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Why is construction so backward? by James Woudhuysen, Ian Abley, Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning
James Woudhuysen writesIan Abley writesMartin Pawley writesJames Heartfield writesMiffa Salter writesRichard McWilliams writes



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1. Department of Trade and Industry, Construction Statistics Annual - 2002 Edition, HMSO, London, 2002, and posted on

2. Construction Industry Training Board, Construction Workforce Development Planning Brief 2001-2005, CITB, London, 2001, page 12, and posted on

3. Construction Industry Council with Davis Langdon Consultancy and Construction Forecasting and Research UK, Survey of UK Construction Professional Services 2001-2002, CIC, London, 2003, page 1, and posted on

4. 'Building of new homes at record low', The Times, 23 January 2003, and posted on

5. ODPM live tables of Housing Statistics, Table 204 Housebuilding: permanent dwellings started and completed by tenure in England, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and posted on

6. 'Burdened consumer takes a breather', The Sunday Times, 19 January 2003, and posted on

7. Cristoph Ingenhoven, Energies, Birkhauser, Basel, Boston, Berlin, 2003, page 30

8. Le Corbusier quoted in 'Science et Vie', numero hors serie L'automobile, Paris, 1961

9. Walter Gropius, The Scope of Total Architecture, Allen & Unwin, London, 1956

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Martin Pawley's Foreword to Why is construction so backward?

We are grateful to Martin Pawley for his Foreword to Why is construction so backward?, reproduced here. He has been a valued contributor since Building Audacity in 2000, and his continuing advice is greatly appreciated.

Because most of human life is conducted in buildings, everyone has an opinion about the construction industry. In recent years the housing market alone has ensured that every homeowner has become a Do It Yourself expert as well as a venture capitalist, well acquainted at some level with the 'backwardness' that is the subject of this book.

Nonetheless, despite this progressive consumerising of the issues discussed in the following pages, when it comes to answering the central question posed by the book's title we must rely on our expert authors. For as the reader will soon discover, it is a mistake to take the broad assumption of backwardness at face value when there are other questions as yet unasked that bear on the discourse of everyone concerned with building.

Questions that give pause to the entrepreneurial developer and the construction professional at the top, even as they touch the lowliest sub-contractor and site operative at the bottom.

Questions so secret that a £70 billion industry (1) employing nearly two million people (2 & 3) treats them as shibboleths of the world of fame and ennoblement, property, architectural genius, awards, honours, public inquiries, arbitrations, claims, toppings out, health and safety regulations and trade disputes that altogether make up the universe of building.

Why is construction so backward? James Woudhuysen, Ian Abley, Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning

Is construction really backward? Anecdotally the charge seems impossible to refute, but it is not. Even the most determined attempt to think it through soon runs into contradictions and turns back upon itself. For, in the end, who can truly say that construction is any more backward than the markets it serves? Anyone old enough to remember the labour intensive building sites of the 1950s, with their rows of batch mixers discharging into wheelbarrows to be pushed and pulled up ramps of scaffold boards to distant formwork, would have to concede that today's tower craned and weatherproofed construction site, served by trucks making just-in-time deliveries of pre-mixed concrete and pre-engineered assemblies, represents a tremendous advance in organisation and methods.

And so of course it does, but not to the exclusion of changes of a different order that have had as great an influence. As late as the 1950s the men employed on building sites were more likely than not to include trained craftsmen, expert in the handling of traditional materials. If the modern building site has become a model of labour-saving mechanisation since those days, it has done so at a price, leaving the traditional relationship between designer and executor far behind and adapting itself to an itinerant labour force made up of subcontractors and operatives handling precision finished assemblies and new materials.

Taken in isolation, these site and labour changes might on balance be considered favourable for fast construction, but they are not the sum of the changes made over the same fifty years.

Upstream of the improved logistics of the building site a vast bureaucracy of building regulation and statutory and advisory controls has grown up - a source of endless postponements and delays, smothering the once straightforward act of building in an impenetrable fog of overlapping responsibilities.

The effect of these two levels of change, despite the industry's on- and off-site modernisation, is that construction has not yet attained an overall speed of process - from design to completion - that can keep pace with the dot com speed of global business. Still less can it match the rate of production of prefabricated houses attained in the 1940s by the public sector.

