Is the housing boom misplaced optimism?

Will the independent kitchen and bathroom market benefit from a ‘boom’ in the housing market? Probably not it would seem…

What property price recovery? Greater London provides an artificial boost to the England and Wales statistics says LCP.

I guess the first question to ask is how real is the so-called housing boom? Lest we forget, we are just a few months away from a general election and that, in my experience, means you should stock up on pinching salt to see you through to May 2015.

There is a real confusion of statistics around property prices at the moment. A few weeks ago, the business sections of ‘serious’ newspapers were telling us that the ‘smart money’ was fleeing the capital as investors sought better returns from emerging markets such as China. (I didn’t read it myself, but I’d be prepared to bet the Daily Mail blamed hordes of immigrants for the property problem.)

According to London Central Portfolio Limited (LCP), specialist residential investment advisors, prices in England and Wales reached £177,299 – increasing 7.2% over the same month last year and 5.4% up year on year. Despite this positive annual performance, prices are disappointing for England and Wales still being 2% below the credit crunch high in 2008.

In fact, says LCP, these figures exaggerate the recovery as Greater London provides an artificial boost to the England and Wales statistics. Removing Greater London, average prices stand at only £133,537, based on average transactions for the year to date. This is just above the threshold where 1% stamp duty becomes payable and 16% lower than in 2008. Rolling annual price growth runs at just 3.1%.

So, not only is the ‘housing boom’ not really a boom, there could be worse to come. Mortgage approvals have fallen to a 16-month low, according to Catherine Neilan writing in City A.M., adding further weight to the argument that the housing market is slowing down.

Lenders approved just 61, 267 mortgages in September, according to figures published by the Bank of England, continuing the decline from a peak at the start of this year. In total, banks approved 20 per cent fewer mortgages in September than they did in January.

There is always the ‘silver lining’ of the thousands and thousands of ‘affordable homes’ that our political masters have promised to deliver, should they be elected in May 2015. Entering the realms of fantasy just for a minute and assume this promise is delivered, who will that benefit in KBBland? I can think of a few specialist contract kitchens and bathrooms suppliers getting very excited at the prospect of 100,000 new properties being built, but what are the chances that generous PC sums will be attached to homes deemed as ‘affordable’? Slim to none is my guess.

But, I hear you cry (or possibly sob), more property means more people will move and want to ‘do up’ their home to sell it and/or improve the home the move into. Oh really? If you were going to sell your home, would you put in the best kitchen and bathroom you could afford, or the least expensive you could get away with?

As for major home improvements from those that have moved – dream on. The days of ripping out tatty kitchens and bathrooms to replace them with quality alternatives from their local specialist probably went south along with self-certified, 120% mortgages that underwrote that home improvement ‘boom’.

Okay, let’s assume I’m wrong; and as readers of my blog will be all too aware it wouldn’t be the first time. Let’s say that Jo Public and her friends are out and about looking for a new kitchen or bathroom. If the feature on pages 36-37 in the October issue of kbbreview that provides an analysis of one consumer’s kitchen adventure with a £15k budget to spend is anything to go by, it’s the likes of Wickes that stand a better than evens chance of winning most of the orders in the next home improvement ‘boom’.

Hansgrohe’s role in boutique bathrooms

A round-table session sponsored by Hansgrohe UK at the Independent Hotel Show (IHS) brought together four experts to discuss important aspects of hotel bathrooms.

Standing room only at the Hansgrohe seminar on bathroom design at the Independent Hotel Show 2014.

Bathrooms are increasingly taking centre stage within boutique hotels. The independent boutique sector is often used for leisure breaks rather than just brief business stopovers and standards have to be higher.

And while it may not be in the hotel’s list of business objectives, there is a lot of evidence that points to hotel bathroom design and equipment influencing what goes into the bathroom remodel project at home – a sector as near and dear to the heart of Hansgrohe UK as is the luxury hotel market itself.

For Mark Sait founder and managing director of SaveMoneyCutCarbon, a subsidiary of Intelligent Resource Management Ltd, reducing the amount of water used in hotel bathrooms was one key element. “For many guests, the shower is the single most important feature”, he told the IHS audience, “but the technology exists to reduce the amount of water used without impacting on the comfort of the hotel’s guests. We were actually called back by one hotel and asked to finish our work because they hadn’t noticed we had already substantially reduced the amount of water being used.”

Georgie Pearman and her husband and business partner Sam are the proprietors of The Lucky Onion that owns and runs bars, restaurants and hotels including No 131 and The Wheatsheaf Inn in Northleach. “We want to give our guests a luxurious stay,” she said. “We want them to have a full-on bathing experience that they may not get at home, so when space permits; we give them a fantastic bathroom with a big shower, twin wash basins, even twin baths if there is room. With some of our properties the rooms are quite small so we will put the shower and wash basin in the bedroom.”

