Brett's Directory 2007
It's been a busy year for Brett , with much time and effort being devoted to absorbing and incorporating the TopPave business which they bought last summer from its previous owners, the Tarmac group for what many in the industry seem to think was an overly generous price. Maybe it was or maybe it wasn't: only time will tell whether it was a good investment, and if any existing manufacturer is capable of capitalising on what had become a tired and lacklustre brand, then Brett are probably head of the list.
Leafing through the 104 page (excluding cover and back) 2007 Landscaping Directory, there's no mention of the TopPave name, although a handful of what used to be TopPave products are on parade in amongst many of the familiar Brett line-up. So: it's immediately apparent that the more marketable ex-TopPave lines have been completely subsumed into the Brett brand. That's probably a good idea, as the product names, which is what people tend to remember, have been retained and it's just the previous manufacturer's name that has been dropped.
The cover features a mosaic of smaller images, illustrating the various elements within the range, so there are snippets of block paving, close-ups of flagstones, and a stand-alone steel water feature, all of which reinforce the sense that this is intended to be a “Directory” of hard-landscaping products rather than a straightforward sales brochure. The Directory has been sub-divided into product groups and other information, with each section featuring a colour-coded page edge. The “Garden Landscaping” (wet-cast flags and edgings) section has a steely-blue page edge while the “Natural Stone” is edged in a pinky-plum colour.
The opening 24-page section is, almost inevitably, given over to the usual basic design considerations, lifestyle buzz-words, and a gallery of rather good photos that are considerably improved by having noticeably fewer fluorescent-toothed models than in previous editions. Some of the photos we've seen before, from one source or t'other, but they are all of a consistently high standard, well-selected and attractively staged.
Along with the blocks, flags and aggregates that formed the core of the previous incarnation, Brett also acquired the “Contractor List” organised by the superseded business, and this has now become the “Brett Approved Installer Scheme”. There's the standard fare regarding 'vetting' and 'standards' and a plug for the “security protected ID cards” issued to compliant contractors, but, as with all these manufacturer-driven schemes , there is no external accreditation, which is less than ideal.
However, any vetting is better than none, and these schemes do tend to filter out the rogues and so offer the customer a little more peace-of-mind. The ID card may look impressive, but it wouldn't be difficult to run-up something similar on the computer and, after all, how many of your average customers would be able to spot the difference between a genuine ID card and a fake?
Normally in these reviews, I go through all of the new products, offering a brief description and an opinion, but I'm not sure that's possible with this year's Brett Directory because although many of the products are new to Brett, they're not new to us: we've seen them before from the previous manufacturer. So, perhaps it's better to mention which have been spared the chop and to try to explain the overall range and how it seems to work.
In the Wet-cast , Westminster (or 'New Westminster' as it seems to be) is the “top of the range” product, with eight sizes of flag in two colours, along with octagons, stepping stones and walling. Bronte, is a mid-range product that would seem to be a direct rival to the Canterbury. Obviously, the moulds and colours are different, but I can't understand why it was felt necessary to have two mid-price products. Just to complicate matters even further, Quorndon is a third option, whose only distinguishing feature seems to be a choice of thicknesses (for peds or vehicles). “Utility” is the budget end product.
Chaucer would seem to be the only pressed flag on offer. It's a secondary processed shot-textured flag in three colours, two sizes and two thicknesses, which seems somewhat parsimonious, but is augmented by the new Chaucer Glass which, unsurprisingly, incorporates recycled glass into the surface to give an extra-sparkly appearance.
Moving on to Natural Stone , the various products have been grouped according to rock type, and for some reason, Travertine is given the honour of leading the parade. Why? Travertine is probably the single most unsuitable stone type for external paving currently on the market. I've no doubt the Brett Travertine is excellent quality and gorgeous colours and dimensionally accurate: that's not at issue. What irks me is the continued belief that Travertine is suitable for these soggy islands. It looks great in Turkey and the eastern Med, and it's very attractive in a conservatory, but outdoors, it's a slippery dirt magnet and those annoying vesicles just fill up with all sorts of crap.
The four-size Granite Flag “Project Pack” looks very interesting, but there's just the one colour, the ubiquitous Silver Grey, whereas the Slate Flags are available in three colours, which seems a bit unfair. However, here's a neat tip: the Silver Grey Granite looks even better when contrasted with the Olive Black slate, and because both types are produced in the same plan sizes, it's an easy task to 'mix and match'. The smallest Olive Black slate flags (290x290mm) look superb as inserts into larger areas of the granite. The only problem is that both the granite and the slate are sold as “Project Packs” so you can't buy individual sizes (unless, of course, you have a particularly amenable stockist).
The tumbled sandstone suffers from the same problem. Yes, there are three well-chosen colours and four sizes, but the whole range; the flags, the setts and the walling, all come in these bloody “Project Packs”, which may well make life easier for the stockists but are not particularly customer-friendly. What happens if I don't want to use the largest size flag i9n my design, or if I don't want to buy a full 14.7m² just because I'm two units short to complete my layout?
Thankfully, the 'normal' Sandstone is available in single sizes, so you can buy as many or as few of the five colours and six sizes as you like. There's a further six colour options available if you're willing to buy in lots of 14-ish m² at a time. There's a good selection of circles, octagons, copings and edgings also available, which means it all adds up to a comprehensive selection. If only the buying options were as comprehensive.
