In the 19th century, my great-grandfather was among the first to use concrete, earning himself the sobriquet of "Concrete Bob". In the 20th century, my grandfather and his brothers were among the first to use engineers as managers. In the middle of the 20th century, my father and his cousins were among the first to use monotower cranes on building sites. These cranes were expensive and unless you owned one, it was difficult to compete with those who did. The introduction of plant hire changed all this.
In truth, the construction industry has been around a long time – since man first put one block of stone on another. Very early on, the brick was found to be the perfect module for this job, and it is still the perfect module today. So, bearing this in mind, the construction industry is unlikely to undergo dramatic change. It is, after all, an industry that organises building. Whether it directly employs those who do the work or not has little effect on the industry's basic skill. The the introduction of some magic system of building at some stage in the distant future may have an effect on the cost, speed and shape of buildings and how they are built, but it will not affect the need for the organising ability of a construction industry.
In Britain, during the second half of the last century, there was a boom in construction second to none. Contractors that grew and prospered with that boom died with its downturn. The list of contractors available to undertake work in the UK today is dramatically different to the list that existed in 1958 when I started working for my family's company. Looking back, it was almost inconceivable that some of the names of that period should no longer exist. Indeed, many of those names that do still exist are much changed or owned by others. In the future, more contractors as we know them will go to the wall.
It will, in the coming decade, be increasingly hard for a pure construction company to survive
The term "general contractor" will become a reality. The new breed of general contractors will capitalise on their ability to organise operations, as opposed to pure construction in the strictest sense of the word. Of course, there will be new docks, power stations, transport projects and high office towers around the world in the next 50 years, but these structures will not be built on the same scale as the past 50 years. There will replacement and renovation, but never again on the scale that we saw in the second half of the last century.
Contractors will diversify, moving into businesses allied with their own. In France, you see it already with Bouygues. The industrial group builds roads and buildings, but it's also in telecommunications and the media. It will, in the coming decade, become increasingly hard for a pure construction company to survive. Of course, a lot of companies will disappear or be so changed as to no longer compete with those that remain. The mood will be bad and the future uncertain for companies that stay to engage in a war of attrition. On the other hand, the market will be sweet for companies whose construction arm is an appendix to a vast industrial complex.
Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.