Following the dreadful events of Grenfell Tower last year, many in the construction industry assumed that the demand for high rise cladding would plummet. However, sales of good quality, fire-tested products have remained remarkably strong. Ben Jayes looks at some of the trends affecting the market

The rainscreen cladding market has understandably been under unprecedented levels of scrutiny over the past year and a half. However, following the exodus of many players at the bottom end of the market, it is encouraging to see a new wave of products – that are both aesthetically pleasing and conform to the highest fire safety requirements – is gaining popularity among architects, specifier and contractors.

While safety, and specifically fire retardation, was previously a consideration within the wider product specification process; this is now an absolute prerequisite. Over the last year, we’ve seen a major shift in culture among architects, specifiers and contractors. And finally, the government confirmed in October 2018 that it was going to ban all combustible materials used on buildings of over 18 metres.

In practical terms, this ‘belt and braces’ approach to the specification and installation of rainscreen cladding has changed the industry in three key ways:

Market structure – due to the much higher levels of safety and product certification now required by specifiers, we have seen an exodus of smaller and lower cost manufacturers. The new rules of engagement within construction has certainly created a new vista, whereby only the major brands, with the financial pockets to invest in R&D, testing and certification remain.

Test regime – product testing, both in the lab and in situ, is now much more common than ever before. We’re also seeing the adoption of fire tests becoming much more widespread so that not just manufacturers but also contractors are engaging certification bodies to ensure cladding performs to the relevant safety criteria when installed. This has seen a shortage of test capability in the UK, which has now been improved somewhat by the opening of a new facility in Gloucestershire.

Product innovation – Clearly, the major players such as Equitone, Rockpanel and Cembrit have always invested in R&D and new product development. However, the impact of Grenfell has certainly acted as a catalyst in the area, bringing new innovations onto the market that are keen to adopt safe, tested and affordable rainscreen cladding.

Considering these major shifts within the architectural cladding market, it would be reasonable to assume that sales of traditional products such as aluminum cladding (ACM) would have suffered in the wake of Grenfell. Surprisingly, this has not happened, with manufacturers moving quickly to introduce a new generation of A2+ rated products.

Manufacturers have worked hard to bring new products to the market that demonstrate the same aesthetic and lightweight properties of earlier ACM products, while improving significantly their fire safety characteristics.

Similarly, we have seen increased demand for products such as Equitone and Cembrit, both high grade fibre cement-based rainscreen cladding boards, as well as Rockpanel, which is a fireproof product manufactured from basalt rock.

Other cladding materials that have continued to grow in recent months include Glass Reinforced Concrete (GRC) from suppliers such as Austrian business Rieder and terracotta cladding manufactured by the likes of Faveton.

We’ve also seen a major shift in the brick market – where specifiers are increasingly turning to sophisticated brick slip panels, made by the likes of VetaFrance, as a fire-proof, low cost alternative to traditional bricks.

Assurance, by way of independent fire certification, is now a key passport to entry into the rainscreen cladding market. So, we are also seeing products such as Trespa’s High Pressure Laminate (HPL) generate new interest on the back of its recent BS8414 certification, widely regarded as the gold standard for fire retardation.

While we have seen a sharp decline in demand for other traditional HPL products, we’ve also seen many wood veneer, fiberglass board and wooden laminate products struggle to gain credibility in an increasingly conservative market.

As if the impact of Grenfell was not challenging enough, the cladding market is also responding to subtle, yet important changes to the property investment market, which has seen the flight of international investors in the past few months.

This apparent dearth of willing investors with deep pockets has affected the cladding market, heralding a new era of ‘value engineering’ which needs to maintain its safety performance credentials. In practice, this has seen another shift in emphasis, where cost comes a close second to fire retardation within the specification hierarchy.

A good example of this trend in practice concerns a major mixed housing project on the south coast of England. With a total area of close to 5000m2, the development was originally scheduled to use a high quality GRC cladding product. As the property investment market continued to tighten, it became apparent that the developers were looking to reduce costs, without compromising safety or aesthetics, if it was possible. In the end, a fibre cement alternative (Equitone), was specified, generating savings of approximately £450,000 for the project.

Finally, we are also seeing the market adopting a more ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to secret fixing systems. While bespoke finishes and tailor-made fixing systems were used widely on top-end developments within city centres, we are now seeing less of this. Standardisation of both the finished aesthetic of the cladding and the secret fixings beneath is becoming a major cladding trend.

In the end, it’s clear that the industry has learnt a hard lesson from Grenfell. Products are now designed with safety in mind, while comprehensive, through-wall fire testing is becoming commonplace – something we’ve advocated for some time.

Predicting future trends affecting rainscreen cladding is not easy. However, it’s fair to say that safety, quality and standardisation will remain the key trends within the industry for some time to come.

Ben Jayes is managing director of Vivalda Group – the UK’s leading supplier of rainscreen cladding systems. With an annual turnover of more than £31m, Vivalda has continued to grow its business via a twin track strategy of unrivalled product quality and service to satisfy the needs of the expanding off-site fabrication market. The company, which now boasts eight locations throughout the UK and Ireland, took the decision last year to stock only fully-certified cladding products – providing assurance and building trust among specifiers and contractors alike

For more information, please see www.vivalda.co.uk