The one item that does deserve a standalone mention is the new "Interlocking Sandstone". This is a very stylish looking offering, albeit limited in design possibilities. There's only one way to use it, but it's very, very attractive, and it could be broken up by using transverse bands of alternative paving. Not sure of the price at this moment in time, but this could be a wonderfully intriguing design option for those willing to put in the effort.
The Sandstone Block paving is remarkably similar, though thinner, to that reviewed on this site last Spring, and it comes as no surprise to me to see it 'picked up' by one of the 'Majors' as it is a immensely eye-catching product both visually and financially.
The section closes with Limestone flags and yet again, choice is severely limited by the decision to supply it only in the bloody Project Packs. I'm a big admirer of these limestone flags. All three colour options are very subtle as is the texture, but making it available only in 15-ish m² lots will not help sell it to the smaller project, where it usually works best.
Not a lot to say about the Decorative Aggregates section other than it's a wide selection of coloured gravels, pebbles, cobbles and slate. However, the Lighting section is something special. From memory, I'd say this is the most comprehensive range of lighting products offered by any of the major British or Irish manufacturers, and if you can't find a lighting product to suit your project from amongst this lot, then there's simply no pleasing you! Most manufacturers have dabbled in lighting products over recent years, but the range offered here is leaps and bounds (almost said “lightyears”) ahead of any other paving supplier and is certain to attract a lot of attention. If you're a residential contractor keen to offer your customers an improved level of service, it really is worth getting yourself (or one of your operatives) Part P qualified because the ability to provide lighting along with paving and other hard-landscaping is going to become an essential skill for the serious patio specialist.
When it comes to the tan-edged Block Paving pages, all of the products are familiar although there has, inevitably, been some consolidation. Of the TopPave products, Aura, Regatta, Penta and Classico survive intact while what was Antique has now merged with Alpha to become … wait for it … Alpha Antique. However, the previous “Antique” sizes of 133mm x ???mm have disappeared and all six sizes are now based around the 140mm format of Alpha. Again, this may be because I'm not a marketing bod, but why keep the name if neither the sizes nor the colours are as before?
From the more familiar Brett range, Beta (untumbled Alpha) and Omega remain (why not Intersett Omega??). No sign of Theta, but perhaps that slipped away a couple of years ago, I'm not sure. Sigma, the grass-block paver is still with us, as is the T-Flow permeable system, rewarded with a page and a third this year compared to the paltry half-page of last year. Permeable Paving Systems (PPS) are the way forward for concrete block paving, and I would dearly love to see more emphasis given to their potential around the home, but there's a problem for all manufacturers: while they have no difficulty in churning out the PPS blocks, the number of contractors that feel confident and able to construct a PPS driveway is pitifully low. This is something that will have to be addressed if PPS is to be the success story we need it to be for the sake of our water resources. See also the News Item regarding Interpave's PPS publications.
The final section is a revamped Technical Section , and Marketing Director, Shirley Mansfield, told me that she's particularly pleased with that section, and rightly so, for most of it. They've obviously picked up a lot of what TopPave were doing, and expanded it to reflect the combined range, but they've also put a lot more thought into providing layouts, pack quantities and unit dimensions, which is just the sort of thing most contractors require.
The whole section feels less cluttered than previously, and is more keenly focussed on product information. Some of the info on construction techniques has been lost, but, unfortunately, one item that has survived the cull is that bloody awful spot/dab bedding method for patios. If only that nonsense had been thrown in the bin along with some of the less-attractive wet-cast products from their new acquisition, then I would have been a happy bunny and would have been able to give a A-plus review of the technical section, but as spot-bedding is a crime against humanity (and common sense), that mark will have to be downgraded to a B-minus.
Overall, this has been a difficult publication to assess. For established companies, there's always a temptation to compare and contrast with the previous year's offering, but there have been such massive changes at Brett since the 2006 Directory crossed my path last Spring, that such a comparison isn't realistic. Yet, at the same time, this isn't a review of a totally new company. Most of what we've seen is familiar, but it wouldn't be fair to compare what we have with what was produced by a now-defunct manufacturer. I can't help feeling that I've focussed too much on what remains and what has been dropped, and that the name of the previous manufacturer has cropped up far too often, but then again, isn't that what all of us will be doing?
If I try to fix my sights on the package as a whole, then it's no great effort to declare the catalogue/brochure/directory to be more than satisfactory. The photos are good and the layout is generally fine, although I'd like to see more full-page images and fewer that are marred by being spread across the centrefold. The text is light and fluent and doesn't overly impose itself. The tech info, spot bedding aside, is excellent, and the general presentation is professional and balanced.
Changing tack and considering the product range as it now stands, much of what was weak in both ranges has been dropped. The consolidated block paving range is excellent and offers more choice than most others. The wet-cast flags probably need a bit more consolidation – too many mid-price products with too many names. The natural stone is disappointing solely because of the packaging rather than the actual stone itself. Bret have an excellent range of quality stone, offering a wide selection of colours, sizes and textures, but the insistence on supplying in these “Project packs” will deter many potential customers. Project packs are designed to make life easier for the middleman, for the stockist, but for me, it should be the end-user, whether that's a contractor, a DIYer or a multinational, that should be the most important consideration in the supply chain.