As head of communications for the AXOR brand of luxury bathroom brassware and showering solutions it was pretty obvious even before he spoke that Michael Kiolbassa was firmly in favour of a great shower experience. “Reducing water use without reducing the enjoyment of the showering experience is something we at AXOR are famous for,” he said. “We are a luxury brand and our reputation can also enhance the reputation of a hotel that fits AXOR or Hansgrohe in its bathrooms. Longevity of the products is very important too, and this calls for great design and high quality fittings. A hotel cannot afford to have an ensuite bathroom out of action.”

Vanessa Brady OBE, international multi-award winning interior designer, business consultant and founder of the Society of British and International Design, begged to differ with the other speakers. “I think it’s the loo that holds the key to a great bathroom,” she said. “Nobody wants to walk away from a toilet in the bathroom that has not worked properly. However, I think that the single most important feature of a hotel bathroom is the reliability of the fittings. Being unable to shower at home is a nuisance for sure, but for a hotelier, it means you cannot rent out that room. So buying cheap can turn out to be very expensive.”

“We are not yet at the point where a guest will book into one of our rooms because it has a great bathroom,” concluded Georgie Pearman. “They come to us because of our Cotswold setting and our great restaurant. “But if we do not deliver on the bathroom as well, it will spoil the whole stay and we may not get them back, and they almost certainly will not recommend us either.”

Will Laufen shape the bathrooms of tomorrow?

Swiss bathroom manufacturers Laufen first presented SaphirKeramik two years ago as a prototype. It is now presenting the first series of products – and details of the impressive performance of the new material, so is this really the shape of things to come?

Laufen SaphirKeramikMain
Minimalist bathroom design: the wash basin unit has a light and elegant look thanks to the washbasin bowl made of Laufen’s SaphirKeramik.

I get slightly itchy teeth when I hear of a company ‘reinventing the wheel‘, because usually there is nothing wrong with the original wheel, and the new kid on the block is frequently a poor imitation of the original product at a slightly cheaper price point.

One could argue in the case of bathroom ceramics, the material we have been happy to use for years, is ideal for the job. But while there is undoubtedly life in this old dog for many years to come, SaphirKeramik does have a few new tricks up its sleeve – and you know what they say about old dogs, don’t you?

In its choice of name, Laufen is referring to the addition of the mineral corundum, which occurs in nature in different modifications as a component of sapphire, a material with a hardness only surpassed by that of diamonds. Consequently, the new ceramic is considerably harder and has a greater flexural strength, which is exhibited in entirely new washbasin designs.

Manufactured from SaphirKeramik, the bowls are an ideal match for the designer elements in the Living by Laufen collection.

SaphirKeramik turns the old material into completely new shapes: closely defined radii and edges are possible – and thin walls which have until now not been seen in sanitary ceramic.

Previously, when the aim was to create a bathroom design in ceramic, manufacturers with production expertise had the choice between classic ceramic, so-called vitreous china, and fine fireclay. Vitreous china excels through the waterproof qualities of the surface – water absorption virtually zero – and therefore meets the highest hygienic requirements for WCs and urinals.

Soft, round and flowing shapes can be very readily achieved with this material, however, the arbitrary shrinkage during the drying and firing of the body makes the manufacturing process difficult to control. This material reaches its limits with very large ceramic parts and this is when fine fireclay is used. The slurry is stabilised through the addition of clay already fired and this permits the production of large ceramic products such as double washbasins or floor-standing washbasin pedestals.

With SaphirKeramik from Laufen, the hardness of the material permits shapes which were previously not possible. A more delicate design language, more defined in shape and line, becomes possible – exactly matching the ideas behind contemporary architectural design.

Draft designs where ceramic was previously not considered owing to the necessary material coating, can now be achieved – and therefore exploit all the benefits which ceramic has in the bathroom. In addition to high levels of hygiene, the advantages include the insensitivity of the material to abrasive cleaners and mechanical abrasion.

Finally, ceramic is also an environmentally friendly and sustainable product. It largely consists of the natural and widespread raw materials kaolin, clay, feldspar and quartz sand, it can be produced economically in large numbers, and it can be safely used in the bathroom in contact with drinking water for many years and can be completely recycled at the end of a long product life.

Dr. Werner Fischer, Research Director at Laufen, developed the SaphirKeramik together with his team and various university research institutes. The greater hardness of SaphirKeramik permits thinner walls and simplified structure of the ceramic parts, which in turn results in less material, lower weights and benefits in terms of sustainability: fewer raw materials required and lower energy consumption in firing, production and transport.

The light and elegant features of SaphirKeramik are immediately visible in this round bowl.

The material’s high hardness opens up new design possibilities, especially as regards the radii of the products, 1‑2-mm radii for edges and 2‑mm radii for corners are technically feasible with the new SaphirKeramik. This compares with the state of the art for classic ceramics radii from 7 to 8 mm.

The precise recipe for SaphirKeramik took Dr Fischer and his team over 5 years to develop and is said to be a better kept secret than the Coca-Cola recipe. What we do know is that SaphirKeramik gets its strength from an exactly specified addition of the material corundum, which is colourless in its pure form. Mixing the clay with silicate-ceramic raw material affords this material, in addition to its porcelain-like white, the strength with which the elegant and delicate products become possible.

