Chris Stanley, Housing Manager, Concrete Block Association
COVID-19 has had a major impact on the housebuilding sector, from developers right through to building product manufacturers. Of course, whilst the industry is starting to pick up again, we’re not out of the woods yet.
However, I believe we’ll bounce back quicker than other, harder hit sectors. This is thanks to a number of factors, including strategic decisions taken early on when the pandemic hit, investing time and money in robust health and safety procedures, and maintaining healthy surplus stock levels throughout.
It’s this winning, tactical combination which has ensured the concrete block industry remained resilient, agile and ready to respond and accommodate the spike in demand post-lockdown.
Here I want to take the opportunity to look a little closer, showing how we were able to weather the coronavirus storm, emerging stronger and optimistic.
Many of our members, with whom the Concrete Block Association (CBA) has liaised with closely throughout lockdown, had implemented robust contingency plans when the first signs of a lockdown became apparent.
They ensured their yards were well stocked with months’ worth of blocks. This guaranteed a strong supply chain and readily available materials, crucial for the surge in demand when lockdown lifted in May. Any manufacturer will know, maintaining a healthy cache of surplus stock is good business practice in normal times, in this unusual situation it proved essential.
Importantly, the ability for housebuilders and developers to instantly access adequate levels of materials ensured minimal disruption as sites reopened and building resumed.
Safety First Approach
Of course, worker safety was the primary concern for our members, and in some cases production needed to service a handful of urgent construction projects still operating during lockdown.
Before any production could continue, concrete block manufacturers needed to ensure their facilities were equipped with the latest safety protocol according to PHE and HSE guidance.
Aside from the installation of physical signage and the application of clear demarcations to encourage social distancing, PPE was provided for staff to ensure they received the maximum protection. This latter approach proved vital in certain situations where social distancing was not always possible.
Rigorous health and safety procedures extended beyond plant, encompassing all aspects of business including call centres and regional HQs. Office spaces were adapted to allow a limited number of staff to maintain business as usual in a safe environment.
An Innovation Evolution
Long-term investment in innovation also limited levels of disruption, the production of concrete blocks is now mainly automated which meant that manufacturers could quickly limit the amount of people required in the factory at any one time.
Sales have also moved online with new apps developed to allow housebuilders to instantly call off more stock. Harnessing the power of the Internet of Things, new technology means that these orders can be sent directly to the manufacturer who can deliver the required number of blocks.
The situation precipitated by the COVID-19 lockdown tested our member technological capabilities and for the most part they remained resilient. No doubt the experience will encourage block manufacturers to analyse current capabilities and potentially further improve efficiency and safety in the production process.
The local nature of concrete blocks and the small supply chain, similar to other traditional masonry products, meant that manufacturers were able to process new stock and have it delivered rapidly when demand spiked.
It’s estimated that any housebuilding site within the UK is only 40 miles from a concrete block manufacturer and here lies one of the core reasons we were able to rebound so quickly and ensure delivery on orders, both big and small.
Furthermore, all the raw materials for UK-manufactured blocks are excavated or sourced from the local areas. This meant our members were not dependent on imported constituents, which is a problem incurred by a number of other building product categories.
During times of uncertainty, the importance of maintaining ongoing customer and supplier relationships cannot be understated.
Specifically, our members highlighted how regular dialogue with their clients and getting underneath their push points and challenges helped to foster a mutual understanding and a shared interest in overcoming the Coronavirus crisis together.
Working flexibly and empathetically, our members have been able to support housebuilders and developers across the country, to ensure this essential service returns to pre-COVID-19 levels of output as soon as possible.