(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the construction industry
In the early and mid 1990s many people left the construction industry because there just wasn't enough work to go around. Other businesses failed. The main problems faced by the industry were caused by:
- a weak economy - people spend less money on things like home improvements when they feel that they are not well off
- a slow housing market - fewer house purchases and new homes built mean fewer opportunities for plasterers
Conditions improved during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The middle of the decade saw strong demand for plastering and building services, as people with plenty of money but not much time spent large amounts on building, extending, renovating and generally improving their houses. The only problem was finding enough skilled people to do the work - an influx of eastern European migrants helped, although some trades-people complained that they undercut established businesses.
Unfortunately, the housing market boom came to an abrupt end in 2008 as the economy weakened. The economy stayed very weak throughout 2009 and the early 2010s. This caused an inevitable downturn in demand for plasterers' services. Although there was still enough work to go around in most areas, conditions were difficult for many. Trades-people had to make more effort than ever to make sure that their existing customers stayed loyal - and that potential new customers chose their business. 2013 did see the economy start to pick up, and the construction industry enjoyed much better conditions during 2014.
The recovery in the construction industry continued strongly into the first half of 2015 due to wages going up, low interest rates, falling oil prices and people's confidence in their employment. This produced the longest period of sustained growth since the financial crisis, with uninterrupted growth from May 2013 until June 2015. The recovery in the construction industry lost momentum in the third and fourth quarters of 2015, however, and it entered recession in the first half of 2016. Official statistics for the third quarter of the year showed that construction output was at its weakest for four years. This was thought to be largely due to the economic uncertainty following the vote in June 2016 to leave the EU. Despite the overall fall in all work in November 2016, new work increased, with new housing output continuing to grow, driven by:
- an increase in public housing in the wake of the government's drive to provide 400,000 affordable housing starts by 2020
- continued growth in private housing due to historically low interest rates and the loosening of private planning restrictions
Growth in the construction industry remained subdued during 2017. Little change is expected for 2018 - the Construction Products Association forecast that the sector would remain flat, at best, during 2018. New private industrial orders have been falling and growth has been dependent on an increase in infrastructure activity and private housebuilding offsetting a sharp fall in the commercial and industrial sectors. This pattern is expected to continue in 2018.
Following the decision in June 2016 to leave the EU, the value of sterling fell sharply, increasing the cost of imported construction materials substantially. As a result, margins, which were already under pressure in 2016, were squeezed further in 2017. Higher costs, weaker demand and the uncertainty resulting from the Brexit negotiations made for tough trading conditions during 2017 and into 2018.
The loss of jobs in the industry resulting from the downturn following the financial crisis has led to a skills shortage. Some 300,000 skilled craftsmen left the industry, many for good. This has led to higher potential earnings for plasterers, who are in shortest supply after bricklayers and carpenters. The shortage of skilled craftsmen is regional, with the greatest shortage of plasterers being in the East of England.
The faltering recovery of the general economy and the construction industry has been alleviated to an extent by:
- the popularity amongst homeowners of extending their homes because of the high price of moving up to a larger property, particularly in areas where prices are high, for example in London
- the increase in buy-to-let landlords creating a spike in renovations - although recent tax changes have made buy-to-let less attractive so there may be a reduction in this work in future
The market remains competitive and it's still very important for trades-people like plasterers to run their businesses professionally and efficiently - and to offer customers excellent value for money.
Developments in plastering and screeding technology
Plastering is an old and traditional craft, and many of the tools and techniques used in basic plastering and screeding would be recognisable to plasterers from a hundred years ago or more. However, like most areas of the construction industry, the plastering trade has seen its fair share of technological developments. Plastering machines are available to mix and spray wet material onto walls and other surfaces, while special surface renders and plasters have been developed for a wide range of different applications. Screed mixes are available with different ingredients to suit different situations. Specialist pumped-screed mixes can be batched to dry and cure very quickly, while some eco-friendly screed mixes are made of recycled ground glass. Specialist insulating systems have been developed for both internal plastering and external rendering in retro-fit applications.
For many years, the construction industry as a whole has been plagued by unqualified 'cowboys'. Much has been done in recent years to rid the industry of these cowboys and improve standards. For example, the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) enables workers from many different areas of the industry to demonstrate to potential clients and employers that they have relevant training and qualifications. It has also become much easier for would-be customers to check a trades-person's credentials and reputation by using various vetting and review websites available.
Building Regulations - energy efficiency
Revised Building Regulations introduced in 2010 require that under certain circumstances energy-saving upgrades must be made when major refurbishment work occurs. If the work involves removing a 'thermal element' such as render or even internal plaster from 25% or more of the total area of the walls of a house then the whole building may need to have its thermal performance upgraded (it seems that the way in which this aspect of the Building Regulations is interpreted and enforced varies from one local authority to the next). This typically involves the installation of external or internal insulating materials such as rigid foam panels beneath the plaster or render finishing coat.
Keeping up with developments
Joining a trade association is an excellent way of keeping up to date with the latest developments in your industry. The main association serving the plastering industry in the UK is FIS (Finishes and Interiors Sector). You can find out more about the services they offer to their members on their website.
Subscribing to a trade journal is another excellent way of keeping abreast of developments in the construction industry. Trade journals for the construction industry include Professional Builder and Construction News. The FIS also has a specialist trade publication, SpecFinish.