Consider for a moment the amount of hassle involved in a party wall dispute in Sidcup. Now, dear reader, consider the reconstruction of King's Cross Tube station …
I avoid driving in London whenever possible, which means that for the past 18 months, I have often found myself wandering about the vast building site formerly known as King's Cross Underground station.
When I first picked my way through the temporary hoardings, I thought (like most of Joe Public): "What a carry-on … they must be making it up as they go along?" This gave way to: "What the hell have they been doing for the past nine months?"
As the new circulation slowly began to reveal itself, this developed into: "It must be an absolute nightmare organising something like this." Now, as I walk down mosaic-clad corridors with riven tile floors laid on the quarter break joint, I think: "This is a bloody miracle."
I suppose it depends what you are used to. Last week, I found myself staring in amazement at a party wall award that was 40 mm thick. It had three method statements bound into it. For what? Six square metres of brickwork on one side and a bit of underpinning on 4 ft of garden wall on the other. Can it really be that difficult? And this was with all parties behaving relatively co-operatively.
Okay, we had to ensure that a sheet of polythene was placed against the exposed honeysuckle, so that toxins from the concrete didn't Leach into the tendrils, but we didn't have to shut down the Hammersmith and City Line or splice into the National Grid. My builder doesn't have to spend more than half his working day getting the site ready then packing it away again. Nor does he have to get the workforce on site in the middle of the night and out again at the crack of dawn. I suppose this is reflected in the contractor's tender, where the preliminaries are probably calculated at 200%.
As life becomes more complicated, so projects like this need greater advance planning. I asked a friend whose practice refurbished the Hackney Empire if it took longer to refurbish than it did to build. "Well," he said, "the builder started on site nine weeks after Frank Matcham was first approached and the theatre was open for business 38 weeks later." Like the Edwardian theatres, King's Cross has to be state-of-the-art. That's not like most of the work I am involved with, which can be improvised to a considerable degree.
The runaround I get with contractors is bad enough, but at least they’re not holding the Tube to ransom
Construction projects of this scale are so far removed from my everyday experience that I have no idea whether the client tells the builder how to build it or whether the builder tells them. That this sort of stuff gets put out to competitive tender amazes me. The sort of runaround I get from contractors who can't build the thing they said they could is bad enough, but at least they're not holding the whole of London Underground to ransom. Fending off claims under that sort of pressure must be intolerable.
When people complain about cost overruns, I can't help thinking that this sort of thing must cost what it costs and let's just hope it's worth having at the end of the day. I remember an opening party at Tate Modern when Chris Smith gave the Jubilee Line Extension a good deal of stick. But at least the stations look like something, and Hopkins Architects' creation at Westminster is simply astonishing.
Mind you, it's such an effort getting anything built in a live underground station that, rather than being amazed that it gets done at all, we should think it all a fantastic waste of effort if the building work doesn't look amazing at the end.
Indeed, one can say this about almost any sort of building endeavour. Unfortunately, this is more usually the exception than the rule. And with colossal infrastructural projects, you can see why. I mean, what is going to happen when a value engineer takes his red pen out and considers the costs of making the project comply with the method statement as opposed to the costs involved with making it look amazing?
On closer inspection of King's Cross, I can now see that some of those access duct panels in the tunnel walls, whose progress I have been observing for so many months, don't actually line up …
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London