Shortcomings like this are particularly striking when one sees that, half a century ago, a disorganised and war-ravaged British building industry nonetheless contrived to produce 60,000 new prefabricated council houses; repair and refurbish 100,000 bombed dwellings; and build 34,000 new private houses, all in 15 months between April 1945 and July 1946 - a performance that can be compared to the miserable total of 130,000 new houses from all sectors that were completed in 2001, the lowest annual output since the 1920s. (4 & 5)

Such comparisons are shocking but salutary, not least because they should remind us that the falling productivity of the housebuilding industry in recent years cannot simply be attributed to 'backwardness', but must take account of demographic and economic factors as well.

For example at the end of 2002, when it was calculated that the average mortgage debt per household in Britain stood at £40,000, a sum hypothetically secured on a modest 1952 suburban semi originally costing £1,000 (6), that mortgage debt should have bought 40 such houses. Instead, by 2002, with each house commanding a price of £500,000 or more, it cannot pay for even one. Why has this happened? Because to have held house prices at their 1952 level for half a century would have required the sustained annual production, not of a paltry 130,000 new dwellings as at present, but of at least a million units per year.

In the tax-advantaged owner-occupier market that has dominated housing policy over the last 40 years, it would be difficult to imagine anything other than a magnificently sustained social housing programme that could have made a lower price to posterity more attractive than successive owner's capital gains. That is why, at the time of writing, an outer London suburban house can cost as much as a house in Kensington Gardens would have done in 1952. And that is why the supposed 'backwardness' of the construction industry is a more complex phenomenon than may at first appear.

What can be done to remedy the sort of institutionalised backwardness that shows up so clearly in the housing market?

The celebrated German architect Cristoph Ingenhoven poses a stark choice in his book Energies:

'We have only two alternatives in the matter of building. We can fake the past, or we can industrialise the future. The first is impossible because the past cannot be built again - certainly not when traditional craftsmanship is all but extinct. But, by the same token, industrializing the future will only work if we are able to attain a precision and complexity at least as impressive as what was achieved by the trained craftsmen of the past.' (7)

These bold words, echoing Le Corbusier's Je ferai des maisons comme on fait des voitures (8), and the conclusions of Walter Gropius's comparative studies of house and car prices in the 1920s (9), have been paraphrased by many since Henry Ford set the world's first automobile production line in motion in 1914. But thus far the application of his basic idea to building has either been too tentative, too underfinanced or politically unacceptable - an example of the last being the concrete panel system-built apartments extensively produced in Eastern Europe prior to the end of the Cold War.

Click here to read Martin Pawley's presentation at Building Audacity, our first event in July 2000With such unhappy precedents to guide them today's prefabrication pioneers are understandably exigent about their ground rules for successful 'de-backwardisation'. John Prewer, the man behind the 1990 iteration of the Microflat, a container-sized single person dwelling whose structure was based on prefabricated lift shaft components with an interior fit out by a firm of car stylists, has distanced himself from heavy system and panel building altogether with a 30-point plan for lightness and speed in modular house construction. His emphasis is on downsizing plan areas and volumes, eliminating wet trades (including excavated foundations), reducing waste by using uncut materials in standard sizes, and (significantly) doing without contractors and construction professionals. All measures he means to employ in his current project, a new modular Peabody Trust housing development in London's Harrow Road.

When Britain's best selling broadsheet newspaper launched a new weekly tabloid supplement on housing in the autumn of 2002 it was healthily endowed with advertising. It not only carried national and local house price data, graphs of demographic and construction trends, market activity, ratios of buyers and sellers and so on, but also featured such arcane subjects as an article about the superiority of East European-trained building workers, a teach-in on using the right power tools when refurbishing an ancient manor house, how to buy a brand new apartment off the drawing board, and the usual full-page furniture ads and celebrities showing off their designer pads In short, this supplement promised an integrated overview of the consumer end of the housing market in the 21st century.

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Only one aspect of the new supplement slipped a gear and betrayed its wish-fulfilling obsolescence and that was its name - Bricks and Mortar - a term as antique as it is universally understood. A term that, on its own, explains why the building industry will not match the productivity of the motor industry until it is radically reformed, and the pages of every building supplement start to carry headlines like 'Inside the new Tartan 306', or 'Autohouse ships 200,000 modulars in record year'.

Martin Pawley February 2003, published January 2004

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