It all sounded so straight forward: Bring some interested joinery businesses together, agree a joint window specification based on the type of windows they currently manufacture to PAS24 standard, define protocols and processes, then get certification. Done.

From the outset, we knew it would be more complex than that, of course. There are the technical aspects, requirements for group assessments, questions of capacity, business terms and agreements and then there are aspects of human interaction, the notion of collaboration and change in an environment defined by competitiveness and relatively low margins. What we didn’t anticipate was Covid and the ensuing run on wooden windows. The high demand has not subsided since it first started in summer 2020 and is forecast to last at least until next spring. This has put our participating joiners under massive pressure and forced us to embrace a stop-and-go approach in our project progress.

Our project set out to support local joinery businesses as well as social housing landlords and developers in Wales by linking up the supply chain and resolving current barriers to adoption of low-carbon high quality timber windows. If local joinery businesses are already at capacity and our project is adding another burden to their work, then we need to challenge our approach.

How could we alter our current approach to suit the needs of existing manufacturers and clients? What could alternatives to our group scheme look like? Should we investigate options to set up a Welsh window manufacturing cooperative with investment from Welsh Government and/or Housing Associations which specifically supplies the social housing sector and integrates a training and employment programme for social housing tenants? Should we look at inward investment and joint ventures with Welsh timber frame manufacturers? How can we tap into the collective intelligence of our network to create a good solution?

A year has passed and still no window?

Our last public update on the project dates from about a year ago, so what happened since then?

Based on feedback from social housing landlords, we had agreed on specifications for a standard casement window fit for the current market, with a high-performance window in line with future demand to be further developed in a second step. The original specification, agreed in November 2020, has marginally changed through the collaboration of three vanguard joinery businesses who have benefited from the SMART Innovation programme support. While businesses are ready to manufacture a prototype for simulation and testing, we are now awaiting the publication of the latest standards – PAS24/2020 – as do our hardware suppliers. These will determine requirements for Secured by Design certification and specifically which hardware we can choose. Unfortunately, this causes another delay in the project.

In the meantime, we’re working with Welsh Government officials to find a suitable solution for group assessment and certification with Secured by Design.

Business matters – who coordinates tenders and contracts

Over the past few months, we had discussions with joinery businesses, housing associations and local authorities to establish how we could best organise the coordination of tenders and contracts between one client – developer/social landlord or their principal contractor – and a number of manufacturers supplying windows to the same project.

Given the three options above, both clients and manufacturers expressed a shared preference for the “neutral vendor”. The consortium model has very few takers among joiners and direct sales is not in the client’s interest where several manufacturers are involved in the windows supply. This is particularly interesting, given that the Neutral Vendor is a concept gleaned from the recruitment sector, and was suggested as an ‘out of the box’ option by a joinery business in our community. We are now working with a small group of manufacturers and clients to explore how the Neutral Vendor model can work in practice. We are considering all aspects including pricing, branding and marketing.

Managing material price and shortages

Another area of shared interest between clients and manufacturers is the potential for procurement efficiencies by establishing a buying group and reflecting such cost efficiencies in the window pricing. The focus of such joint procurement would be on types of material where price points can be achieved. In the current situation of material shortages, long lead times and price hikes, some manufacturers suggested to negotiate orders with price freezes with suppliers of timber, glazing or hardware for the period from bidding to actual purchase.

In this context, some clients requested manufacturers hold stock of any elements that might require replacing over the mid- to long term, such as hinges and handles. The client’s focus on whole-life-costs needs to be considered in procurement approaches and material choices by the window supplier. This prospective look on future costs is a question of quality and trust.

What ensures quality and trust?

Quality assurance is very important for clients and joinery manufacturers alike. This accounts as much for the relationship between the window suppliers and the client as it does for the relationship between the joiners in the group. Manufacturers are crucially aware that in a group scheme their commercial success and reputation ultimately depends on consistent quality of products and services across all businesses. If anyone fails, the impact will be felt by all.

