The job in question was a house refurbishment in Canonbury, north London, that we started stripping out the day before. "I suppose it's an organised gang that looks for people being moved out of posh houses, but with no estate agent's boards outside," I suggested. "They wait for the builders to arrive and then hit them on the first night."
"I don't think it's like that at all," John replied gloomily, grateful that he hadn't been responsible for locking everything up. "I think it's kids. They wander about looking for kit lying about, break in and then whip round the nearest pub where they know builders drink, and flog the stuff off. They don't know what it's worth half the time." The way he described it made it seem a worse crime than abduction. "Stealing a working man's means of earning a livelihood – that's just disgusting"
Tools develop a character of their own, and it never ceases to amaze me how many of them tradesmen seem to need. Even if a bricklayer is doing a simple pointing job, he can't seem to get it just right without specially fashioned steel trowels with hickory handles burnished like billiards balls, broken bits of bucket and pieces of pipe. Much of this is valueless, yet irreplaceable.
Then there's the enormous amount of electrical machinery that self-employed carpenters need to complete their work. If something does get nicked, not only are they unable to work but they have to fork out thousands of pounds for replacements.
"Actually, there's been less of it than there used to be," John continued. "It's nearly a year since the last one. Anyway, we don't let our men do it."
"Do what?" I asked, never thinking that breaking into other people's sites was even an option.
There are aspects of building where it is easier to get forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand
"Take anything from these bastards that turn up with a load of power drills and some story about how they've been forced to give up the trade. They don't know a charger from a router. None of our blokes would have anything to do with them and after a bit they stopped coming round."
This strong ethical stance was something I had not expected to find on a site. There are all sorts of things builders have to do to ensure things happen that otherwise might not. Matters of probity and morality have to be balanced against questions of practicality and expediency. Any builder staring at a hole in the ground with the dawning realisation that a mains stopcock needs moving 100 mm to the right is faced with two choices. Either someone has to get several drinks into a Thames Water operative, laugh loud and long at all his jokes, and then bung him a monkey to turn up at the weekend. Or everything grinds to a halt, and you'd better book yourself onto an anger management course before beginning the arduous process of having it moved officially.
I discovered long ago that it is best not to ask too many questions about what exactly is covered in the heading "preliminaries". Indeed, in my own profession, I have to explain delicately to clients of undoubted moral rectitude that there are some aspects of the building process where it is going to be easier to get forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand.
What's more, this was the first time I'd heard John express an opinion about the moral welfare of the tradesman under his direction. "Of course, sometimes a bloke comes up to with a spanking new Makita 24 V hammer-action SDS and it's got the charger and the box and everything."
"Must be quite a temptation," I replied, empathising with his predicament.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.