Brett Approved Installer Awards 2018

It’s a funny thing about growing older that time somehow seems to move faster. When I was imprisoned inside Mr Mannion’s terminally tedious Latin lessons, a 45 minute period seemed to last at least a couple of hours, and days stretched out almost endlessly. Now, it seems only a couple of months since I was last writing a summary of the annual Brett Paving Approved Installer Conference and Awards evening.

The musing about time and its inexorable passage arises because, in an act of complete surprise, they gave me an award this year, partly in recognition for 60 years man and boy in the paving trade, with my owld fellah being the man and me the mere boy. He started this business in 1957, so 2017 was our 60 years. I’d worked with him since the late 60s, pointing flags and brewing tea, but I joined full-time in 1977, so it’s really only 40 years for me…and for 20 of those I’ve been effectively crippled!

Still, it’s incredibly humbling to be acknowledged for what you’ve done, and for what your father before you did. Plus, it’s the first time I’ve ever been officially recognised by anyone for what I do, what I did, and what I hope to continue to do for a good few years yet, so I am supremely grateful to Brett and to all the installers that worked so hard to produce work of such a high calibre.

Anyway, enough of the gushing: on with the real story.

BAI venue
Tortworth Court - sprawling venue for 2018 BAI Conference

A return to the format of previous year for Brett Approved Installers in 2018. Gone are the pre-conference regional roadshows and we’re back to a one-off event at the resplendent Tortworth Court Hotel near Wooton-under-Edge, where the afternoon session, from 2pm until 5pm, is the actual conference, at which Brett traditionally provide a review of the twelve months passed and an overview of what we can expect in the coming year, including a whole raft of new products that didn’t make it into the 2018 brochure.

To start proceedings, we’re all gathered into one large room to hear an introduction from BAI supremo, Calvin Jackson, followed by an absorbing look at past performance and future potentials from Brett Chief Operating Officer, Alan Smith, who wisely chose to steer well clear of rugby jokes this year, in view of the forthcoming drubbing of his English team by the all-conquering heroes in green.

Calvin Jackson
BAI Manager Calvin Jackson

A few interesting points arose from both addresses. From Calvin, a re-iteration that the BAI scheme always has been, and as far as he’s concerned, always will be about quality, not quantity. They want only the genuinely good installers, not the badge collectors and the wannabes that join any scheme that will have them. To prove the point, he showed how many members had been….let’s say “dis-invited” to renew their membership following a poor show and/or complaints from customers. Any scheme such as this can only work if the members feel confident that they are maintaining a standard and that their fellow members share their ideals and beliefs. There’s little more dis-spiriting than being part of an allegedly select group that you know has rogues and ne’er-do-wells allowed in simply because they had the joining fee.

From Alan, a fascinating look at how paving materials have evolved, and how porcelain has seized significant market share in just a few short years. He even managed a few well-considered thoughts about what we may well be installing in a few years’ time. Digitally printed concrete, also knows as hybrid concrete, engineered concrete and various other soubriquets, is strongly fancied to be the Next Big Thing, but, like all contenders for that title over the years, it’s the quality of the products that will determine just how Big, the Next Big Thing will be.

Alan Smith Brett Supremo Alan Smith

Then. It’s a short break and the throng is split into their three regional groupings, North(ish), South, and South-West, before heading off to one of three seminars being staged on a rotating roster.

After checking the flatness of my vowels, I threw my lot in with the Northern contractors, and headed in to seminar 1, presented by Colin Nessfield of Interlay.

Big, BIG news from Interlay, and I’m not fully sure just how much I can say at this stage. A couple of days before this conference, Colin and I spent an hour or so at the great time-waste that is EcoBuild discussing what the future held for Interlay, and I think it’s safe to say there is to be a significant re-positioning of what is the only truly independent paving contractors’ trade association.

I’m hoping I’ll be in a position to reveal fuller details in a week or so, but, for now, suffice to say that Interlay is seeking to become more of an over-arching trade association focussed on contractors and less of a recommendation or arbitration source for consumers.

And to this end, the first step is to offer completely free membership of Interlay to all BAI members for an initial period of 12 months. Colin rightly points out that the BAI scheme already vets their members and there is no sense in Interlay replicating the process, ramping up costs for the contractor and wasting time for all involved. So, any member of BAI can automatically become a member of Interlay with no further hassle – and no cost for at least a year.