In addition to Secured By Design auditing, joiners suggest making BWF membership a mandatory requirement for all manufacturers of the Welsh timber window. They would demand installers to be FENSA registered and to have proven experience installing timber windows. Guidance on all processes such as transport, storage on site and installation would be specified in writing. The same would apply to maintenance instructions. In the case of damage and defects, each manufacturer would be responsible for sorting issues within their scope for the goods they delivered. To facilitate this, each window would be traceable to the manufacturer.

Whole-Life approach: carbon, cost and maintenance

The whole life approach being championed in the new Welsh Development Quality Requirements (WDQR) introduced in October 2021 has an instant impact on how social housing developers and landlords consider building elements. We believe this is good news for the specification of high-quality timber windows but does increase the information requirements of the client. This includes relevant information on lifespan guaranteed, whole life costs and maintenance cycles, whole life carbon performance and Environmental Product Declarations (EPD).

Our discussions with housing asset managers have raised some concerns. Costs for scaffolding to re-coat upper-floor windows, potential for sagging in certain types of windows as a function of window weight against hinges, ease of cleaning and general need for regular maintenance rank at the top of the list. As part of this we are exploring the benefits of inward opening windows for cleaning, maintenance and repair. These types of windows are standard throughout continental Europe. However, like all building elements windows are part of a system and we need to clarify what else would need to change, e.g. in the way they are installed or positioned within the window reveal, to better accommodate timber windows in Welsh social housing.

While a number of recent housing developments in Wales and across the UK feature inward opening windows, we still encounter frequent concerns that windows won’t open when tenants choose to have blinds installed, that residents can no longer use the inside window sills for ornaments, that these European style windows look out of place in Welsh housing, that water will come in when windows are opened after rainfall etc. We are curious to learn from social housing landlords who have chosen inward opening windows, how they have dealt with these perceived issues in practice. Have outside shutters been installed to offer enhanced security and shading? How have blinds been installed to allow window opening? What were the tenants’ reactions?

Challenging our approach

This all may sound quite exciting, but the hard reality is that we have a project delay of over 12 months. More and more social housing developers ask us where they can get hold of SBD certified timber windows whilst most joinery businesses tell us they are continuously working beyond capacity and there is no end in sight. Clients confirm they struggle to get quotes from Welsh manufacturers.

There are a number of concerns from joiners regarding payment terms and expected turnaround of orders for commercial projects like social housing. Many small businesses pay weekly wages. Payment terms for commercial contracts are 60-90 days. Turnaround is often expected within 6 weeks. Material costs are volatile. This mix threatens smaller businesses’ cash flow. A larger project which appears lucrative on the surface may take a window manufacturer into administration if there are delays or unforeseen costs or it may not be financially feasible from the outset.

For most joinery businesses participation in the project is mostly not driven by commercial consideration but by community interest – it’s a good thing to do. Investment in tooling is driven by the prospect of demand for the ‘new’ windows but joiners are unsure how much demand there will actually be, all while trying to juggle full order books and staff shortages for the last 18 months. At some point they will need to breathe. Innovation and collaboration demand considerable time commitment and head space. Both seem not easily available at present or in the near future.

Our project set out to support local joinery businesses as well as social housing landlords and developers in Wales by linking up the supply chain and resolving current barriers to adoption of low-carbon high quality timber windows. If local joinery businesses are already at capacity and our project is adding another burden to their work, then we need to challenge our approach.

How could we alter our current approach to suit the needs of existing manufacturers and clients? What could we learn from community finance projects to help small businesses with temporary cash flow issues in larger commercial projects?

What could alternatives to our group scheme look like? Should we investigate options to set up a Welsh window manufacturing cooperative with investment from Welsh Government and/or Housing Associations which specifically supplies the social housing sector and integrates a training and employment programme for social housing tenants? Should we look at inward investment and joint ventures with Welsh timber frame manufacturers?

We’re not asking for answers on a postcard. Instead, we invite you to get in touch and share your thoughts and ideas on this matter with us. The only way we can create a good solution is by tapping into the collective intelligence of our network and beyond.

Find more about the Welsh Timber Windows project.