Q&A – John Sandford

Clay Technology magazine
7 May 2015

Rhiannon Garth Jones talks to John Sandford, former Head of Sustainability at Wienerberger, about the past, present and future of the industry.

Tell me about your background in the industry. 

I started with products below ground, in 1972, working on clay pipes. I emerged above ground and got involved with bricks, in 1987, and subsequently roof tiles, then pavers and then clay blocks – I’ve worked in the industry for 42 years and covered the whole clay spectrum. Of course, that’s exactly what Wienerberger try to promote – a healthy building solution using clay bricks, clay blocks, clay pavers and clay roof tiles. I have spent all my working life in clay building products, dealing latterly with regulatory and sustainability issues.

How did you get started?

I was a sponsored student, rather than an apprentice. I started from an R&D background in the 1970s, with Hepworth (which eventually became Wavin and is now being rebranded as Hepworth again). It developed a new technology for making thinner clay pipes, which required a lot of R&D input, and that’s where I came in. The project won a Queen’s Award for Innovation. So I came in from a technical angle focused on getting the raw materials to the right specification.

Do you think that gave you a good grounding in the industry?

I think the apprentice-style experience I had at Hepworth was fantastic. At that time, the R&D department at that single company was probably bigger than the entire R&D setup across the UK clay industry today – there were five PhDs working on that project. Now, I think you would struggle to find five PhDs working in the whole brick industry.

Why do you think that is?

I think it comes back to the same thing – new technology and innovation requires a lot of investment and, right now, there just isn’t the money for it. It requires companies to be more profitable and also for targeted funding to be more readily available in both the UK and Europe for novel technologies.

How else have you seen the industry change? 

Consolidation and globalisation have to be the two biggest changes for me. Consolidation is inevitable – it’s all about efficiency and economies of scale, and it’s necessary for the industry. Globalisation is something I have mixed feelings about. It means that almost all the investment decisions are made outside of the UK, and we have limited control – 90% of UK brick manufacturing is controlled by non-UK-based companies. There are some advantages, but that lack of control makes me concerned about the future unless our regulators recognise that they need to make the UK an attractive place for inward investment by having a regulatory regime that is not perceived to be more demanding than other European countries, which are competing for the same investment.

Do you see the skills gap as an issue that globalisation could improve in the UK?

It could help, but people would have to work very hard at it. There would have to be a huge improvement in all aspects of sharing best practice, for instance. The links between the industry and academic institutions is also an area that needs to improve dramatically.

What do you think will be the biggest issues affecting the industry over the next 10 years?

The biggest issue that will affect the industry will be the UK’s membership (or not) of the EU. That is going to have a huge impact. If the UK starts doing its own thing with regards to environmental legislation, it could make the playing field even less level. If we stay in the EU and try to make things more consistent between the UK and the rest of Europe, then that will be fine. But, to me, if we leave the EU then we have a blank sheet of paper and it is impossible to predict how things will go from there.

Resource efficiency is going to be the main driver over the next few years in the industry, and reusability of bricks is also going to become a key issue. At the moment, we say that the service life of a brick is 150 years, but we also tell people not to use reclaimed bricks because we can’t certify them. Going forward, I think we will have to be much clearer about the fact that bricks can be reused to make better use of that service life. I don’t think the problem is with the bricks – for instance, we don’t need better standardisation. I think it’s a presentation problem. We have to put our money where our mouth is – if they have a service life of 150 years, then we should be making the most of that.

What issues outside of the industry will be significant?

Energy cost and security of supply is another important one but much discussed. Healthy buildings will become more important as an issue – improving indoor air quality, for instance. That’s one where clay has a really good story to tell – it is an entirely natural product that helps a building to breathe and assists thermal performance. This is in sharp contrast to some timber products, for example, which can release toxins into the indoor environment in the form of formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

But the biggest issue, of course, is the embodied carbon debate, especially comparing clay bricks with other construction forms. Clay bricks do have a relatively high carbon footprint in terms of the manufacturing process, but because the lifetime of bricks is so long, that impact is mitigated. Also, the clay footprint is entirely transparent and requires no pseudo-science to be understood. Timber producers can say that their product is carbon neutral, or even negative, but that usually only considers the usage stage of the product. When maintenance issues and end-of-life issues are fully taken into account, a very different picture emerges.

Also, the service life will be generally shorter. Concrete producers emphasise the benefits of carbonation, but the science here is relatively unproven. A little bit of knowledge in this area can be a dangerous thing – hearing that timber is carbon negative could persuade a customer who doesn’t have a clear understanding of the wider debate. I think we, as an industry, have to be much better at presenting our case to the wider public.

What other things do you see as being important to the future of the industry?

Building Information Modelling looks like it will be significant – we don’t quite know enough about it yet to predict the impact it could have on the industry, but that’s definitely something we need to keep an eye on. My other main concern would be environmental product declarations (EPDs). The issue here is around what customers will do with the information provided by companies. We’re jumping through all the hoops to get the information ready, but it’s not clear if that’s what the customer really wants or needs. There could be a disjoint between regulations and customer demand, with the manufacturers caught in the middle.