A clamor for bricks but none to spare

Shortage: Brick kilns are going nonstop to fill orders placed a year ago.

August 10, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Maryland is millions of bricks shy of a load.

Building contractors and landscapers can't get enough of them.

Factories in Pennsylvania and Ohio are working around the clock to fill orders dating to last year, and bricks that are still raw material in the ground have been spoken for.

The same shortage is being felt in the Carolinas, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

"We stock 5 million bricks, and pretty much all of it is sold," says George Litz, owner of L&L Supply Corp. in Lutherville.

With 30 years in the business, Litz knows brick. He supplied it for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, PSINet Stadium and the new library at Morgan State University.

"I've never seen it this bad," he says. "Baby boomers are spending. They're building. We're well beyond what we projected."

The picture is the same elsewhere in the state.

"Bricks are worse than water right now," says sales manager Glenn Kubany of Potomac Valley Brick and Supply Co. in Rockville. "For all intents and purposes, this country is out of brick until next year."

Nationally, the building boom is causing other shortages, too.

Eighty-six percent of the builders who responded to the June survey by the National Association of Home Builders say they have had difficulty getting drywall and Sheetrock. Brick, at 22 percent, is the second most difficult.

Litz sensed a shortage looming 18 months ago and last fall ordered the brick for the Morgan State library. It will arrive this fall.

Others haven't been as lucky.

"The word's not out to Harry Homemaker," says Judy Flynn, who works for Litz. "We get eight to 10 people in here every day that we have to turn away. All the stuff they want, they can't get."

Betty Woerner of Maisel Brothers Inc. in Glen Burnie says desperate customers are handing her credit cards and telling her that price is no object. One woman tried to give her $5,000 for $4,000 worth of brick.

"It could have been $11,000 and it wouldn't have mattered. I can't sell what I don't have," she says.

The problem, at least in part, was caused by the masonry industry itself, say manufacturers and suppliers.

Brick was falling out of favor with builders and homebuyers, who opted for less expensive materials -- siding and faux stucco.

So the industry fought back with an aggressive marketing campaign to make the residential segment of its business more like its highly successful commercial side. Radio and TV spots touted brick as the upscale, low-maintenance, energy-efficient siding of choice. The economy improved and homebuyers opted to spend the extra money for brick.

Now, both segments of the business are running kiln-hot.

And buyers of new homes aren't asking for a brick-front house, they want the entire structure wrapped in brick.

Kubany explains the new math: "A rail car carries 40,000 bricks. That was enough for the front of four homes. A whole house takes the entire rail car."

Says Litz: "It's a good problem to have, but by the time this is all over, we're probably going to lose people who had to switch materials."

Brick plants throughout the region are running at capacity. At Glen-Gery Corp., 10 brick plants are turning out 3 million bricks a day, but that is not enough.

"We have people calling us, begging us for help," says Lynn Flynn in the Reading, Pa., corporate offices. "We can't make them fast enough."

The same is true at Belden Brick Co., which makes one out of every 45 bricks in the country.

"Our backlog is three times higher than our inventory," says President Robert Belden. "This is a bubble that's reaching the bursting point, and I don't see any relief."

Belden, based in Canton, Ohio, has nine plants, including Redland Brick Inc., in Williamsport.

But the Redland plant, formerly known as Cushwa Brick, is closed, its workers on strike since early last month.

"That's throwing everybody in a tizzy," says Woerner.

It's not just the quantity of Cushwa Brick -- it is responsible for just 80 million of the 9 billion bricks made annually in the country -- it's the quality and variety that contractors miss.

"Cushwa is the king of brick," says Steve Patterson, owner of Land Works, a Silver Spring landscape firm. "Cushwa is beautiful and has a tremendously long life."

Yesterday, the Williamsport plant began hiring replacements for the striking workers.

Like the builders, Patterson has had to work with customers to find a second or third choice in brick style, or change material -- he uses Pennsylvania field stone.

"If you don't have bricks, you don't have brick patios," he says. "It's going to make the people in Pennsylvania happy."

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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