Interlay new direction
Interlay new direction

For Interlay, they will offer similar recognition to contractors on certain other "approved" schemes where the vetting has been deemed sufficient and the aims and ideals of the scheme are in line with those of Interlay, but it’s a true honour that BAI have been given first dibs on such an important forward move within our industry.

For Contractors, this is a great additional advantage. Membership of Interlay tells customers that you are deemed qualified to install anyone’s paving, not solely paving from Brett or any other individual manufacturer or supplier. From now on, being a member of such-and-such a scheme will not be enough. Clued-up customers will want the added reassurance that your schemes are deemed acceptable to Interlay, that your skills are not limited to installing blocks or flags or kerbs or walling from only this brand or that brand, but from ANY brand. Interlay accreditation tells the world you are a class paving installer, regardless of what products are being used.

I know a little more than I can publicly say at this stage, but other ‘schemes’ are on the verge of declaring their hand. As already said, as soon as I get the nod, I’ll publish much fuller details and explain more about the thinking that has prompted this development, but, for now, all I can do is urge BAI members to fully examine this amazing offer, and chat with Interlay to get the whole picture of just what a massive advantage this move could give to your business.

On to Seminar 2 and it’s (relatively new) production manager. Jose Carrero who gave a very frank and honest assessment of what has been happening at the various Brett plants up and down the country. New machinery here and there, efforts to eradicate an identified problem at such a plant, tweaks to the production cycle elsewhere, and, most refreshingly, a completely open forum to discuss issues the contractors present feel they had faced over recent months.

I’ve been present at meetings with production management from dozens of manufacturers and suppliers previously, and far too often I hear techno-gobbledegook, obfuscation, bafflement with science, total bollocks and downright lies. When I can, I do challenge them, but I know this can make me deeply unpopular with certain manufacturers/suppliers.

To hear a production manager saying, " Yes. We did drop a bollock with that one, and here’s what we’re doing about it " is impressive and, from talking to the contractors later, this attitude gives them a belief that their concerns and worries really are taken onboard and addressed. This is what should be happening throughout the industry, not just at Brett, but bonus points to Brett for having the cojones to take criticism directly from the ground.

Jose Carrero
Brett Paving Production Manager

And so on to Seminar 3, which I sense is what most of the contractors present want to see: new products.

Except, we have to sit still and listen to an explanation first. All those enticing new pavings lying over there, just out of reach, just on the edge of our sight, but we have to be given the back story before we’re allowed to feast our eyes.

And a feast it surely is! It’s not made clear why all these goodies didn’t make it into the 2018 brochure, but some of them are still ‘en route’, shall we say, and will only hit the merchants in a month or two. Logistics, eh?

I suppose the new products could be split into two groups. New stone and new porcelain, and I reckon the new porcelain group was, by some way the bigger of the two.

There isn’t the time or space to cover each and every newbie, so I’ll just pick out a handful that caught the eye. Sandstone step treads and corner units in both textured and riven surfaces. These have rapidly become an essential addition to any serious supplier’s offer, and these from Brett are as good as any I’ve seen elsewhere.

New Stone Products from Brett
New Stone Products from Brett

Larger format tumbled sandstone setts. These were the pick of the newbies amongst natural stone. 400x300, 300x200, 200x1200 and 200x150mm in three popular colour options and sold as 11-ish m² packs of mixed sizes. Lovely product with great potential, especially further north.

Polished sandstone setts, 200x100mm are, possibly, too finessed. I’m not a huge fan of polished stone, but if we’re to have it, then large format works best. Having overly fussy 200x100mm setts that will need exceptionally careful installation to make them look anywhere near half-decent is not something that appeals to me, either as a customer or as an installer. And making them in Fossil Mint??? FFS!

Polished Sandstone Setts
Polished Sandstone Setts
Fossil Mint Porcelain
Fossil Mint Porcelain

Speaking of which, possibly in an attempt to overcome the manifold shortcomings of that skip-worthy stone, Brett reveal a Porcelain version! All the look of Fossil Mint, including the fossils that really aren’t, but none of the drawbacks, such as being an algae magnet, being softer than a baby’s bum, thirstier than a salt-encrusted camel, and flakier than puff pastry on a Gregg’s Sausage Roll.

