I don’t think many would disagree with the statement that Thatch roofs are not cheap. Indeed putting aside the more philosophical debates of what is expensive to one person may not be to another I think it can safely be said that in the hierarchy of UK roofing costs, thatch is probably the most expensive.
This has meant that certainly from the latter decades of the 20th Century thatch has gained a reputation (valid or not) of being the preserve of the wealthy – something that looks nice but costs a great deal and furthermore a thatched roof needs periodic maintenance.
Contrary to popular belief most Thatchers would be pleased to earn the national average wage of £26,500 gross per annum (source BBC Business News, Office of National Statistics 22-11-2012). Clearly there are exceptions to this and combining thatching on a roof with selling thatch materials and employing several people should provide at best a ‘comfortable’ living.
The question arises then as to how can there be this ‘disconnect’ between what a Thatcher charges and what he can expect to earn?
First it has to be said that thatching is incredibly labour intensive and labour rates are not at the bottom end of earnings – and rightly so. Often customers have said to me “I never realised there was so much work involved”. Machinery plays little part in the thatching process although bales of reed can now be lifted onto scaffolding by forklifts. The near absence of new build thatch on a large scale and instead a preponderance of old listed properties in tucked away places does not lead to a streamlined and efficient working environment. Sometimes I say to my own workforce…
”We can start work at 6am and work till 6pm BUT if the thatching materials that are on the ground do not go on the roof then none of us get paid”.
Furthermore we can never get back the day or days that may be lost and the dawn of each new day means the Thatcher has to prepare for the rigours of his job all over again striving to do the best job in the shortest possible time. He not only has to achieve a watertight roof, but one that will last and also look good. This brutal and uncompromising view of the Thatchers world is something that is rarely found in other types of manual work. In contrast to most other jobs his productivity and worth is measured not by the hours he puts in, or by how successfully he can delegate to others, or how many years experience he has but by what he has physically done by the end of each working day. There is no one to cover for him when he is ill and if others are off he will be expected to redouble his efforts to make up for the shortfall.
In short if an average cottage takes 2-3 Thatchers 4 weeks to thatch the wage bill is going to be considerable; if this runs over to 5 or 6 weeks whilst the cost to the thatch owner may not increase the Thatchers earnings will have taken a nose dive.
The second point to make is that pricing thatching work is not that straightforward as this piece I wrote a few years ago illustrates (a square is a Thatchers measurement of 100sq feet of roof area). It also goes some way to explaining why there is such a variation in prices and why choosing the middle price instead of the cheapest or most expensive may not be the best strategy.
When someone asks me what is your price per square? I could say it depends on; (1) Is it the client or the Thatcher who is paying for the scaffolding and is this costed separately or in with the Thatchers price? (2) What is the material to be used? (3) For what thickness of thatch? (4) Are the eaves being stripped partly or completely? (5) What thickness of old thatch is being removed? (6) Is the client or Thatcher getting rid of the old thatch? (7) Does the rate include for ridging? (8) What sort of ridge is being fitted and how decorative or plain is it? (9) Is the whole roof being wired or just the ridge – or none of it? (10) Does the job specify lead or mortar flashings and is the Thatcher fitting the latter? (11) Is the job being priced to be done before the next harvest or after? (12) Are the respective Thatchers quoting on the job registered for vat and therefore also including vat in their price? (13) If the job is to be done for a builder, does it take account of the main contractor’s discount? Finally is the Thatcher measuring the bare roof (devoid of thatch) or the anticipated finished surface area of thatch?
Thatchers do price work by the area of the roof and will give a fixed price for all aspects of the job. Apart from labour, materials and overheads, profit naturally has to be costed in. There is no guarantee at the start of any job as to how much profit the Thatcher will make and if the weather is bad and there are holdups caused by traffic delays, builders, architects, scaffolders, hauliers and a whole list of others he may sometimes make far less profit than he originally thought. Often he will have to work weekends or longer days to make up for lost time which is invariably no fault of his own. There are few other jobs where so many factors could delay progress.
A Thatchers work will therefore never be a production line of efficiency that perhaps fitting slates to a roof is but is instead one of coping with what he comes across, by prioritising whether to move that rubbish tonight or leave it till the end of the week; whether to work on in the pouring rain and risk water getting into the property or go back to his depot; whether to load up for the next day on the way home or leave it till the morning. How will he work over that glass roof conservatory, how will he move 5 tons of materials 300 metres when there is no road access?
Finally as with anything else thatching prices will respond to specific market factors such as availability of materials (especially straw), how much work the Thatcher has booked, how much competition he has, and how quickly the customer wants the work doing.
To illustrate the vagaries of thatching prices I have found the following after a cursory look on the internet . . . To create a true cost comparison I have given the quoted prices and then shown how much each of the prices works out per 100 sq feet as this is still the way nearly all Thatchers will price work.
1. From 27-10-2010, www.telegraph.co.uk £75 – £100 per sq’ or £750 – £1000 per square
2. www.thatchowners.com £600 – £800 per square.
3. www.thatchingadvisoryservices.co.uk £100 – £125 per sq metre or £929 – £1116 per square.
4. www.ourproperty.co.uk £600 – £800 per square.
5. http://www.periodproperty.co.uk £600 – £800 per square.
These prices are very out of date and I suspect the rates quoted in 2, 4 & 5 have been found from other sites and given without any research. The quote below shows that typical prices from 2003 were in excess of most of the prices quoted above!
Replacing a typical thatch roof costs on average £10 per square foot or about £100 per square metre.
The Telegraph 04 Oct 2003
This works out at £1000 per square.