Brett Approved Installer Awards 2017
In the annals of BAI awards nights, events over the past twelve months conspired to ensure that the route to this year's big night at the world-famous Belfry Golf-twonk Hotel in Sutton Coldfield has been one of the most complex and convoluted.
The regular organiser and BAI linchpin, Lisa, suffered an horrific accident that has kept her off work for much of 2016 and, even now, she's struggling, but, in typical Lisa mode, sheÂ’s determined to do what she can. Even so, much of the usual BAI behind-the-scenes admin has been on hold and recruitment to the scheme has stalled while Lisa recovers and her assistant-cum-ammanuensis learns the ropes.
And then there was the perceived need to address the north-south divide (or, more accurately, the stinking rich south-east vs everywhere else divide), whereby contractors outside that privileged corner of the nation feel that they can't compete against those serving clients with big, dock-off houses, gardens measured in acres rather than square metres, and budgets greater than the annual earnings of your typical patio-installer.
In what has to be regarded as a fair attempt to level the playing field, the big National event of last Friday was preceded by three smaller regional events for the South-east, the South-west and the North & Midlands, where, it was hoped, contractors were competing with their equals, at least in terms of potential jobs. At each regional event, attending BAI members voted for their choice for best jobs, with the top five in each of four categories (big/little patio, big/little driveway) going forward to the National Final, as well as being given a regional award.
I attended the North & Midlands night held at a plush hotel on the outskirts of Derby, though, apparently, the format was the same at each of the other two evenings. A chance to look at the new Brett products, a low-key show-and-tell from some ancillary suppliers, a chance to pick your own Top 5 from all the entries in that region, and then, after a buffet tea and a bit of a pep talk from BAI supremo, Calvin Jackson, the awards were dished out to those who received most votes from the assembled throng.
No disrespect to those ancillary exhibitors, but the big attraction was the new products, and, in particular, a completely new Porcelain range that's been saddled with the cumbersome title of Geo-Ceramica , alternatively pronounced with a hard or soft 'c' depending on who's talking.
I'm sure Brett won't mind me saying this is their BIG idea for 2017 and beyond. In essence, it's a 10mm porcelain tile or flag or whatever you want to call it, factory bonded to a high-permeability concrete-ish base. Â“Why?Â” I hear you cry, and understandably so. Why take a porcelain tile/flag and over-complicate it? Why take a product that, at 20mm thick, is already unnecessarily over-engineered (believe me, 10mm is plenty for porcelain: it's a lot tougher than you think!) and ramp it up to a chunky 40mm thick? Or 60mm thick for the driveway-suitable versions?
The answer is simple: it's to make life easier for us contractors! I know, I know: how is a chunkier flag making our daily grind that much less onerous? Well, it's all to do with the way we lay porcelain, or, more precisely, the way we *are supposed* to lay porcelain paving. It's all that carry-on with a primer and laying onto a full bed of wet mortar. Too many installers (and remember, this includes landscapers, builders, DIYers and so-called handymen, not just paving professionals) are either failing to understand the importance of a primer and the correct bed or, more likely, they just can't be arsed.
By making the underside of these porcelain flags a concrete, the problem with absorption and bonding is, effectively, eliminated. These Geo-Ceramica pavers can be laid in exactly the same way as any other concrete flagstone. No need for a primer; no need for a mortar bed, apparently, as Brett claim these can be laid flexibly/unbound onto a bed of sharp sand, if so desired, although most, I suspect, will continue to lay onto a mortar bed.
And if the clever new base isn't enough innovation for you, then wait until you see the textures and finishes they have lined-up. I swear one of them looks like a berber carpet!
While the ability to lay on bound or unbound bedding has to be seen as an advantage, and the fact that the very same Â‘tileÂ’ can be had as an indoor-spec 10mm thickness without the fancy concrete-ish base, is all this enough of a bonus to give Brett a healthy slice of the porcelain pie? Well, the sizes, colours and textures will have a role to play in determining the success, but, ultimately, it will come down to cost. Geo-Ceramica has to be competitive, which means it can't cost more per square metre than it would for a 'standard' porcelain with the primer, otherwise installers will vote with their wallets.
But let's not allow Geo-Ceramica to dazzle us with its potential. There were lots of other new candidates on show, and while some are just damned-sure-fire winners (such as the tumbled Vintage Kerb) and should be in production now, if not sooner, others face more of a challenge to be taken seriously.
I really like the very Belgian-looking Concept Block Paving and the tantalising Linear Plan Paving but I suspect it might still be a little too European for many just yet. The block-with-an-hole-in-it permeable paving, well, that died a death when the clay paver boys tried it a decade or more ago, and the Aged Sandstone is now so aged as a concept it should be retired.
The unnamed Textured and the Linear paving have a genuine chance in the commercial sector and then, with a bit of luck and a following wind, they might just trickle down into the residential sector, where they will be snapped up by the more design-conscious clients. Auden Brick is a Â‘modernÂ’ wet-cast, and itÂ’s very good for what it is, but how much demand is there for wet-cast walling? As a mowing strip, maybe it has a chance. Still, the new linear aspect slate and granite have so much potential, are so versatile, so well-considered, that they will more than make up for those products that probably donÂ’t have the legs.
