STEWART Milne has seen a 40 per cent leap in orders for its prefabricated timber frames after a shortage of bricks persuaded English builders to adopt techniques long popular in Scotland.
The company is best known as a house builder but also has a manufacturing business, Stewart Milne Timber Systems, that has operated out of a factory in Aberdeen for almost 40 years. It opened a plant in Oxford in 2002 as it attempted to break into the potentially much larger English market.
Alex Goodfellow, managing director of the timber arm, has recently been approached by a number of Britain’s largest housebuilders who were interested in finding ways to bypass supply constraints as the industry rebounded from a long recession.
The number of homes being built has rocketed in the last year, as government schemes such as Help to Buy and the wider pick-up in consumer confidence helped the industry finally turn a corner following the financial crisis. However, the long fallow period means that there is now a shortage of materials such as bricks after kilns were mothballed.
Goodfellow said that has provided a crucial opportunity for the Scottish firm to win customers south of the Border. The company had kept spare capacity ready for an upturn and its own suppliers own large forests in Scandinavia and can keep up with demand.
He said: “The growth has mostly come from the big builders, who are trying to secure their supply chain.
“Some people are waiting 30 or 40 weeks for bricks – that will sort itself out but at the moment there’s a real shortage of materials and we are able to address that. The brick and block guys will rise to meet the demand but in the meantime it’s an opportunity that has allowed us to kickstart our growth, and also speak to people we might not otherwise have had the chance to.”
Timber frame construction has long been popular in Scotland, where around three- quarters of new homes are built using the method. In England, where the traditional building material is brick, timber frames are used for just 15 per cent of new-builds, so Goodfellow expects the bulk of the firm’s growth to be south of the Border, especially as increasingly tight energy efficiency regulations make it more cost competitive.
With Aberdeen able to supply the north of England cost-effectively, Stewart Milne is moving both its timber frame factories on to double shifts over the next three months, something it has not done since before the housing slowdown. The group has taken on about 25 workers in recent weeks, taking the factory workforce to more than 200, and it could double production by 2016.