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Why is construction so backward? - reviewed by Michael Hulme

We are grateful to Michael Hulme, Director, International Centre for the Study of Media, Technology and Culture, for his review of Why is construction so backward? If you wish to contribute your critical review please email Ian Abley.

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

The author's central argument is that house building policy in the UK is doomed to exacerbate an already chronic shortage of housing. The author's believe this is due to a mixture of erroneous, romantic and irrational assumptions on which the sector operates. Whilst contentious this does raise interesting, and fundamental questions affecting the housing industry.

Questions include whether the protection of green fields in favour of brown field development is emotionally or rationally based? Is the assumption that most building projects are unique and that the bulk of construction will always happen on site a valid one? Does the current nature of architect/contractor/sub-contractor relationships and contracts enable or disable the achievement of effective results?

Clearly there are issues that go much wider than just the industries current environment, and the author's explore the causes and the public policy context-giving rise to the 'backwardness' of the industry the author's claim to have identified.

The coverage of the Stirling Award for Building of the Year 2003 demonstrated that those involved in construction have an astonishing degree of consensus, although the evidence presented by the authors suggests that the direction of this consensus is entirely misguided. One of the short listed projects was a housing project with impressive environmental credentials, and the judges made but a passing reference to the cramped space standards assuming that this was an acceptable inconvenience. Another was a bespoke house using a very small piece of brown field land. The winner was a building housing the largest purpose built dance centre in Europe.

The sector clearly views itself as politically correct, creative and progressive. In contrast the authors claim that those in a position, even with a responsibility for a vision, to lead a truly innovative approach to house building (namely architects) have by their terms failed.

The book is much more than a purely negative critique. The authors propose a radical and rational solution involving the use of green field, the development of a volume, quality, pre-fabrication house manufacturing industry. This would capitalise on new materials, knowledge and techniques, building to stock. They also propose the development of architectural careers into 'specialist integrators' (designers for the manufacturing industry) and generalist leaders (of which there would be very few). Doubtless this will not be popular with architects who choose this profession over engineering for it's 'creativity'.

The authors do not consider the potential effects on the economy of housing supply meeting demand, a key objective of the proposed solution. They also do not question why the 'naturalist', 'environmental' and 'politically correct' is so attractive - not just to professionals, but to the inhabitants of homes themselves. In the case of the environmental community finalists in the Sterling Award, their houses have experienced a greater increase in value than comparable non-environmental homes, demonstrating a willingness by some to pay a premium, despite the poor space standards. The rational basis adopted by the author's fails to take account of the role on the psyche of a home, rather than a house.

The judges of the Stirling Award were remarkable in their pride for the 'gentlemanly' manner in which they reached a verdict. Perhaps the introspection of the Architects, Planners and Politicians involved in urban and housing policy and planning needs a little turmoil.

Whatever one may make of the persuasive, at times heavily prescriptive, argument providing the core of this book, perhaps the point is not so much the argument, but that it is argumentative.

It may provide the catalyst for a wider and more informed debate on the future of housing policy fit for this Millenium.

Michael Hulme, Director, International Centre for the Study of Media, Technology and Culture, Henley Management College

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