On Thursday last week, I was guest of Nick Oldridge of Sandtoft Roof tiles at their Broomfleet plant on Humberside. Nick (pictured here with a yet-to-be fired clay batt) is part of the third generation of Oldridge’s to run this family business and, together with his brother Simon, they have repositioned Sandtoft as a greener and more natural competitor to Britain’s roofing giants, Redland (now Monier) and Marley (now part of Eternit).
To get a feel for how and why they felt this was necessary, it’s useful to look at how the roofing business has developed in the UK, and how this differs from the rest of Europe. The favoured roofing material of the Victorians was slate which became widely available across the country because of the canals and railways which forged the industrial age. Clay pantiles were popular in the east of England but most of these were imported from Holland and Belgium, used to fill the textile-laden boats returning from the Continent. It wasn’t until the great building boom of the 20s and 30s that industrial scale roofing manufacturing really kicked off in this country and the material of choice for this roofing boom was concrete. Marley and Redland grew fat producing large format concrete interlocking tiles. Sandtoft was one of the smaller fry riding along on their shirttails.
Clay tiles at the time were only produced in small format size which made them both expensive to supply and expensive to fit as a roof cover. They remained a specialist, upmarket niche. But across the Channel, the clay tile manufacturers worked out how to do large format interlockers and, despite several attempts by concrete manufacturers to gain a foothold, clay remains the No 1 roofing material in France and Germany. Concrete is an also ran. Generally, clay is a little more expensive to produce than concrete, but weathers better and is most people’s preferred option where a clear choice exists.
Which was why Nick Oldridge took the time to show me around their Broomfleet plant. Because here, on the rich clay beds beside the Humber estuary, Sandtoft have invested heavily on making large format clay interlockers. Or what they like to refer to as their New Generation clay tiles. Sandtoft’s aim is to build market share for clay in an area of the roofing market which has up till now been solid concrete. Their hope is that they can squeeze the cost differential down to just 10-15% and that way persuade builders that the benefits of clay are worth paying this little extra for, just as happens in the brick market.
It seems like a good bet, but the timing could have been better. One problem is that the big housebuilders are currently cutting back on everything they can think of and not only are they currently unreceptive to new ideas but the very faces they negotiate directly with keep disappearing as staff cuts begin to bite. Another is the Broomfleet gas bill: despite all the many green credentials which clay enjoys over concrete, it does require firing for three days in kilns with temperatures around 1000°C.
Generally, it’s not a great time to be a building materials producer. Costs are up, volumes down, payments late or frozen. But Sandtoft’s position is better than many, and the family’s decision to sell a majority stake in the business to Austria’s Wienerberger at the beginning of the year, partly in order to fund the expansion into clay roofing, must now look like a splendid deal indeed.