With the Covid-19 pandemic proving to be the latest challenge the cladding sector has had to face, Paul Richards, Managing Director of award-winning external brick cladding systems supplier Aquarian Cladding Systems, speaks to Building Products Magazine about how the industry must learn to adapt – and how Aquarian have tackled these headwinds to make sure they are still at the forefront of the industry.
Q: It’s been another challenging time for the cladding sector hasn’t it?
A: The industry has certainly faced several difficult challenges in the last two years, including the ban on combustible cladding on residential, hospitals and schools above 18m, and the uncertainty of Brexit. Like every industry, however, the pandemic could turn out to be the toughest yet.
Q: How has the cladding industry changed over the years?
A: There is of course a much greater sense of responsibility and caution when specifying and using materials on buildings of any scale and the recent publication of the draft Building Safety Bill will see greater onus on suppliers to take responsibility for the materials they supply and how they are used.
Specifiers now have a much better understanding of the principles of rainscreen cladding, however it’s fair to say that following the recent devastating failures at Grenfell and Bolton, there remains a lot to be learnt. Though the testing and accreditation processes have always been in place, whether for fire, weather–tightness etc, suppliers have sometimes been too slow to invest or have used clever marketing to confuse specifiers. The breadth of testing is improving but in our experience, the data and content of certificates are not well enough understood – by specifiers, warranty providers, and funders. Worse still, politicians can be too quick to make sweeping, often ill-informed statements, without considering the consequences.
The devastating result of ill-informed decisions to select, supply, use and approve materials that were not proven to be fit for purpose are now being replaced by ill-informed decisions by confused stakeholders to use only A1 and A2 materials – regardless of height and exposure! Or buildings are being falsely condemned simply due to a lack of knowledge of how they were constructed, so perfectly viable solutions are being missed because of a lack of data and understanding. An even worse problem is that leaseholders are facing mental health issues as a result of living in apartments deemed unsafe and valued at zero through no fault of their own.
With budgets tighter than ever, I am concerned that we are not currently seeing enough investment in widening the range of products and solutions in the industry, and this will likely remain the case due to an understandable nervousness to innovative in these volatile and complex times.
Q: How has Aquarian tackled these challenges?
A: Since the ban on combustible cladding on residential buildings over 18m, which was the ‘sweet spot’ for our brick cladding system Gebrik for years, we have had to re-position ourselves, and so have invested in product research and development to increase our product solutions for customers. Our offering now includes Gebrik, which, despite numerous large scale fire tests to prove its safety in fire is classed as a combustible and therefore only suitable for buildings up to 18m, and two non-combustible, mechanically-fixed brick cladding systems – MechSlip, and NaturAL-X – which can be supplied over 18 metres. This has put us in a strong position as we have a tested and accredited brick cladding solution for any building, whether constructed on-site or off-site and over or under 18m.
In addition, the pandemic has allowed us time to assess our business model and look at how we can continue to improve our service by adding even more value to the supply chain, for example with our Approved Installer Network and soon to be released accompanying app. It is already clear that staying agile and adaptable in these unpredictable times is being welcomed by our existing and new clients.
Q: What is your experience of offsite manufacturing?
A: With the government declaring its preference for offsite manufacturing, and the method featuring heavily in the CLC’s Roadmap to Recovery following the Covid-19 lockdown, offsite and modern methods of construction (MMC) have been put in the spotlight.
Our cladding systems are perfect for use with other offsite solutions. We can either supply to volumetric providers at their factory or on site; or as a hybrid to be used with panellised, closed panel solutions, which are produced offsite and assembled onsite ready for cladding.
The rise of offsite and MMC is certainly where we see our future, as demand is already keeping the team very busy and with potential for us to increase capacity we are very excited by the opportunities of the predicted growth in this sector of the market.
Q: Where do you see the cladding industry in the future?
A: There are still lessons to be learned in terms of material use and we need to find a more pragmatic solution to where we are currently. There will inevitably be product development into solutions that are A1 and A2 however we should be careful not to over-engineer knee-jerk solutions which are too expensive, heavy, and slow to build with.
Modern methods of construction and offsite manufacturing are here to stay, and we must therefore develop and promote safe, cost-effective cladding solutions that have been rigorously tested and supplied by companies that provide the complete turnkey solution of quality controlled products with the highest level of professional technical, commercial and installation expertise.
For more information on Aquarian Cladding Systems, telephone 0808 223 9080, email firstname.lastname@example.org.