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Why is construction so backward? - reviewed by Sandy Starr for spiked!

We are grateful to Sandy Starr, an organiser of spiked! conferences and seminars on IT, for his review. He also reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement and film on TV for The Sun. Please contribute your critical review.

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

The central complaint of the polemical new book Why is construction so backward?, by forecaster James Woudhuysen and architect Ian Abley, is that construction policy and the construction industry are shackled by narrow thinking.

There is no end of criticism today of specific aspects of construction and housing, but few commentators have taken the trouble to mount a thoroughgoing critique of the sector as a whole - until now. This book, which also includes additional authors contributing sections on their particular areas of expertise, aims to challenge the assumptions that surround construction today.

Woudhuysen and Abley argue that '... for every great product of the international construction industry today... there are 100 processes that remain the opaque, laborious chores they were in the nineteenth century'. (p3) Picking up on common but misplaced grievances, they paint a grim picture. Whether our beef is with the 'cowboy' builders who fit our kitchens for cash in hand, or with the immigrants who work on building sites for a pittance, the fact is that 'construction is widely performed under labour conditions that are illegal and by labourers who are hated - either for their timekeeping or for their nationality' (p17).

But the new forms of official regulation that are put forward as a solution tend to do more harm than good. There may be a disproportionate number of accidents in the construction sector, compared with the economy as a whole, but Woudhuysen and Abley argue that modern safety regulations are '... less about preventing loss of life and limb and more about making sure that measurers show themselves sensitive to every kind of incident on site' (p47).

In construction as elsewhere, a new etiquette has developed around the display of sensitivity, providing a constant, costly distraction from the matter in hand.

Construction practitioners are now answerable to a plethora of regulators. The book attempts to disentangle the myriad of institutions that now regulate every aspect of construction. What is described as '... a Byzantine system of interlocking centres of authority' (p117) in the public sector, is supplemented by '... an explosion of private sector umbrella bodies, advice centres, industry councils, trade associations and professional institutes'. (p121)

When these institutions aren't placing regulatory obstacles in the way of construction projects, they are preoccupied with running a '... carousel of conferences and seminars', so that '... it is a wonder that anyone riding on it ever gets to spend a normal working day in the office' (p121). Today's regulations force practitioners to take on board a raft of considerations that are extraneous to their job. One example of this is environmentalism.

Since the essence of construction is the imposition of human constructs upon the natural environment, the sector has been hit especially hard by the rise of green thinking.

Environmental theories that are still up for debate in scientific circles have become accepted as gospel truths in industry, resulting in '... buildings which apologise for human achievement from their design onwards' (p278).

Strange though it may sound, therapeutic and even spiritual considerations have become increasingly central to architecture. Woudhuysen and Abley wittily deflate this new thinking, pointing out that '... British Airways' much-trumpeted Waterside headquarters, which were designed with the help of feng shui, did not prevent the airline from imposing a large number of highly stressful redundancies there in 2002'. (p50)

The authors also grapple with the new demands placed upon construction since the terrorist attacks of 9/11: 'A growing consensus has it that buildings should not only protect the environment for future generations, but protect life and limb from suicide bombers. That is a tall order.' (p280).

The social context for architecture The social context for architecture

As well as attacking constraints on the construction industry, Woudhuysen and Abley also suggest new directions. For instance, they look at the unexplored possibilities in building materials - from more efficient ways of making concrete, so as to eliminate cavities and pores; to more exact ways of assessing stone in quarries, so that only quality stone goes into construction; to the prospects for nanotechnology, and for biological materials such as synthetic silks extruded from the milk of goats that have spiders' genes inserted into their cells.

Are you keeping up?

The authors also take excursions into history, law, and theories of branding, pausing briefly to summarise and critique the theories of leading information technology (IT) gurus - William J Mitchell, Manuel Castells, Howard Rheingold - before going on to explore the inefficient way that computer aided design and electronic document management systems have been appropriated by industry, with the result that '... the IT that is around in construction is used at only a fraction of its potential' (p223).

Indeed, if there is a fault with Why is construction so backward?, it is that the book is almost too breathless and wide-ranging. There are chapters here that, given more room to breathe, would have made adequate books in and of themselves.

Another aspect that may irritate some readers is the authors' enthusiasm for prefabrication in construction. Most people associate prefabrication with drab and cramped housing, such as the 'prefabs' built throughout Britain in the years following the Second World War, or the 'microflats' seen as characteristic of modern-day Japan. It is generally assumed that prefabrication militates against comfort and elegance in construction.

Woudhuysen and Abley argue persuasively that this need not be the case. Indeed, one of the consequences of prefabrication being constantly ruled out is a lack of quality control, because '... supply falls behind demand... Builders can be much more confident than manufacturers of selling just about any design and just about any quality of finished product'. (p48) Given the possibilities of present-day technology, it is also a needlessly inefficient arrangement: 'While materials and components are made in volume off site, they are only put together in assemblies on site.' (p15)

There is a danger, given current prejudices against human achievement and ostentation, that a call for prefabrication will be used as a pretext for lowering ambitions, and living small. But Woudhuysen and Abley do their best to avoid this danger - pointing out, for example, that the Japanese pioneer of the microflat, Kisho Kurokawa, originally had in mind not the reduction of living space but its expansion through ownership of multiple homes.

Tied microflats are an employment trap for underpaid 'key workers' Tied microflats are an employment trap for underpaid 'key workers'

Woudhuysen and Abley insist that today, '... it is time to strike out, not for a few penny-pinching microflats, but for the mass prefabrication of macroflats' (p299).

The book concludes with a bold set of proposals under the heading 'How construction can catch up', ranging from a new division of labour that radically redefines the role of the architect, to the denationalisation of the right to develop land.

You may or may not agree with these proposals, but they are a welcome contrast to the constrained thinking that tends to characterise this neglected sector. Whether your work relates to construction, or if you have never given it a second thought, this ambitious book should convince you of its potential to be both innovative and inspiring.

Sandy Starr, spiked!

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