If China hadn’t been busy establishing a stone industry while ours was sliding into decline, we wouldn’t be able to supply the natural finishes that today’s green clients want
Globalisation, according to the World Bank, is “the growing integration of economies and societies around the world”. It has increased trade and created a better standard of living for many in China, India and other developing countries. On the other hand, many argue that it has increased inequality and environmental degradation. But what impact has the march of globalisation had on building in the UK?
In order to answer this question, it is interesting to compare the use of natural products now, with the eighties – the brave new world, in which the consumer was king, mega-mergers spawned a new breed of billionaire and if you had it, you had to flaunt it.
That decade embraced the innovative, the flashy and the mass-produced. And in our industry we experienced a definite decline in the use of traditional specialist finishes; this was mainly because architecture, like all design, reflected the preferences of the time. To meet demand, manufacturers in every industry from clothing to construction, invested heavily in synthetic materials that were affordable and readily available.
As the consumption of man-made materials increased, it inevitably led to a decline in qualified craftsmen and loss of skills in the natural stone industry. But while the UK was taking its eye off the ball, the Chinese stone market was establishing itself as a major player.
Today, natural finishes are back in vogue. The inconvenient truth about global warming has increased our appetite for natural products – products that come from the earth and can easily go back there without polluting the soil and water for future generations.
Lower priced natural stones such as Chinese granites are helping to meet this more ecologically focused demand. We have used imported Chinese granites on a number of projects and our clients have been pleased with the result. Low prices may be subconsciously equated with poor quality, but this is not necessarily the case.
Globalisation and the opening up of markets has seen us spoilt for choice when it comes to natural stone
I must emphasise, though, that when specifying or building with Chinese granite, strict quality control is essential. Careful selection at the quarry and, if the stone is processed in China, careful monitoring of the manufacturing process are very important, or it may end up costing you more than you thought.
Another word of warning: do not get too comfortable with the market as it is today because EU legislation is likely to change things, and change things permanently.
Most European natural stone quarries and factories now supply, or are well on the way to supplying, CE-marked stone. The CE mark is essentially a passport for stone being traded in the EU. It indicates that the product complies with the requirements of the EU directive on construction products, particularly with regard to health protection and the safety of users and consumers.
The UK, in our time-honoured tradition, opted out of that particular legislation, so currently a CE mark is not a requisite for supplying natural stone in this country. However, my sources on the British Standards Committee tell me it is only a matter of time before we adopt CE marking for natural stone into UK law. The question is not if – it is when. In time, CE marking and its associated costs will affect the price of all natural stone sold here and, to some extent, may level out the playing field between those that do and those that do not supply marked stone.
The fact is that globalisation and the opening up of markets means we are spoilt for choice when it comes to natural stone. The UK building industry has certainly benefited and with a renewed desire to use affordable natural stone, the stone sector probably benefits more than most. But the real beneficiaries are clients, because the industry can deliver higher specification buildings at more affordable prices by incorporating natural materials such as Chinese granite rather than man-made imitations. This gives everyone in the process, from clients and architects to contractors and suppliers, what they really want – stone, naturally.
Greg Verhoef is director of Szerelmey