, however, say they’re continuing to see property repair and refurbishment driving sales.

“We are still experiencing lots of interest in home improvement,” said a supplier. “House owners fell into it in the pandemic, having no chance of spending money elsewhere, but the trend has continued.”

Suppliers are taking a wait and see stance on the impact of the rising cost of living and interest rates on market confidence and cladding sales. But, it seems, so far, so good.

“Most projects have a long planning period, so maybe [we’ll feel the effect] next quarter,” said a supplier in January. “But we’re not seeing it yet. Enquiries are still very positive from developer/multi-house, commercial and public building sectors.”

An importer/distributor concurred. “We are still seeing plenty of interest, not only from private home owners, but small to medium building and construction companies all looking at timber cladding and how it can feature in their projects,” they said.

Another supplier, however, felt that the commercial sector was “keeping timber cladding at arm’s length” due to latest fire safety rules. “This isn’t as important with private house owners who can address the regulations with the help of their architect and timber cladding supplier,” they said. “And fire-retardant treated cladding is not always required on domestic properties.”

There are reports that some Siberian larch remains available in the UK from stocks landed prior to the embargoes on Russian and Belarusian trade and restrictions on Ukrainian supply due to the war. However, customers are said to be anticipating volumes decreasing and consequently looking at alternatives, although not necessarily the ones expected.

“We had anticipated more upgrading to modified timber and western red cedar due to restrictions on Siberian,” said a cladding supplier. “But, while there is some evidence Douglas fir is coming into its own more, we’ve mostly seen down trading to whitewood as a larch alternative, notably with a black finish.”

Another importer said that the anticipated eventual loss of Siberian larch from the market would leave a “massive hole in timber cladding”.

“It was by far the most popular species considered for all timber cladding projects in the last few years,” they said. “What we’re now seeing is a move to thermally modified timbers, which, although, they’re a country mile from Siberian larch aesthetically, are like-for-like costings wise. Also we’ve had a dramatic upturn in requests for home-grown timbers, such as larch and Douglas fir.”

Others see chemically modified timber also gaining momentum in the cladding market, notably Accoya. And following manufacturer Accsys’ completion of work at its Netherlands plant to increase production, this is expected to continue (see p50). In a recent TTJ hardwood market report, an importer/ distributor said they could have sold up to 40% more Accoya in 2022 had it not been for the expansion of the facility temporarily restricting supply.

Another supplier described Accoya as the “ideal cladding material”. “But it has become expensive at a time when ‘value’ has become important again,” they cautioned.

Other new cladding products and species are also coming to market, with one company expanding its offer to include, for instance, yellow cedar, cypress and thermally modified options in both meranti and red oak.

Another also reported growing demand for thermally modified timber in an increasing range of species including redwood, radiata pine, hemlock and Douglas fir, “to name but a few”.

“We are also seeing an increase in the amount of coated and charred cladding we sell,” said a spokesperson.

“Fully factory-finished cladding is now much sought after,” they added. “And we’re now also offering technical back-up and advice on which product to use for the application and on cladding maintenance, which is often overlooked.”

The consensus among suppliers is that wood cladding’s environmental credentials are an increasingly significant factor in its specification. In fact, some say it’s now key, and not just for modular and offsite housing.

“The carbon story is being requested a lot as passive houses are now the thing. And there is a growing realisation of the need to use more natural/low carbon building materials and products [generally],” said a supplier. “Carbon footprint is also a critical [topic] and we’re now having our own production facilities assessed and are developing a unique Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for our cladding range, including the coatings.”

And the belief is that consumer environmental awareness can only intensify in the future and with it interest in timber cladding.

“Consumers are more aware now than ever before that timber is the most sustainable product to build with – it ticks so many boxes for so many,” said an importer/distributor. “So timber cladding products are here to stay.”

“It’s [competitive], with all the key players fighting over projects,” said another supplier. “But it’s a great area to be in and one where we can show the true versatility of timber products and the solutions they can give to everyone, from designers, to end users. It is now the age of timber cladding.”