No two ways about it: the downturn is depressing for everybody, except perhaps the bankers who kept their bonuses. But, says Gus Alexander, there are crumbs of comfort if you search hard

I was standing in the front garden of one of my sites, looking at the enormous pile of spoil that my client’s builders had spent three days digging out to make room for a foundation under a garden wall. Well, we’d heard reports that there was a eucalyptus tree in the adjoining borough, so you can’t be too careful.

Me, the builder and a few guys with shovels and orange spectacles were standing around waiting for the muck truck to turn up (have you tried to buy a skip licence lately?). Most of the men were looking in a paper for one-way Christmas flights to Warsaw.

“It’s a crying shame” the builder said, picking up a handful of shale and letting it run through his fingers. “There’s probably a fella two streets away who’s just spent a fortune ordering hardcore.” There was a hiss of airbrakes as the lorry pulled up. “And tomorrow I’ll have to buy a dozen sheets of ply for the trenches and somewhere round the corner a load of hoardings are probably being chucked out.”

Obviously, there’s some money to be made matching chuckers-out to takers-away, and it can only be a question of time before somebody sets up a cash-from-trash website. But that’s scant comfort when you begin to see abandoned building sites and half-finished shop fit-outs all around you, and the client breaks the news that architects are now expected to donate their services for nothing. I don’t have dozens of employees to feed, so I can decide that I might as well spend the afternoon watching Kristen Scott-Thomas reinvent herself at the Odeon than do work I’m not making any money on. It’s worse for builders, of course. Everyone expects them to do the job for half nothing, when the cost of raw materials is rising all the time. I think plumbing gear is about half as expensive again as it was 18 months ago.

I might as well spend the afternoon watching Kristen Scott Thomas reinvent herself at the odeon than do work I’m not making any money on

To a certain extent it was ever thus, but it had been quite a long time since I’d rung the Building Centre information line on the track of a supplier only to be told that it is no longer in business. For example, white china door knobs are no longer available from Spode, because a porcelain firm that has been operating out of Stoke for centuries has collapsed.

I am only a simple soul but I cannot quite see why taxpayers’ money must be used to ensure that the bankers who got us into this mess in the first place get their bonuses while companies that manufacture our heritage are forced to close.

I was watching the Stirling prize the other week and trying to relate the money spent on the banks to that spent on the buildings in the shortlist. Dedicated teams of clients, architects, engineers, builders and suppliers had spent years making beautiful and useful things: a school, a railway station, some housing. The result of their work will bring value, and worth, and make a cultural contribution to the community that uses it for years and years. And what does this cost? Five million pounds? 10 million? Even 20 million sounds like something you wouldn’t bother to pick out of a puddle compared with the amounts being spent to save our friends in the financial misservices industry.

And speaking of the problematic relationship between the price of things and their value, what is going to happen to the green agenda in these straitened times? Sustainability is often thought of as an optional extra added to make developers feel good about themselves, and one reads that environmentalists are worried that the sustainability agenda will be value-engineered out of building projects.

White china door knobs are no longer available from Spode, because a porcelain firm that has been operating out of Stoke for centuries has collapsed

I’m not sure that it will; it may even be the case that the air of fear and despair that stalks business premises up and down the land may not be entirely negative. Obviously, it is bad news for General Motors, but can any responsible person not be relieved that there are 5 million fewer new cars on the roads?

As my builder realised, all this doom and gloom ought to lead to a rethink of the way we do business. There’s going to be a good deal less commercial activity, so what there is is going to have to be better thought out than has been the case. When it is a matter of battening down the hatches, installing seriously good insulation wherever you can seems a better way to spend money than a fitting a plasma telly in the bathroom.