But will people pay porcelain prices for a stone that normally costs pennies (and still isn’t worth that!)?

There’s plenty to choose from, and some truly gorgeous looking stuff in amongst the voluptuous porcelain and GeoCeramica display, but the one that caught my eye was the GeoCeramica Irish High Stone. I asked: why "High Stone"?, but it comes down to that being what the manufacturer calls it. It’s actually a fairly faithful reproduction of two popular Irish Limestones, a darker and a lighter version. The darker edges towards bluey tones, like a Ballinasloe limestone, while the lighter is more greeny-grey tinged, like a weathered Kilkenny stone. No big fossils in either, but a soft, gently textured look that will give the real thing some serious competition in terms of costs.

GeoCeramica Irish Highstone
GeoCeramica Irish Highstone

Tile-patterned porcelain seems to be having a moment, but I’m not sure how long it will last. I can understand its use as an occasional detail, but not in big areas. It’s been knocking about for two or three years now and I’ve still to see a project where I think its use has significantly improved the job. It all looks too…. too…. too affected.

Tile-pattern porcelain
GeoCeramica Mosaic Grigio
porcelain topped linear channel
Porcelain-topped linear channel

One item that is of interest, though, is the porcelain topped slotted linear drains. Oh yes! These most assuredly will win favour amongst both customers and contractors as they resolved the tortured problem of how to include discreet drainage on a beautifully paved porcelain patio. And as I never tire of saying, like all the best ideas, it’s embarrassingly simple.

Lots of gentle stone-like porcelains, predominantly from the silver-grey spectrum, and predominantly subtle rather than garish. This seems good, but, as I’ve said previously this season, sometimes, offering too wide a choice is as bad as offering a selection that’s too narrow. It’s all to easy to blind people with choice, so the key is to identify those that will have definite appeal, make sure all the bases are covered, and keep it all manageable. Having a roster of forty, fifty, sixty-odd porcelains can look impressive at first, but how many businesses could actually carry all that stock? And how baffling will it all be for the customer?

Sometimes, just sometimes, less is more.

New Porcelain from Brett
New Porcelain from Brett

I probably... no: I definitely haven’t done full justice to the new products, but then it’s really down to the marketing team at Brett to get the word out. I think I heard one of the team say there was to be a standalone porcelain brochure later in the year, and I do hope I haven’t misheard. Such a publication is most certainly warranted, and it’ll give me the chance to review the offer more thoroughly than is possible here.

Time for a quick shower and shave, shake the moths out of me good suit, and head up to the Big Dinner and Awards Ceremony. If only I can find my room. Jeez, this is a bleeding huge place! Three acres, the concierge helpfully informs me as he guides me through several counties to find me room, three acres is the size of the hotel’s footprint, and that’s just the building! The grounds extend over another 80-odd acres!

So, a dinner with good company, a chance to catch up with old friends and make new acquaintances, and then on with the Awards themselves. Rather than bore everyone rigid with the fine detail, the results are tabulated below.

Brett Assured Installers - Awards for work in 2017

Best Large Driveway

Best Small Driveway

Best Large Patio

Best GeoCeramica Project

Contractors' Choice - Patio

Contractors' Choice - Driveway

Outstanding Project Portfolio

Excellence in Customer Service

Newcomer of the Year

Regional Installer North

Regional Installer South East

Regional Installer South West

National Installer of the Year

Best GeoCeramica Project
Best GeoCeramica Project - David Greaves Landscaping

As one of the judges, I would like to state, on record, that the standard gets better each year, and there were some truly stunning jobs put before us this year. The increased use of drone shots was noticeable, but while they can give a good impression of the overall project, they do nothing for showing me the detail I want to see, the detail that shows me that it’s the work of a true craftsperson.

Show me the drainage provision; show me millimetre-perfect cutting-in; show me technical challenges such as restricted access or steep gradients.

Don’t bother wetting-down the paving before taking the photie: I know what the colour is. Don’t take the same photie over and over again because that’s the one angle from where it looks best. Don’t use photies taken with a mobile phone. And definitely don’t put bloody Instagram-a-snapchat filters on them: that twinkly star effect does less than buggerall for me!

Worthy winners, one and all. These really are the cream of our trade at the moment.

Best Large Patio
Best Large Patio - MannMade Drives
Best Small Patio
Best Small Patio - Daniel Windsor Landscapes