It’s in all the Sunday supplements. Increased home working, initially the result of lockdown, but widely seen as a permanent post-pandemic shift for a significant part of the population, has led people to take a long hard look at their property and conclude it needs smartening up, expansion or reconfiguration. The outcome for many, it seems, has been to go for cladding, either as a feature on their existing home, or as an aspect of a new extension, loft conversion, or new garden office.

In short, say cladding suppliers, they’ve kept busy and, in a show of market confidence, they’ve also continued to introduce new products.

“Covid meant we stopped production for two weeks in the spring,” said Elisabeth Piveteau-Boley, export manager of French based UK and Ireland supplier Piveteaubois.

“But, after this, with people working from home and deciding to renovate, demand rocketed. It caused huge market tension and we had to work double, then treble shifts to meet demand. Our 2020 production was up 6% on 2019 at about 700,000m2 – which is 14% of total French output.” BSW also reports home working “giving cladding a boost”.

“Being at home for extended periods has enabled people to finish jobs they’d put off,” said sales and marketing director Dave Chapman. “So, many homes and gardens have received makeovers – with consumers really researching their options.”

After a sharp decrease in sales during the first lockdown, Accsys also reports demand for Accoya cladding now at “record levels”.

French producer Sivalbp, which sells in the UK via Vincent Timber, describes a year of “sudden movements and shocks”.

“But the surprise was the extent to which lockdown and homeworking boosted renovation and extension markets,” said head of marketing Mathilde Desmoulins- Colas. “The result is a sector having to catch up with earlier production delays. Stocks at distributors, processors and supplier sawmills are low and 2021 begins against a backdrop of tension on raw material supply and continuing strong demand.”

Cladding suppliers also believe business is partly being shaped by political and popular calls for ‘green recovery’ – using the opportunity of post-pandemic economic reconstruction to reboot to a lower environmental market model to tackle that other global emergency, the climate crisis. BSW certainly sees environmental concern influencing consumers who opt for its IRO cladding. This is UK-grown softwood charred using the traditional Japanese Yakisugi method to make it more durable and resistant to moss and insect attack.

“With sustainable living on the rise, environmental credentials are influencing purchasing decisions,” said Mr Chapman. “And IRO is a natural product, that’s grown and manufactured in the UK, so has a lower carbon footprint than others.”

“Today, more than an aesthetic choice, wood in construction is part of an environmental and sustainable approach,” agreed Ms Desmoulins-Colas. “And to demonstrate our commitment on eco performance and meet consumer and project manager expectations, we’ve implemented our own FDES. These French environmental and health declaration documents detail products’ overall environmental impact [based on life cycle analysis].”

Piveteaubois also sees this market trend being given added impetus internationally by new building standards and regulations. France for example, has the new Plan de Relance ‘thermal renovation’ strategy, aimed at improving building envelope thermal performance.

“New tax reduction schemes are being introduced to help finance [work],” said Ms Piveteau-Boley. “It will give the timber cladding market a huge boost.”

Clearly the UK’s introduction, following the Grenfell disaster, of an 18m height restriction on use of combustible materials in and on walls, with a proposal to reduce that to 11m, has focused minds in the sector.

“The 18m restriction hasn’t impacted greatly, but reduce the limit and it will start to have greater effect in the commercial sector,” said Laura Keily, Accsys head of marketing. “But insurance companies are having a greater negative impact, with their default in many cases that all façades must be in non-combustible materials, regardless of what regulations say. However, this does not seem to be affecting the residential market for Accoya cladding.”

Piveteaubois agrees this insurance moratorium will primarily affect the commercial market.

“I think timber cladding will be used for private houses and low-rise housing developments, where there’s also a strong incentive to use sustainable materials and decarbonise the built-environment,” said Ms Piveteau-Boley. “No other material can help achieve the UK government’s net-zero target like timber.”

At the same time, cladding suppliers are addressing product fire safety.

