External Works 2007

This is the second page of a 3 page review of the External Works Exhibition held at the NEC, Birmingham in April 2007.

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Paving and Surfacing

Enough of the mortars, worrabout the paving? Well, as in previous years, the selection of paving on show was not as comprehensive as it should be at an event that aims to be the premier hard landscaping exhibition in the land. So those companies that did make the effort deserve a huge pat on the back for “keepin' it real”, as I believe the saying is.


Top of the food chain has to be Charcon . They are part of a massive international construction products empire, and their presence at a show such as this gives it invaluable credibility with us lesser mortals, and part of that credibility trickles down to enrich all the other paving manufacturers on parade. Their presence is good for them, and good for the trade in general.

The Charcon stand was one big tease – tasters of their various products along with an impressively sculpted human statue that was a BIG ht with some of the more frivolous ladies attending the show. In fact, I'm sure I saw one matronly figure walk past at least half a dozen times whilst I was chatting with the Charconian high command.

Charcon Wall Display
Charcon Permeable Paving Model

When you're the size and scale of a company such as Charcon, what do you put on the stand? You couldn't feasibly “do a Noah” and fit two of everything they make on the Charcon Ark: you couldn't even fit one of everything! So, you do what they did, which is to put a representative sample of their key product groups on display and rely on the fact that most of the show visitors will be vaguely familiar with the wider palette. So, there are the K-Lite kerbs, ideal for the weight restrictions imposed by Manual Handling Regulations, and there are wall-mounted sample boards of tumbled stone setts and textured concrete flags. There's also the latest incarnation of the Charcon Permeable Paving Presentation, which now features permeable bitmac, courtesy of stable-mate, Bardon Aggregates. This working 'model' features water being continuously sprinkled over permeable surfaces (CBPs and bitmac in this version), where it disappears into the structure of the model pavement only to be recycled and re-appear at the sprinkler head some seconds later. It's an evolving model, but it does a good job of getting across the message about just how bloody effective permeable surfaces can be at handling substantial quantities of surface water.

As for the stand itself, I have to say that this was the most visually appealing I've seen from Charcon in a long time. It was engaging, inviting, intriguing and not over-staffed. It was roomy without being empty, warm without being twee, busy without being cluttered. The Charconians are always chatty and knowledgeable but this new-look stand gives them a much more human face.

Vande Moortel

Right next to Charcon, and representing one of the very few paving types not featured within the AggInd band, clay pavers from Vande Moortel , a Belgian manufacturer with a British distribution network. These are, not to mince words, bloody gorgeous, but then, regular readers will know I've an enormous soft spot for clay pavers and have rarely seen a clay that I didn't like.

These imports come in a generous (possibly over-generous) range of sizes, and in colour blends that are archetypical of the Low Countries, with warm russets, rich chocolates and mellow tans. There's also the delicious “Gold” clay that offers superb contrast for detailing and a glorious summery flavour when used on larger areas.

vande moortel
Clay pavers from Vande Moortel

I owe Vande Moortel an apology. They contacted me some time ago asking for a mention on the website, but I misunderstood their set-up, believing they had no stock on the British mainland. I'm delighted to find that they do indeed have stock on this side of the North Sea, and at more than one base, and so I'm more than happy to apologise to Terry Askew and everyone at Van Moortel and to promise a link in the suppliers section will be in place before they finish reading this review!


Another change of material now: natural stone. In its most familiar form, that of flags and setts, three distributors were in attendance, so I'll deal with them alphabetically. CED are another show regular, but their stand is never the same, and just when you think they can't possibly improve on their last outing, they pull a rabbit from the hat and stun you with yet another lip-smacking, mouth-watering, drop-dead-bloody gorgeous display of stone at its very, very best. It' not just the quality of the stone, it's the way it's arranged, how it's juxtaposed with contrasting and complementary stone, how it almost flows through the stand, drawing you in, and making you yearn to be given the chance to work with it.

Mixed flagstones from CED
Decorative sandblasting from CED

I didn't get as much time as I'd like to chat with the CED chaps, but I have a memory burned into my visual cortex of standing on the edge of the CED display after hours on Wednesday evening, when the hall was all-but deserted and I wasn't really supposed to be there, and just revelling in the sheer orgasmic delight of beautiful stone beautifully presented.' Best stand in show bar none.


Hardscape , in contrast, had elected to use a large expanse of a single stone type, the Chinese Tower Sandstone, which is remarkably reminiscent of Highmoor Yorkstone, with inlaid detailing water-cut to create a series of spokes radiating from the open corner of their stand. Yes, other stone was on display, but it played a very quiet second fiddle to the principle soloist, and when I try, I can call to mind some porphyry and some granite, but nothing like the symphony of stone on show at CED.


Royal Forest Pennant Stone

The smallest stone company at the show couldn't be more friendly, welcoming and effusive without actually inviting me to share their home. Royal Forest Pennant Stone is the one part of what was Formpave that the Hart family took with them when the sold out to Hanson last summer.

forest pennant stone

RFPS is a small pebble on the beach of stone suppliers, as they have just the one product – but what a product! Pennant stone has a tremendously loyal following and is the flagstone of choice for many of the more upmarket developments in South Wales and Southern England, where it is rightly regarded as a worthy alternative to the pricier yorkstone, and eminently preferable to an imported material, especially for sensitive public projects.

I've written before about the undeniable beauty of the stone, with its gentle blues, greys and buffs, but it needs to be seen at first hand to fully appreciate what a lovely, understated stone it is, and how well it works either as a paving or for walling. At a time when it can seem that the country is being swamped with imported materials, it's a real pleasure to see a native stone holdings its own.