It would be beyond surprising if every new candidate product Brett (or any other manufacturer) put forward subsequently proved to be a winner. The whole point of showing these products to the likes of contractors, designers and specifiers, is to better assess the feeling within the market, to gain invaluable feedback (many of us were quizzed on our thoughts) and so make a more informed decision before investing heaps of money in new production lines and marketing.
Some of these candidates will firmly establish themselves; some will struggle; and some will fall by the wayside, but such is the nature of product development. If only we could be sure of everything that initially seems like a good ideaÂ….weÂ’d all be millionaires!
So, with the regional events wrapped up, a month later the top five projects in each of the four categories are automatically qualified for the Grand Final at the national event, where, once again, contractors are asked to vote for their favourite projects, and it is this vote that will determine the winners of the four project categories.
What is noticeable at the 2017 National Event is the reduced numbers attending. This has been a conscious decision to invite those contractors who have shown loyalty to the brand and, more importantly, stood by the BAI principles through what has been a very difficult year.
For too many years, every BAI member and their aunty was welcome to turn up at Brett's not-inconsiderable expense, to indulge in a plush hotel, partake of all the privileges of spas and gyms and saunas and god-knows-what else, stuff their faces with a big dinner, get extremely refreshed on the free booze, make a nuisance/pillock of themselves (delete as applicable) and then bugger off having contributed nothing other than buying a few packs of Brett Paving over the course of 12 months. For 2017, the focus was to reward those who warranted a reward, and let the also-rans decide whether they really want to be part of BAI and all that entails or return to the anonymity and zero-commitment of being an unregistered installer.
And the event really benefited by having a more focussed, supportive and committed audience. The number of rowdy only-here-for-the-beer morons was dramatically reduced, and the interest in the awards was distinctly heightened, as everyone knew it was their vote determining who won the project awards.
What had once been an afternoon conference was now pared right down to a loose and informal drinks reception with just a token promotional presence from long-term BAI supporters Resiblock , Probst and Pulvex . Gone are the Q&A sessions at which no QÂ’s were ever posited; no more extensive displays of new stone and concrete hard-landscaping products; a very noticeable absence of tools and other kit from the suppliers.
I do feel this was a bit too pared down. I appreciate that nearly everyone is achingly familiar with these stalwart sponsors, but even so, having a few Â‘propsÂ’ to hand is a great way to trigger conversation and to foster deeper relationships. This needs a re-think, Calvin.
For me, the fact that the BAI awards have always been decided by an independent panel has been essential for my involvement. I don't really want to be part of an awards scheme that doles out accolades to 'pet' contractors or for projects which used a product the manufacturer wants to promote, and, in the 10 years I've been doing this, never once has anyone from Brett pushed me in a particular direction, whether it be towards a contractor or a product. Every year it's been a case of ' Here are portfolios of 60-80 jobs for you to wade through and pick the ones you feel are better than the rest '. Nothing more; nothing less.
This year, it went even further. I was asked to pick three projects that I felt excelled primarily on technical merit. They would be solely my choice, with no input from any other judge or from the contractor vote. More than that, they asked me to get up on stage explain to the assembled contractors just why I felt the three chosen jobs were deserving of this special accolade. These were to be awards based not on what looked good, or which job had a swanky house or mega-budget, but projects which exemplified commitment to the highest installation ethics, compliance with the British Standards and displayed an undeniable sense of pride and integrity in the work.
BAI Award Winners 2017
So: who won what?
Best large driveway(over 50m²)
Best small driveway(under 50m²)
Best large patio(over 50m²)
Best small patio(under 50m²)
Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
Pavingexpert Awards for Technical Merit
Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
"For demonstration of wide-ranging hard-landscaping skills and exceptional design"
"For exceptional inboard cutting-in on arcs and curves with no crossed joints"
"For showing drainage connection and use of dust-suppressed cutting kit"
Resiblock Award for Best Contractor
Home Style Improvements
Contractors of the Year
Regional Installer of the Year South East
Regional Installer of the Year South West
Regional Installer of the Year Northern & Midlands
National Installer of the Year
As the excitement died down, Calvin announced that, tonight, everyone would be a winner, and prizes were to be given out based on the number given on a lightweight Â‘blockÂ’ selected by all attendees earlier in the day. These ranged from Easter Eggs to pairs of top-notch work-boots, site tools, and free BAI membership for 12 months right up to luxury weekends away at swanky hotels, and rounds of golf at the aforesaid Belfry course. I managed to head back to our very comfortable room with a stonking great industrial extension lead and a bumper pack of smelly candles.
I'm sure there must have been some nervousness at Brett Towers before the event. Trimming the guest list, re-organising the scheduling, even moving the venue up to the northern wastes of Warwickshire all represent a risk, but, on balance, it worked. In fact, it more than worked, it went tremendously well. Feedback from attending contractors has been overwhelmingly positive and there is a greater acknowledgement that an award from the BAI really does put you at the top of our trade.
Hopefully, Lisa will continue to recover, the scheme will regain its impetus, new members will be recruited, and 2018 will prove to be an even better year for everyone. There is a sense that this is all heading in the right direction. The focus for BAI continues to be quality of installation and not quantity of installers. As Calvin says, it's better to have 200 top-class, professional, committed installers than 600 badge-collectors interested only in bigging themselves up by trading under the name of nationally recognised brand. I'm with him: give me quality over quantity any day!