Julian Thurbin, Director at Wallbarn, answers our key questions, giving his thoughts on the roofing and wider construction sector, the challenges and threats around supply of materials, and why small projects can have a big impact when it comes to green roofs…
What was your path into construction?
I fell into it in many ways. When I was a kid I was convinced I was going to be an Olympic show-jumper – I competed at showjumping and eventing to national level many years ago. I studied law at university, then to be an accountant and then worked in international television. I guess I just yearned for the glamour of building!
Tell us a bit about Wallbarn…
We supply a wide range of specialist materials for structural waterproofing and the building envelope, with a focus on flat roofing, balconies/terraces and hard/soft landscaping for commercial and large scale residential projects, as well as education and healthcare. We are most well-known for our range of metal and polypropylene support pedestals for paving and decking systems, but we also have a large range of waterproofing and drainage membranes, decking and tiles and our award-winning M-Tray green roof system.
What do you love most about your job?
Its creativity and that we are actually making a difference to people’s lives and to the built environment. New techniques and products are constantly being developed to improve homes and workspaces. It is an exciting industry. I was speaking to someone who works in TV advertising, with him talking about how creative he was – he sold advertising space for insurance. I told him there is nothing more creative than building a home for someone to live in. He nearly fell off his chair, but it’s true.
If you had one piece of advice about working in the construction sector, what would it be?
Take it seriously and be proud of it. There is a massive pool of knowledge in our industry and I can seriously say I have learned more about design and construction from contractors on site than from designers or specifiers. Contractors can tell me that a design needs to change by a few mm here, a material or a shape change there, because they are the ones installing the products. They know what works and what doesn’t work. Buyers and specifiers need to trust the contractors more and actually listen to what they are saying. They are at the sharp end. It isn’t theory or abstract to them, it is real.
What’s the ethos of Wallbarn?
Honesty and our desire to guide and help our clients. We know our products, we know what is required technically and we know the constraints of working on site. We are stringent on product quality and pride ourselves on our service both technically and delivery-wise. We keep our promises and don’t promise what we cannot keep. A case in point is our MetalPad Class A1 non-combustible pedestal and the requirement for non-combustible systems for balconies and terraces. We examined ADB and the draft of BS 8579:2020 in detail and decided to go back to basics and design a product which met completely the requirements of this new legislation. We see some manufacturers attempt what we consider to be trying to get around the new requirements by using elements in their ‘non-combustible’ products which are clearly combustible. We won’t do that, we won’t compromise on safety.
Any new products coming through?
Yes, we have a few! There’s Mega Balance, our new heavy duty self-levelling pedestal with a special retrospective levelling tool which means that areas of tiling that become uneven over time can be corrected without having to lift slabs. An obvious win for contractors, FMs and clients.
MetalPad will also have major updates in Q2 of 2021, we are committed to continual development of this vital product – we’ve just released the self-leveling version which is attracting a lot of attention. To assist designers and contractors we’ve developed our own software – MegaPro – for precise planning of pedestal layout grids. This year will also see a new rail suspension system, which we are very excited about, and we are talking with industry partners about launching whole systems for paved and decked areas. On the green roof front we hope to have an important announcement for M-Tray that will be an industry first.
How is the green roof sector performing and do you anticipate growth in this area considering the government’s climate change targets?
The sector is performing well. There is certainly increased focus from designers and planners for green roof systems. There are a number of very good quality systems available and, crucially, there is more support for designers nowadays which will hopefully take out some uncertainty. Flood control management is also key which lends itself to green roofing.
You were quite vocal on green roofs being absent from the Green Homes Grant scheme – do you anticipate government might include them in future incentive schemes?
I hope so. I didn’t want to criticise the Chancellor, clearly he has a lot on his mind at the moment. But sometimes government schemes are announced and the full potential of implementation isn’t fully considered. Green roofs, and our modular green roof especially, really lend themselves to obvious and realistic chances to improve homes, particularly in the urban environment.
What more should the government be doing to incentivise green roofs in towns and cities?
Government could lead from the front by greening its own construction projects. The myriad of government agencies and departments which attend conferences and advertise grants can also be a little confusing. Some good case studies of successful green masterplans in time for COP26 would be very powerful.
As part of World Green Roof Day 2020 there was a push to green small spaces – bike sheds, bus stops, home offices etc. How easy is it for roofing operatives to add these sort of installations to their offering?
Small roofs or those with very limited access are where M-Tray really comes into its own. As well as the large scale commercial projects for which Wallbarn sells M-Tray, we supply a lot of self-builders and smaller scale contractors with a few m² of green roof at a time. The ease of transporting and handling the trays in small areas and on completed roofs makes greening up small spaces completely possible. If we could green up even a fraction of every shed, single storey flat roof kitchen extension, garage roof and garden room in the UK, we could make a real difference to the urban heat island effect, wildlife protection and flood avoidance nationwide.
You’re a member of GRO, which is now officially a Trade Association. What are the key issues the association – or industry – is looking to address?
A huge amount of work has been going on and Mark Harris, of Radmat, deserves a lot of praise in particular in driving the new organisation and updated GRO code. It would be useful to offer designers and specifiers some clarity on what is required, what is helpful and what should be avoided in green roof construction. If manufacturers can say ‘this follows the code in these ways’ it will make something that is often seen as subjective into something more standardised, giving greater confidence to stakeholders.
What are the more common mistakes when it comes to green roof projects?
Poor quality products. Too often poor quality sedum is imported and subjected to stressfully long supply chains which makes the chances of it rooting properly very slim. Poor quality drainage and separation membranes will not perform long term. Water management is key – both in ensuring sufficient irrigation when the green roof is first installed and designing-in quality drainage, so free draining substrates, proper drainage membranes and air gaps. All are needed for the green roof to survive. This is why we designed M-Tray with all elements of the green roof contained within a tray.
What’s the biggest issue affecting the market?
Fire, Brexit, Covid and quality. The first two have badly affected supply chains and the pandemic, particularly, has highlighted the perils of sourcing materials from the other side of the world. Many businesses relying on long supply chains have come unstuck and run out of stock – we saw an up-tick in demand last year when competitors were unable to ship from China.
Brexit is a challenge in many ways and there’s some confusion as to what forms and procedures need to be processed. There is a chance some actors may be using the situation to profiteer from the situation.
Quality and the failure of some imported materials is also an increasing problem. Pedestal system designers and installers are dealing with ‘at height’ installations very often and although some may not think a 75mm high piece of plastic represents a danger, if it fails because of poor quality and is supporting walkways, disastrous consequences can occur.
Fire prevention and management will only increase in importance. The industry needs top quality, properly tested non-combustible systems in place and specifiers need assurance that these systems are proven and safe, and fully compliant with legislation.
What have you learned about your business over the last year?
The strength of the Wallbarn team. Despite some challenging times for key members of the team, especially with home schooling and the like, I feel extremely grateful and humbled that when the chips were down our people really threw their shoulders to the wheel.