“Timber will continue to be used to clad buildings. We must therefore ensure our material adheres to appropriate regulations where applicable,” said Mr Chapman. “We’re currently developing a fire-retardant version of IRO, hoping to launch in 2021.”

As for what’s selling, BSW says IRO has proved a hit.

“There are other charred timber companies, but what’s unique about IRO is the colour palette, with the pigmented coating also providing added protection,” said Mr Chapman. “On trend have been blacks and greys, but our charcoal, dolphin, driftwood, mountain and natural colours are also popular and we’re additionally starting to see people purchase the likes of lagoon – blue – and sunflower – yellow – for a bolder look. Customers are also asking about new colourways for the future.”

Sivalbp’s best performers, in both France and the UK, include its New Age range of grey hues – Gris 102 and Irisé 108. “The burnt wood technique is also making a comeback and our alternative to this, the Vintage range in matt black shades, has been very successful in the UK,” said Ms Desmoulins-Colas. Best sellers in Piveteaubois’ range of semitransparent stains have been black and grey.

“And in terms of profile, designs that create a rhythm on the façade have been hugely popular, such as our 44mm grooved Vibrato range, 22mm Tremolo and Melodik open jointed profiles,” said Ms Piveteau-Boley.

Piveteaubois produces brown UC4 treated pine cladding and a spruce profile for use with an opaque stain, but its main cladding species, the one that’s seen best growth recently and is billed as the ‘architects’ favourite’, is Douglas fir – in grey and brown pressure treated and sapfree options.

“Our promotion of Douglas fir on its aesthetics and natural durability – and sapwood-free Douglas is naturally durable for Use Class 3.2 environments, the same as larch and western red cedar – has paid off,” said Ms Piveteau-Boley.

Accsys says that 90% of Accoya cladding is sold with a coating in some form. Distributors also report an increase in demand for new surface texture finishes and full cladding systems with hidden fixings, rather than just the boards.

New products launched this year include updated profiles in Sivalbp’s Solea II and Tabaccoa II ranges, with two new ‘natural’ hues in its Elegance range lined up for 2021. Piveteaubois has introduced a new wider version of its Vibrato range, while BSW is looking at adding shiplap and tongue and groove IRO variants.

Producers maintain that timber cladding’s environmental credentials and aesthetic will enable it to hold sales share in the face of competition from composite cladding, but acknowledge the latter has a market. Piveteaubois produces composites too, using two-thirds wood by-product from its sawmills and a third polypropylene, and has just introduced new ranges; Nova, a tongue and groove, faux open jointed profile, and Malo a “classic tongue and groove” product, both in a range of stains and finishes and available with Euroclass B fire rating.

Opinion divides on the extent to which cladding is a DIY product. But BSW for one believes in marketing to consumers, taking IRO to trade shows and getting it featured on home improvement TV, including Love Your Garden and DIY SOS: The Big Build.

“We’ve also interacted with social media influencers, resulting in a dramatic increase in sales, both to professional contractors and enthusiastic DIYers,” said Mr Chapman.

Accsys has also launched a new Accoya website to connect cladding, decking, window and door manufacturers using the product to homeowners and architects.

As for the prospects for 2021, cladding suppliers say they’re upbeat.

“We’re already seeing projects coming through and there seems to be more adventurous design and colours being specified, which we’re well placed to supply with IRO,” said Mr Chapman.

Lack of spare production capacity and rising global demand, says Accsys, left UK Accoya distributors little opportunity to stock up ahead of Brexit. However, to meet further growth in demand, additional capacity is expected to come on stream this year. And both Piveteaubois and Sivalbp see ever greater stress on green building driving the market.

Ms Piveteau-Boley believes this will be increasingly expressed in regulation, with France’s Réglementation Environnementale (RE2020), aimed at shrinking construction’s carbon footprint, providing a template.

“This will take use of wood in building to another dimension,” she said.

Ms Desmoulins-Colas took a similar line. “The trend in new build and renovation towards bio-based materials is set to accelerate,” she said.