Thoughts from the BAU construction fair in Munich

I’m in Munich this week at the BAU construction exhibition partly to get a better understanding of where we need to go in our local skills and product manufacturing in the UK. For example, one piece of research was to find out more about the timber frame laminating techniques that Holz Schiller of Bavaria use in order to supply window joiners across Germany with cheap but technically superb frame blanks. This enables the German joiners to produce extremely energy efficient, strong, long lasting, distortion-free, draught-free and condensation free windows…. and transport them to UK - cheaper than UK joiners can make comparable windows and transport them a few miles! I have tried to explore the possibility of inward investment to the UK, possibly with financial top-up from regional government to make this economically viable. I am guiding someone else at the moment on a piece of research on the economics of this idea and I hoped to feed some cost figures from Germany into this research.

Now I realise that I should have known the answer to my question about the applicability of German frame laminating technology to the uk to help our joiners make better windows cheaper….. I should have realised because I am always complaining about the UK’s ‘get rich quick’ mentality leading to boom and bust of companies rather than the German model of gentle steady multi-generation development of firms and skills; and it upsets me the way a person who can bake a cake in the UK feels they should study this at university rather than getting practical experience and learning in a wonderful bakery. So the answer to my inquiry, from one of the leading lights in technical product development at Holz Schiller can be summarised as follows:

• There is not a hope that a UK organisation could run a company utilising advanced window laminating technology

• This is not a simple matter of overcoming management or financial impediments

• In Bavaria, his company has been going since the 16th century and all the support industries have been doing so too. His business relies on forestry experts growing the right trees in the right way and felling them at the right time; it relies on wood processors to select and grade the wood correctly, to dry and process it correctly and to supply his factory with the perfect raw material for window frames; then he relies on some of the world’s best machinery manufacturers to work closely with him to develop tooling to achieve immensely difficult technical challenges etc etc. Then these fine products are sent to fine old joinery companies that have great skills passed from father to son. When my German friend visited leading UK timber window manufacturers a few years ago he found they are at least 10 to 20 years behind Germany in both technology and skills and have a huge amount of learning to do.

• In the UK our wages are too high for the more craft-based technologies. Holz Schiller use cheap Czech labour in a factory across the border.

• In the UK we are too content. We don’t think we need to change because we are comfortable and complacent.

Conclusion: we need to recognise the huge and urgent challenge of re-building our skills base from the ground up. In the UK we are now behind countries we used to think are 3rd world countries - India and China for example are more technically and culturally advanced. The UK used to be at the top of the skills ladder - now we have fallen right off the ladder. Government ministers are mostly too foolish or inexperienced to recognise this, or to recognise the need to build appropriate low carbon skills right across everything from forestry to agriculture to industry in appropriate places of learning, with appropriately qualified, motivated and inspiring teachers, in order to get back onto the first rung of the ladder quickly while we still have a few old masters around to do the training.

So in the UK we need the government to pay for intelligent, wise people to build a masterplan of where we need to be in 2050 and set out a plan of how to get there. There are probably some existing, failing companies that could be saved and redirected, which would be a good start. Then what little manufacturing expertise we have can be built upon bit by bit. For instance I am sure there are car filter companies that could redirect their energy into producing the UK’s first home made heat recovery ventilation filters - and perhaps a world-beating washable one? Surely we can make a paper filter instead of buying them from Germany at £30 a time?

I remain hugely keen and determined to get British manufacturing going and to specify home-made homes, but it needs a big and united effort to make this work. It needs the British people to stop being so complacent and to wake up and realise they cannot expect their children to have anything like the same life chances or comfort without big changes in attitude. The last 30 years at least have been a fools paradise.

Maybe something interesting will come out of a second meeting I have coming up soon with key figures in a community in North Wales. They have a vision for the transformation of their community and the second meeting will focus on relevant training as an important foundation for the skills that will be needed, so I am meeting the people who design and deliver the training courses. I am very keen on the Austrian vocational education model. An assistant of mine left conventional school near Bregenz at 14 and joined a timber engineering school. By the age of 19 he had a diploma and knew just about everything about wood, from the forest to the workshop; he could carry out engineering calculations, he could draw in CAD and he had become a craftsman with his hands. He was ready to step into my architects’ office and make a huge contribution for 18 months before returning to work in his father’s timber building and furniture company that produces incredibly refined work that we can only dream of doing in the UK.

By contrast to Austrian vocational training, in the UK we wait until 16. At this point people decide to go to technical college if they are a failure at academic subjects. So it’s not a positive choice resulting from an enjoyment of working in wood for example. They go with a negative attitude and generally come out of their training without much pride or qualification. Indeed as a country we don’t even offer worthwhile qualifications to most of these people; no wonder we have so many ignorant plumbers, electricians and carpenters! It’s also no wonder that those fresh out of technical college often cannot get jobs. People only offer these people jobs if they are desperate because they know there will be so much work needed in training them appropriately and perhaps their attitude will not be receptive to the training. In Austria these young people bring new energy, enthusiasm and the latest techniques into the firm. As a result they are sought after for what they offer.

It’s not an accident that the tiny Austria region of Vorarlberg has built in under 20 years a low carbon industry that now rivals Germany and with respect to wood, has overtaken Germany.

Justin Bere

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