About 20 years ago, expatriate Poles began turning up in people’s houses brandishing paintbrushes and the like. The arrival of this generation of informal workers from Central Europe coincided with a slight easing of Communist pressure in the former Warsaw Pact countries and, more often than not, seemed to feature more refined workers than those that typically manifest themselves on the British building site.
These fish out of water could usually be identified by their non-American jeans and their short-sleeved shirts with strange buttons at the hems. These “building workers” were often members of the professional classes who had come over on tourist visas and found work through the Polish grapevine. When they had saved £1500, they would chuck their brushes in the skip and return to Gdansk, or wherever. Jeremy Irons featured as one of these optimists in the 1982 film Moonlighting, in which he notably tried to steal a frozen turkey by putting it under his bobble hat.
More recently, these itinerants were superseded by ordinary tradesmen. They also came over to try to save some hard cash, but were actually builders. I would never recommend using these sorts of workers, but my private clients used to foist them on me, as the potential savings were very tempting.
For the architect, the biggest problem in trying to administer this type of project is communication. There was usually one member of the team who could speak English, and if not, my client’s au pair would act as a kind of site agent.
Like all builders, some were better than others. The biggest difference between their work methods and ours was that there seemed to be no demarcation between the trades. First, they would all do the demolition, together. Next, they would all start digging the foundations; then they would all start doing the brickwork; and then one would do the first-fix electrical work and the other the plumbing. Finally, they would all do the studwork, plastering and joinery.
There are probably places in Britain where it still works like this, but for someone used to the strict hierarchy that is the norm in UK construction, it was quite refreshing.
They did work hard. One day, all you would have was studwork; two days later, there would be a wall with pictures hanging on it
Although employing foreign workers makes matters a lot easier when you are running a direct labour organisation, you have to take what you get in terms of standards.
“No, this is supposed to be hardwood,” I would say as some giant started running up a glazing bar 3 m high. “Yes, is very hard wood,” replied the chap with the spherical forearms who had been doing the pointing the previous day, as he showed me a piece of racing spruce that you could practically push your finger through. “Is hard, very hard.” “Yes, but the timber must be hardwood.” “Yes, wood is hard. Good.” This sort of battle would go on all the time. Frankly, this method of construction frightens the life out of me, but I was being paid on a time basis and my clients appeared to be quite happy with the situation. And the workforce did seem to work very hard. Breaks were far fewer and further between than with UK workers, and they all started earlier and left later and survived with barely any hot drinks. As a result, progress was often dramatic. One day, all you would have was a load of studwork; two days later, there would be a painted wall with pictures hanging on it.
What usually happens to kill off this kind of operation is that either the workers find out what the going rate is and start working independently, the crews take on far too much work, or they start subcontracting out to other Iron Curtain immigrants that they do not even know.
The other place you tend to come unstuck is with building control. We once had a situation where some trenches needed to be inspected.
I asked the foreman if he had spoken to the building inspector and he assured me that he had. “Will there be anyone on site to let him in?” I asked. “Oh plenty, plenty men working. No problem.” The next day, I rang up the building inspector to ask if he had managed to get to the site. He told me that he had but added that he had been unable to gain access.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.