The world of suppliers to the building industry is a very mixed bag varying from the excellent to the appalling. When you are purchasing building materials it is of course good to go in with a positive attitude but it also pays to keep a sharp lookout for what is going on in the industry and do thorough research on prices. see more on sharp industry practices
The assumption that it is all a very competitive market and that prices will reflect this is simply not true. Many of the merchants are in large combines and control the pricing of materials (and also the information you get about the materials) very closely and to their own advantage. Not only this but there is a considerable amount of price fixing right across Europe. This seldom comes to light but when it does it can be quite spectacular. The EU has recently caught the following companies in massive price rigging cartels covering bathroom fittings and equipment, platerboard and glass:
Artweger, Cisal, Dornbracht, Duravit, Duscholux, Grohe, Hansa, Ideal Standard, Kludi, Mamoli, Masco, RAF, Roca, Sanitec, Teorema, Villeroy & Boch and Zucchetti. EU fines bathroom cartel 622m euros
Lafarge, BPB, Knauf and Gyproc were fined 478m euros for running a cartel to fix the price of plasterboard. EU busts plasterboard cartel
There is for instance a near monopoly in the glass industry with only the French company Saint-Gobain in competition with Pilkingtons in the UK window glazing market
“Glassmakers fined record €1.4bn for price-fixing by European regulators” This was Pilkingtons being fined £140 million and notice how Saint-Gobain, the owner of UK plasterboard group BPB was involved
Recycled and reused materials
There is a growing number of suppliers working in this area
General builders merchants
The advice you sometimes see to set up an account with a local builders’ merchant and then let them supply the bulk of the materials should be followed with caution. It may be helpfull if you are trying to raise credit because you will probably get two months but the chances of any particular merchant being able to supply the range of specialist materials and supplies demanded by modern environmental building standards is remote. Many of the old style merchants are positively dinosaurs. They may have someone at head office who is technically competent but that person will probably be more interested in larger jobs than a one off house. Builders merchants tend to fall into two camps
- those which have historically been timber merchants (and possibly timber importers) and have then branched out into other things
- those that have historically been suppliers of masonry products and then branched out
They will probably be useful for some of the basic materials like sand, cement, bricks, blocks, plasterboard, rough timber et. but not much else except possibly drainage. Better to deal directly with the more specialist merchants such as plumbers merchants, wholesale electrical suppliers, timber merchants, glass suppliers etc. and get the best deals from them
These tend to be generally well informed and carry a huge range of tubes, pipes, fittings pumps, valves, taps, waste fitting, rain water goods, sanitary ware, tanks, boilers etc. They are often staffed by people who have worked in the plumbing trade and they can be very helpful with advice if they are not too busy.
Many plumbers merchants also carry drainage products and there is a growing tendency to call this range the Heavyside (as opposed to the Lightside for the indoor plumbing fittings). There is a further tendency with some of the very large merchants (such as Travis Perkins) to have separate warehouses for plumbing, drainage boilers etc. Because of the complicated technical nature of plumbing it’s important to be clear about what you want before you go in. This can often be achieved by going on the internet to look up and get the correct names of products such as fittings beforehand.
As with plumbers merchants they tend to carry huge ranges of stock and be very well informed technically. They tend to cover not only the basic electrical circuitry and outlets but also alarm systems and telecoms. Some of them chance their arm on ranges of lighting fittings but these tend to be more for industrial or office use. They can often get unusual items at very short notice.
There tend to be about five main types of timber merchant in the UK
- fine woodworking stores which cater to furniture makers and supply high quality timbers, mainly hardwoods, from around the world
- large, quite high quality merchants who do a limited range (maybe a dozen species) of hardwood, a large range of high quality softwoods (such as structural sections, rough sawn and mouldings) and a vast array of sheets such as plywoods, MDFMedium Density Fibreboard , OSBOriented Strand Board, hardboard, chipboard etc. These people also tend to be major suppliers of windows, doors and ready made stairs and stair parts. These are the best people for obtaining the bulk of the timber needed and it may well be worth setting up an account. There is a web directory of timber merchants – Timber Merchants Locally – although it tends to miss some of the better ones. Worth considerable Googling. The timber comes in a vast number of grades and sizes and it is worth checking this quite carefully. The sheet material also varies tremendously in quality and price. With the better merchants you can order the timber to a guaranteed moisture content which ensures it stays stable when in place. A very few of them supply laminated timber and engineered timber such as I beamsprefabricated timber beams with a web of OSB and softwood flanges. They are very light, efficient and regular.
- lower quality and smaller range merchants, often part of a builders merchant who do a basic range of sawn softwood, some mouldings and a small range of sheet materials
- local sawmills which saw up and supply local timbers, often kiln dried. Try WoodNet and mobile sawmillers
- Reclaimed timber dealers and the National Wood Recycling Project
There are also a few auction sites for timber, usually near the east coast of England, often around Hull / Immingham where timber comes into the country from the Baltic. They tend to sell surplus packs of timber (eg Service Timber Ltd). Google for ‘timber auction’
These tend to be much of a muchness because most of them get their sealed units from larger wholesalers. There are two issues: the price and how long a guarantee you get before misting up happens. This should be at least ten years.
These merchants tend to do everything above the roof joists. (roof trusses usually come from timber merchants). So they do sarkinga waterproof layer in a roof which acts as backup protection in case the main layer fails. Usually a membrane or board and usually situated between roof laths and joists., laths, tiles, slates, flashing, ridge systems, chimney pots etc. They may also carry a range of roof lights and they are the main source for second hand slates (and sometimes tiles) for matching up purposes.
Although they may sell one or two ranges of flat roof materials such as felt it may well be necessary to go directly to a manufacturer of materials such as TPOThermoplastic polyolefin. Often used as a roofing membrane membranes. They may sell products for living roofsA roof with a covering of soil or growing medium and plants. They tend to be divided into turf roofs with a 150mm layer of soil and sedum roofs with a thinner layer (about 40mm). see Living Roofs but you can probably find more of these on line.
Although there are not many companies doing this it pays to find a good one because the range of products will beat anything you get at a builders merchant.They cover:
door and window locks, catches, stays, hinges etc. door knobs, handles, bolts, hooks, letter boxes, and draught excluders. They may also do joinery fittings such as cabinet hardware and fittings along with hinges and draw runners.
This is a bit of a catch-all because it covers specialist suppliers of divers types and some of them may be quite difficult to find because they tend not to advertise:
- specialist adhesives, sealants and chemicals. Most builders mechants carry a few basic types but if for instance you want a particular one of the eight or so grades of foaming polyurethane adhesive then you need a specialist supplier.
- plastic sheet such as polycarbonate. This tends to come from specialist plastic sheet suppliers who will usually cut to size. There tend to be one or two in every big town.
- fasteners and fixings such as nails, screws, bolts and nuts, studding, timber connectors etc. Engineers’ suppliers tend to be good on these sort of things. Also they will often be good for special tools. A lot of this type of thing is going on line now.
- metal sections such as angle sections and flat bar and rods, metal stair nose sections etc. There are a few suppliers of this type of thing such as Smiths Metal Centres.
- Spiral stairs. This tends to be nearly all on line.
‘Green’ specialist merchants
Still only a handfull but there is a growing number of companies such as the Green Building Store which are specialising in this field.
The UK paint market is dominated by only 3 or 4 major suppliers who have been very slow to address environmental concerns. Hence a lot of environmental decorating supplies (a lot of which are continental) are dealt with by quite small companies, often acting as agents. See Decorating
There are of course several other types of merchants covering tiling, bathrooms, kitchens flooring etc and they tend to be quite easy to find.