Ever stronger demand for factory finished timber windows has helped to bolster the reasonable levels of business experienced over the summer by the mass production joinery sector. But architectural joiners are sending out mixed messages: while some companies have been sufficiently busy to sub-let some work, others are reporting a slow, post-summer pick-up in activity.

Most mass production joinery companies are agreed that, following a poor start to the summer, demand has subsequently increased to decent if unspectacular levels. Activity in June was muted due to the combination of Bank Holidays, Interbuild and the World Cup. One leading window producer claimed that the football tournament had played its part in significantly extending lead times because of employee time off.

With the end of the summer holiday period, there has been a more pronounced upturn in enquiries although, according to several key industry figures, these have yet to translate themselves into an abundance of orders. Hopes are pinned to a certain extent on the availability of fresh government money to support new housebuilding.

Added-value demand

At least a couple of the UK’s leading mass production joiners issued new catalogues at the start of the summer. Prices paid by customers have generally seen little variation although some commodity items, such as interior moulded doors, have come under price pressure. Particularly good demand has been reported for added-value items like, for example, Secure by Design windows and doors.

In the same vein, there has been a continuing shift in market momentum towards fully factory finished and glazed timber windows, with one leading timber window manufacturer describing demand as “tremendous”. Lead times were out at 12 weeks “and we could bring in a lot more sales if they were at eight weeks”, he maintained. There had been “a big return to timber windows” by housing associations and builders, he added, due to the higher profile of environmental issues and ‘eco-housing’, improved marketing of the product and the ability to achieve with a timber design what is not always possible with rival materials.

Meanwhile, leading joinery manufacturer Premdor is set to launch its first factory finished timber window since the reawakening of market interest in finished products. The Alpha 24 windows already appear in the company catalogue and are expected to enter production later in the autumn.

Factory finising

The trend towards factory finishing has also been illustrated by a recent survey of specifiers who had previously enquired about British Woodworking Federation (BWF) accredited timber windows. Some 74% of respondents confirmed their preference for fully factory finished timber windows – up from 25% last year. In addition, 72% of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay up to 20% more for BWF-accredited windows compared with 57% last year.

Renewed interest

According to the BWF, housing associations and local authorities are showing increased interest in timber windows because of whole life costing and other considerations, although councils remain somewhat constrained by cost. Meanwhile, there remains a tendency among some housebuilders to regard timber windows as ‘luxury’ items reserved for upmarket properties. Within the next few months, the BWF will publish a home buyer’s guide to timber windows designed to be displayed in show homes. It will explain the various reasons behind the housebuilder’s decision to install timber windows.

The federation says there has been a marked upturn in demand for timber windows following the introduction of Part L in April this year, with many builders seemingly content to put the onus on window manufacturers to achieve compliance with the new heat loss requirements. A leading manufacturer agreed: “Customers don’t want the problems on site so we are being asked to glaze and paint the windows prior to delivery. And people are prepared to pay for this added value.”

On a negative note, some worries were expressed within the joinery industry of a glass price increase and possible shortages of glass later in the year.

&#8220With labour prices firm to rising, joiners have been pleased to see stability across a broad range of timber prices”

As for doors, leading manufacturers noted a trend favouring the sale of doorsets and interior doors with glazing, as well as increased demand for solid core interior doors as a means of “upgrading the quality, and adding weight and substance”. Increased demand for doorsets has been attributed in part to the desire among housebuilders to reduce skills required on site.

Doorset enquiries

The latest Certifire fire door scheme trend monitor review from the BWF shows that, among those people who had lodged enquiries with the federation, 46% now favoured doorsets/assembled product while just 29% were going for single leaf doors. By comparison, in 2000, 51% of those surveyed were using single leaf doors while nobody favoured doorsets/assembled products. “This shows that, when we talk to people about the advantages of doorsets, there is a conversion factor,” said a BWF spokesperson.

“A good level of uptake” was also claimed for BM-TRADA‘s Q-Mark schemes for fire and security products, with specific certification requirements appearing on an increasing number of tenders. A TRADA spokesperson believed the particularly strong growth in interest in the fire door scheme might be attributable in part to people wishing to “upgrade their fire protection” following the shock of September 11.

With the new build housing market still somewhat flat, staircase demand has been patchy for many suppliers and the market remains competitive. One leading manufacturer spoke of a growing demand among leading builders for increased factory assembly and part finishing.

Housing demand

As in the mass production joinery sector, architectural joiners are experiencing particularly strong demand from the high-value housing market, as well as a gradual upturn in commercial and hotel business. An improvement in the retail sector was also reported from a number of quarters, although margins are said to be under significant pressure in the middle to lower end of the shopfitting market.

Overall, activity in the architectural joinery sector remains mixed, with several companies said to be “very busy” and having difficulty in sub-letting work, thereby suggesting good demand throughout their area. Competition remains strong although margins appear to have become a little easier compared with earlier in the year, they said. Elsewhere, concern was expressed about the slow pace of business during the summer. “There has been a bit of an improvement in September but we are not back to the levels of May,” said one concerned joiner. “We have a small lead time but, in general, we are able to start work on quotations almost straight away.”

Naturally, labour pressures have varied according to workload. From among the busier companies, one contact said he had recently placed an advertisement in the local job centre “for a laugh” and had had only a couple of responses that had led nowhere. Another reported that three members of staff had left during the year – two of them senior – and had gone into completely different lines of work. Even with the recent three-year pay deal, joinery “is still a low-paid industry”, he said.

Price stability

Overall, however, architectural joinery firms reported fewer problems than normal regarding labour for both factory and site work. However, many claimed to be suffering workshop scheduling problems because of delays on projects caused by preceding trades, leading to unreasonably small time frames in which to complete their work.

With labour costs firm to rising, joiners have been pleased to see stability across a broad range of timber prices. Tenders continue to favour species from renewable sources “because the big corporations don’t want to get sucked into all the negative publicity surrounding non-renewables”. This is despite the fact that, according to several contacts, the quality of the delivered material is often inferior.

North American timbers – notably walnut and maple – have retained their popularity, while there is also said to have been a noticeable increase in requests for European beech and oak.