Back to concrete products, and right next door to RFPS, their erstwhile colleagues at Formpave , with their impressive panels of permeable and conventional paving, both as blocks and flags. Although there's been a change of owner at Formpave, the underlying philosophy and belief in quality products remains intact and unchanged. Sales manager Steve Spikes is perfectly happy with the modest changes introduced since last summer, and is thrilled at the prospect of a new, purpose built plant that will ease their supply issues during the busy mid-summer period. The continued belief and commitment to permeable paving systems remains, and, if anything, has been bolstered by the full-time presence of Dr Steve Coupe, formerly of Coventry University, who has done so much to drive the development of permeable systems in the UK.

The EcoGranite range has been upgraded, and now features a significant proportion of recycled/reclaimed aggregate from the belaboured Cornish granite industry, and the new blend does seem to give this product line a crisper, more granitic look, probably due to the increased proportion on the black, mica-like aggregate. Exciting times ahead for Formpave, I'm sure, and it's good to see a company that always had big ambitions and a belief in service now has the financial resources to help it fulfil its true potential.

formpave ecogranite
Formpave EcoGranite


The other major concrete paving manufacturer at the show was Acheson-Glover , who occupied a prime spot right beside the linkway between External Works and its big brother co-exhibition, Traffex. Better known in Ireland for many years, Acheson-Glover are increasingly appearing in the list of recommended suppliers for prestige projects, thanks largely to their distinctive TerraPave range of paving, which features tasteful aggregate blends in either a polished or a shot-textured finish.

In Mark Ashton, they now have a full-time sales manager for the busy British market and he was quietly chuffed with the level of interest and the sheer quality of the leads that arise from this event. And although the TerraPave was the star turn of the Acheson-Glover display, the retaining wall products were attracting almost as much attention, much to Mark's delight.

acheson glover

In the space available to them, Mark and his team had created an attractive and welcoming display, but I was worried by the presence of full-size flags on a support structure that lifted them up towards eye level, presenting uncomfortable corners that act as magnets for shins and shoulders, and also partially hid what lay beyond. This was purely a function of the limited space, and while I can't offer a better suggestion, I do think they missed a chance to attract even more potential clients to view what is a very distinctive product range.


Finally, in the concrete paving sector, a big name that makes but a little impact, it seems. Townscape are probably best known for their street furniture, even though they are paving manufacturers and fully paid-up members of Interpave. However, judging from their stand, you'd struggle to realise they manufactured and supplied some very interesting paving products. A couple of panels with the intriguing exposed aggregate paving, and couple more with their pressed riven effect products, which includes three new colour blends.

New pressed concrete paving from Townscape

However, there was still the silliness about taking photos. At this event two years ago I was banned from taking photos, and despite the change in management at the very top, they are still not happy with me taking pictures. If you don't want anyone to see your products, why come to a trade show at all? `


The other surfacing or paving material that was much in evidence, not least in the central Circle display-meeting-lunch area, was the resin-based products. SureSet are yet another stalwart supporter of this event and others with a hard-landscaping tinge, and it was a pleasant surprise to find they are now celebrating their first 10 years in the business, a decade in which they have risen to the very top of the tree when it comes to resin-bound surfacing. The birthday celebrations extended to having Victoria and Lorna hand out mini birthday cakes (in chocolate or lemon flavours) to visitors: it's not often you see women willingly giving away cake, but there was no sign of gritted teeth or reluctance of any shape or form. My missus would gouge out the eyes of anyone daring to even think of touching her cake!

The SureSet stand is a classic example of a display that has evolved over the years, and in its current form, it oozes professionalism and quality. It's light, bright and airy; the staff are never less than immaculately turned out with their SureSet blouses; the product display is self-evident; and the samples are simple, effective and strangely desirable. All in all, it's a very classy presentation and one, I'm sure, that wins them many orders.

To celebrate the first decade, two bits of news: firstly, later this summer, they hope to have crossed the t's and dotted the i's on their upgraded and expanded 10 year guarantee. Confidence in their products and in their consistently high standard of laying has convinced the company that a 10 year warranty is eminently possible.


Secondly, and this is one for the more 'out there' designers in the industry, they have now created a stunning “glow in the dark'” product that is bound to attract a huge amount of attention, from the frivolous and the formal, because it offers so many design possibilities. Victoria and myself tried our damnedest to photograph it, but a combination of appalling tungsten indoor lights, unsteady camerawork, and a less than ideal “dark room” combined to foil us. However, as soon as she has some decent professional photos available, I'll get them on the site.


Ronacrete offer resin-based surfaces as part of their repertoire, and they were much in evidence at this event, along with other products from the ever-expanding Ronacrete range, including surface-mounted tactiles, GRP Hi-Vis step nosings, and the punningly entitled “Ease By Gum” surface protector. Sales manager, Donna Le Carpentier, was in attendance on all three days, supported by a selection of her less-durable male colleagues, and despite being plagued by the regular racket from the skate-boarding display area just a few metres away, managed to make the most of those visitors that made it out to the outer edges of the hall.


The Ronacrete display was certainly colourful, with a good selection of surface finishes for the FastGrip/DecorDrive product, of which the flake finish did seem to be attracting most interest. I was impressed with the resin-bound tree-pit products, as these offer a neat, tidy and low-maintenance alternative to the fag-end littered tree grilles that for too many years, have been the stock solution for lazy architects unwilling to explore new ideas or keep themselves up-to-date.

The Others

Two resin suppliers that I didn't get a chance to visit: AddaGrip and Stirling Lloyd . I did saunter past both displays on at least one occasion, but nothing new or inviting leapt out at me, and I was en route for other discussions. If I missed anything special, I apologise, but my time at these events is limited and if you want my attention and comments, then you have to do as others do, and collar me as soon as you see me.

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