The shape of the bathrooms of tomorrow? Possibly. A revolution in the design language of ceramic? Certainly, and we probably have not even started to grasp the full potential of SaphirKeramik.

The best really is yet to come.

Opening video from BMA Conference

The 2014 Bathroom and Kitchen Business Conference, organised by the Bathroom Manufacturers Association (BMA), got off to a flying start thanks to this video intro.

Okay, it’s not quite as good as being there, but if you do not have the time to read my extended review of Conference, this intro will give you a flavour of the main issues and illustrate how social networking has turned the communication industry on its head.

Talking of heads, if you think that social networking is just a passing fad, your head is probably in the sand. But then again, you probably would not be reading this or any other blog.

If you did not make Conference this year, this video intro will give you an idea  of what you missed. And if you were there, it will serve as a reminder of what an important and useful day it was.


BMA chalks up another successful conference

Once again the Bathroom Manufacturers Association (BMA), has delivered a conference the entire kitchen and bathroom industry can be proud of.

Conferences as good as the Bathroom & Kitchen Conference at Heythrop Park on 7 October do not just happen. They are, to quote the BMA’s president David Osborne, the tip of the iceberg. Behind this success was a team of hard-working, dedicated staff members headed by the Association’s CEO Yvonne Orgill, who this year pulled out all the stops.

I could spend from now to next year’s conference talking about the highlights of this year’s event but for so much of it, you really had to be in the room. And quite frankly, if your business is the retailing of bathroom or kitchens or supplying those that do retail them, you should try to make it your business to attend the 2015 Conference, because your business can only benefit from you being there.

Conference this year kicked off with Juliet Mann whose previous experience includes working for the likes of CNN, Sky News and the BBC. She was the host and facilitator for the day, skilfully managing the speakers, chairing the various open forum sessions and running the whole event to time – no mean feat.

The first speaker, Dick Strawbridge, spoke about how difficult it was to run a green business successfully pointing out that for a business to be truly sustainable, it needed to make a profit. He was followed by Fiona Hawkins of Plinkfizz who explained how the emergence of social media had changed the way companies approached marketing. She pointed out that the 12-month marketing plan was dead in the water. What was needed said Fiona, were short term strategies that could quickly adapt to a market that was constantly changing.

Nick Stanhope of the behaviour change company We Are What We Do brought the morning session to a close with a thought-provoking presentation that examined social psychology and behavioural economics. If you want to have a real effect on sustainability issues you have to engage with behaviour change Nick pointed out, going on to explain that the environmental impact caused by staying at a hotel with poor eco-credentials, to say nothing of the impact on the planet of flying to the hotel, were hardly likely to be offset by reusing the same bath towel a second time.

The usual soporific post-lunch session was replaced by an interesting presentation by Clif McLellan of NSF International who explained how a quality mark could be used to pinpoint products that were of a high quality threshold and serve as a ‘visual shorthand’ for consumers. One of the examples he used was the NSF logo on a Dyson hand dryer that instantly reassured consumers in the USA who were not as familiar with the Dyson brand as UK consumers.

This session was followed by a lively presentation by Matt Hunter from the Design Council. He explained how large the bathroom market is for older users with a high disposable income, and how poorly this sector was currently being served by UK retailers. Within the next 20 years the number of UK citizens over 85 will double, and they will be demanding better said Matt. But the big problem is that while many product solutions exist, we struggle to find the right language to sell them.

BJ Cunningham was the next speaker and he gave one of the highlight presentations of the day. A naturally funny speaker with an ability to bounce back from one business disaster after another, he was both entertaining and a provider of sound business advice that would help any business of any size in any industry. Companies are like people he said and made up of three separate perspectives: how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us and how we want to be perceived. The closer these three perspectives can merge, the more successful the company (or individual) will become.

The final speaker at this year’s Bathroom & Kitchen Conference was David Schneider, an actor, writer and Twitter user of some note with almost 200,000 followers. David used his session to provide the audience with a series of top tips to make Twitter a more effective business tool, peppering his presentation with some examples that had been very effective and explain the importance of engaging effectively with other users.

All in all, this year’s event, the first official kitchen AND bathroom conference by the BMA, was an outstanding success. Including ‘kitchen’ in its title was acknowledgment of a long-established fact: the content is business-linked, not bathroom or kitchen product specific. Judging by the number of delegates that stayed to the end this year, most of those who attended understood that.

This event looks certain to continue its track-record of year-on-year growth and I for one hope the Association re-book this venue for the 2015 Bathroom & Kitchen Conference.

Finally, Conference concludes with a Gala Dinner and Media Awards when the BMA presents the kitchen and bathroom publications, exhibitions and digital platforms selected by its membership for awards. I am thrilled to report that one of this blog’s sponsors Pro Publishing Media & Events were the winners of no less than three awards and were also selected as finalists in two further sections –a unique achievement this year.

So it is congratulations to Jo-Anne Wright, managing editor of Utopia Kitchen & Bathroom Magazine for winning Consumer Journalist of the Year and consumer Magazine of the Year, and Martin Allen-Smith, editor of Designer Kitchen & Bathroom the trade Magazine of the Year.