Time to tackle cladding challenges head on,’ says MD of external cladding supplier

October 2019

Time to tackle cladding challenges head on,’ says MD of external cladding supplier

With more than 30 years in the construction industry under his belt, Paul Richards has seen it all. But with the ramifications of Grenfell and the possible fallout from Brexit still looming large over the industry, the Managing Director of award-winning external cladding supplier Aquarian Cladding Systems tells (NAME OF PUBLICATION) that solutions need to be found now.

How has the cladding industry changed over the years?

What I recognise in 30 plus years in the industry is there is now a much better understanding of the principles of rainscreen cladding. Having said that, it’s fair to say with its recent failures, there is still a lot to be learnt.

There are processes in place, such as thorough and robust testing verified by BBA accreditation, whether it’s large-scale fire or weathertightness testing, but the question remains whether the results of these tests and conditions of the certificates are well enough understood, not only by specifiers but also warranty providers and funders.

Consequently, we have seen the devastating result of ill-informed decisions to use materials which were not proven to be fit for purpose replaced by ill-informed decisions by confused stakeholders to only use A1 and A2 materials regardless of height and exposure!

It seems the decision-makers dial has gone ‘from 0 to 11’ with neither a sensible, well-informed choice. Sadly, as a result, perfectly viable solutions are being missed because of the confusion perhaps created by those in a position to benefit commercially.

The biggest challenge is therefore to provide a balanced explanation to the entire industry to enable stakeholders to make an informed decision when specifying, warranting and funding their projects.

In summary, we are seeing a wider range of products and solutions in the industry but there remains an understandable nervousness to use some of the more innovative ones.

How has Grenfell affected the industry?
The tragedy at Grenfell has had a huge impact on the cladding sector - not just here in the UK but across the world. There is of course a much greater sense of responsibility and caution when specifying and using materials on buildings of any scale.
Worryingly it has been said that the materials used on Grenfell had not been large-scale fire tested and when eventually tested after the fire by MHCLG, the cladding system failed in less than ten minutes. So, the answer we all want to know is why was it considered suitable in the first place? Only then can we truly ensure something on that scale will never happen again.
Requests for third-party evidence to prove the suitability of materials have increased and we are being rewarded for having invested historically in people and testing to enable us to provide clear and robust technical support.
That said, it’s not healthy for the industry that there is a ‘binary’ view that all non-combustible materials are good, and all combustible materials are bad. We’ve gone from under-engineered to over-engineered solutions and, even though ‘value engineering’ is a term used in the industry that suggests people are just chopping prices, it’s actually where we need to be to ensure that the solution is the best value for money for all concerned.
I’m confident that once the technical arguments are fully understood, the industry will find a sensible solution. Insisting that everything should be A1 or A2 is currently non-deliverable due to limited options, the range of suppliers and the limited resources of materials. Take for example building sand. There’s a reported global shortage of it and yet it is widely used in many of the non-combustible solutions, for example mineral wool insulation or concrete - and both are high users of embodied energy.
So, we’ve got to be thinking about this in a much more joined-up way than the way we’re looking at things now to deliver safe, sustainable and affordable buildings.
What impact is Brexit having on the industry?
There is no doubt that we are suffering as an industry from the indecision that’s being created by the indecision going on in high level politics when it comes to Brexit.
It’s strangling investment right across the industry and that trickles down to every supplier, every SME, every contractor – so we’re all suffering in the same way.
Let’s just get on with it, because the sooner we have a clear understanding of where we’re going, the better we will all be.
What the industry doesn’t want, however, is the uncertainty of no deal.
Where do you see the cladding industry in the future?
The impact of Grenfell will loom large over the industry for a very, very long time and so it should, as it was a horrific and avoidable tragedy that should never have happened.
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.
We must remember that there is no evidence that all materials deemed combustible spread fire on the scale of what we saw at Grenfell and we have our own first-hand experience where we have seen the limited effect of fire on our cladding.
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.
Currently, metal, stone and terracotta/clay façade solutions are pretty limited, but the industry cannot go back to doing things in a traditional, conventional, wet-trade way due to a lack of productivity and aging labour base. Modern methods of construction and offsite manufacturing are here to stay, and we must therefore develop and promote safe, cost-effective cladding solutions that are compatible.
There are already perfectly good solutions that have been kicked into touch right now and I’m hoping that common sense will prevail, people will listen, and there’s an element of pragmatism from stakeholders.
For more information on Aquarian Cladding Systems, telephone 0808 223 9080, email info@aquariancladding.co.uk or visit www.aquariancladding.co.uk.