The architectural joinery sector has seen order books swell in recent years but is trying to balance increased demand with a dip in workforce and challenging customer requirements. Paul Thompson reports.

Across the construction world, the tightened belts of recession have loosened somewhat in recent years.

Pg14 image1Even the UK general election barely caused a blip on the otherwise seemingly inexorable upward curve of growth that the construction industry is enjoying.

Nevertheless this surge in sales can create its own problems. The specialist joinery sector is one of many in the construction industry that is having to face up to the difficulties posed by a buoyant market coupled with a dwindling stock of skilled labour.

With the recession witnessing a number of highly skilled carpenters and joiners deciding the time was right to retire or look for a shift in career, there is likely to be some ‘skills-lag’ between a rise in demand and staff becoming available.

In a bid to counter this some businesses are looking at various methods to sate demand by de-skilling some of the procedures or recruiting from abroad.

“It is a difficult marketplace at the moment,” said Steve Harvey, joinery director at specialist interior joinery business Parkrose. “The skills shortage is something that has been ongoing for a few years. Now the market is picking up it is becoming ever more apparent.”

In moves to address this imbalance in staffing, companies are looking to de-skill wherever possible. This can help make sure that firms are better utilising the tradesmen they do have. By prefabricating and machining as far as possible in the factory, the theory goes, time is freed up on-site enabling the skilled carpenter to focus on the finishing touches.

Pg14 image2“The advantages of getting as much work done off-site as possible are huge,” explained Alan Brown, sales director at Forza Doors. He added: “We specialise in the preparation of wood veneers and timber utilised in the production of doors primarily for the commercial sector. We have looked at our manufacturing process and how we can streamline it to save time on-site and focus our skilled trades. For example, if we can have a machine that mills the door where the locks sit then that saves a carpenter on-site spending his time doing it. Across a large scheme those time-saving advantages can really start to have an impact.”

And while those working within the architectural joinery sector are trying to eke out the skills of their trades, the demands of clients are becoming ever more challenging. Architects, designers and end users are gaining more knowledge about what may be available to them and they have no problem in specifying unusual species or veneers. The difficulty might be finding that timber while maintaining the FSC or PEFC sustainability chain of custody.

“If clients have an obscure request then we will do our best to find that timber. Sometimes that timber will not be available with FSC or PEFC accreditation so we will have to tell the client that the finish they requested is not available,” commented Mr Harvey.

Finding obscure timbers can take time too. It can mean a discussion with the client about alternatives and demonstrating how difficult the request will be.

“We were asked to use American White Oak but couldn’t find any with the FSC or PEFC accreditation in the timescale the client wanted. We had to have a discussion with them to change it to a European Oak. It becomes obvious pretty quickly how hard it is going to be to supply the more obscure veneers but we have to demonstrate how hard we have tried to find the timber. In London and the South East there are only a handful of timber importers. We know what is or isn’t available,” Mr Harvey explained.

But the difficulty in finding obscure timber should not dissuade designers from continuing to specify the exact materials they require. If that makes life difficult for the suppliers then so be it, according to Mark Shaw, director at Yorkshire-based designers and project managers Retail Project Associates.

“In the retail sector the focus is on designing to drive sales performance. It isn’t down to the designer to worry about the skills shortage; they just want to be let loose on their design. The client wouldn’t go with them if they thought the design was likely to be compromised to benefit the manufacturer,” he said.

But that’s not to say the manufacturer will not have any input whatsoever. There is, after all, a limit on what can actually be constructed and some of the more elaborate designs will need to be reined in. That is where manufacturers can help out. “Some retailers will employ a concept designer to come up with the initial ‘blue sky’ design and then go to a manufacturer to actually work on it. That producer may have its own in-house design team that is capable of taking on the concept and producing it in-store,” added Mr Shaw.

Whether or not manufacturers are able to, or want to, take on more design responsibility is a moot point. Some claim it offers greater flexibility for clients; others would point out that there is a danger of producing design mediocrity. What is certain though is that clients have become ever more knowledgeable about what they can and can’t have. Knowledge means power and clients are using that power to drive their challenging specifications. That might make life difficult for joinery specialists, but it is something they will have to get used to.