VOL. 113 | NO. 57 | Sunday, March 21, 1999
Building boom turns bricks into hot commodity
By LAURIE JOHNSON
The Daily News
For the past several years, low interest rates and a healthy economy have sustained one of the longest building booms in recent history.
This constant demand for housing, however, has created a shortage of a building industry staple bricks.
Bricks are hard to come by these days, and theyre more expensive.
Waits of anywhere from 30 days to a year depending on the size, color and style of brick are not uncommon, and price increases are adding an average of about $2,000 to the price of a home, according to local builders.
"Im having to order the majority of my bricks at least three months in advance to make sure I get them," said builder Ken Garland, president of the Memphis Area Home Builders Association.
"Two years ago, you could pick up the phone and get just about anything you wanted with a week or two weeks notice.
"And, its also costing me more money. I used to spend $225 per thousand, now its more than $285, and weve been placing our orders before they even start the house."
Local brick dealerships feel the pinch from both sides, fielding calls from anxious builders while watching increasingly lighter shipments arrive from brick manufacturers.
"Were back-ordered, just like everybody," said Joe Maas, district sales manager for the Memphis Acme Brick dealership.
"Were backed up a couple of months on some types of brick, up to a year on others."
Memphis builders arent the only ones in a bind. Todays brick shortage isnt a local or even a regional problem its an issue affecting the construction industry nationwide.
"There is a delay in getting brick, and its caused by the building boom," said Nelson Cooney, president of the Brick Industry Association, the industrys largest trade group, noting that heavy building activity in both the commercial and residential construction sectors helped fuel an unprecedented demand for bricks.
"In the past, sometimes they complemented each other. When home building was up, commercial construction was down a bit, and vice versa," he said. "But, for the last couple of years, both have been up."
According to the BIA, the number of bricks shipped hit an all-time high of 8.9 million in 1999, representing a 10 percent increase over the number of bricks shipped in 1998.
"Thats the highest year since brick statistics have begun being reported," Cooney said.
If demand is so great, why dont brick manufacturers just produce more brick?
Theyre trying, Cooney said.
"Brick manufacturers are running all out at their plants to produce as much brick as they possibly can," he said.
"Theyre increasing production by improving existing plants, and theyre also building new plants."
Brick production facilities are extremely expensive to build or expand, Cooney explained.
"Its a substantial capital outlay, and yet, brick manufacturers are doing it."
During the past three years, the nations brick manufacturers have increased their production capacity by a total of about 450 million bricks, according to the BIA.
"Were expecting to increase production capacity by another 250 million this year," Cooney said.
This increase in production, however, probably wont make an appreciable dent in the current brick shortage unless construction starts to slow, as well.
"Housing is going to be good this year, but its probably not going to reach the records of last year," Cooney said.
"But, production is increasing, and in time, hopefully well be able to meet the needs so there wont be such delays in delivering brick."
Until then, consumers can avoid brick delays by being more flexible with the colors and styles of brick they want on their homes or buildings, Cooney said.
"If youre willing to accept a little bit different style or color than what you originally wanted, a lot of times you can get the brick sooner."
Volume builders, those who buy a lot of brick on a regular basis, also may have an easier time getting brick than others, said Garland, who specializes in building custom homes.
"The ones who buy from a particular manufacturer or company on a regular basis, those companies are going to try and make sure they take care of those people first."
However, Chris Christian, a partner in Lenox Homes, which builds about 200 homes a year, said it doesnt always work out that way.
"Most times, its a first come, first serve thing," he said. "Now, I have thrown a few fits, and being able say you build 200 homes a year has helped, but that doesnt always matter because they have an ordering system where they put you in chronological order and they fill them as they come up."
Tom Justice of Bowden Homes, the top volume builder in the Memphis area, said his company managed to keep its brick supplies up by having brick shipped in from other areas of the country.
"Weve been fortunate in that weve had some large supplies of brick weve been able to get from the western part of the United States and have shipped in by rail," he said.
"So, while we dont have as great a selection as we used to before the brick shortage, we still do have a selection."
For the most part, customers have been understanding and willing to work around the issue, said Christian, who estimated delays in brick shipments added an average of 30 days to the amount of time it took for him to build a home.
"Were having to constantly work with our home buyers on color changes and constantly work with lead times trying to figure out when on earth were going to get the brick in," he said. "Its really been challenging."
Its particularly challenging when brick shipments do arrive, and the amount delivered doesnt always match the number ordered, he said.
Smaller-than-expected allotments from brick manufacturers for example, when an order for 2 million bricks results in a delivery of only 200,000 can create a problem for dealers and their clients. "It impacts distributors severely, because they committed to all these orders, and then they only get 10 percent or 20 percent of their order," Christian said.
While todays brick shortage might have builders wringing their hands, brick manufacturers are happy to do whatever it takes to keep their plants operating at peak capacity to try and meet demand, Cooney said.
"Its a different kind of hassle," he said. "Instead of trying to get rid of all the brick on the yard, now everybodys trying to meet demand.
"Its stressful times for the salesmen when they cant provide exactly what the customer wants precisely when he wants it, but its a nice stress to have. Its much better than the stressful times when construction is down and people arent ordering."