There's nothing like being with a young labourer for making one appreciate a decent tradesman. If you wait until someone is 18 before putting him on a building site, he has had time to develop attitude, and lower his patience threshold. After three weeks carrying a hod on one site and six weeks doing a bit of stretcher bond on another, it's "they're paying bricklayers £150 a day at Paddington, so sod this apprenticeship caper". At least when someone learns their trade in prison, there is the time and the motivation to learn it properly.
In the wonderful world of Eganomics, trained craftsmen are seen as expendable relative to glorified assembly workers. For some reason the car industry is used as the ultimate Egan construction paradigm. In the 1950s Britain was the exported more cars than anyone else in the world. Yet now we just accept a wage to assemble everyone else's cars, leaving them with the profit. Indeed, the one section of the car business where Britain does still excel is Formula 1. Hundreds of small specialist engineering firms mostly located within a 50-mile radius of Brands Hatch service virtually the whole global industry. These firms are made up of teams of engineers who work well together and love real cars. In other words, they're firms employing people with exactly those skills Egan is trying to get rid of in construction.
The Montevetro building and the London Eye demonstrate that, with the right design leadership, the modular ethic can achieve aesthetic standards that are impossible under traditional conditions. But generally this kind of design leadership gets jettisoned in a cost-cutting exercise and buildings become replaced with assembly kits. Could be anywhere, or serve any purpose. Much cheaper to flatten a topographically interesting site to suit the standard building type, than do it the other way about.
Where the Egan ethos really falls down is building refurbishment, which represents the bulk of the work of smaller firms (builders, professionals, clients). "Exactly how many actual tradesmen do you employ these days?" I asked a contracting firm which is working its way through £400k of house refurbishment for me in Westminster. "Well, there's the site agent, and, er, that's about it."
"So, you've just got a few labourers, and everything else is subcontracted on a price?" "No, the labourers are all subcontracted too, but on day work."
At least when someone learns their trade in prison, there is the time to learn it properly
"So when I ask you to cut out that rotten wallplate we found this morning, instead of just instructing someone on site to do it this afternoon, you've got to wait for someone in your office to ring the agency and send over God knows who to cut out the old timber and clear out the pockets. Then you wait for another agency to send round a bricklayer to piece it all in. So, as well as what you're paying the agency, you charge me for your office and site management time, health and safety time, mission statement time, prelims, loss and expense …"
"We've got to make a living you know. I mean, it is a variation."
"So something which should take one bloke half an hour and cost 60 quid ends up taking three blokes about half a day each and costing 350 quid. Meanwhile, everyone else on site can go home and fill in their claims forms while they wait for the labourer to turn up?"
"It's the way the industry is going these days."
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.