Building material shortages loom as US mops up supply

Cantillon: Logic leaks out through insulation products made from petrochemicals

Builders are facing a difficult summer. They returned to sites following months of lockdown to encounter shortages in timber, steel and insulation materials, now an important component of any new structure.

Part of this stems from demand, here at home, where the industry is getting going again, and around the world. Housing and infrastructure shortages in Britain, the US and Europe mean their builders are urgently seeking materials for their own needs. That is unlikely to ease.

In the US, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery plan, in which construction of all kinds looms large, is about to take off. Federal money will give the industry there the clout to mop up quantities of building materials from wherever it can get them.

Shipping delays

At home, insulation manufacturers, including Xtratherm and Mannok, have told customers they will have to limit orders, although the latter now says it believes it can resolve the situation in July.


The problem with insulation material is down to a specific and unexpected difficulty. Some types of insulation used in construction are made from polymers and other material produced by the petrochemicals industry. Bad weather in the Gulf of Mexico shut down production of these raw materials in February. Demand and shipping delays have since aggravated the situation.

The supply problem highlights the world’s ongoing dependence on oil, not just for energy but for a whole range of everyday materials that we take for granted. It’s ironic, petrochemicals, derived from crude oil, are used to make insulation, which is meant to cut energy use, and thus our fossil fuel consumption.

Pantomime villain

Dow Chemicals and French oil major Total are among those that supply raw materials used to make insulation that is ultimately fitted in homes, offices and other buildings. Governments and policymakers, including our own, who want to make the oil industry the pantomime villain of climate change, seem unaware of this or simply ignore it.

Meanwhile, our Government faces a more immediate problem. A slowdown in supplies could become a slowdown in construction, meaning 2021 will be yet another year when the Republic fails to build enough homes to meet its needs. Expect the Coalition to feel more political heat on this front over the summer.