But a Building investigation can now reveal that in spite of the prevailing culture of seriousness, the ancient arts of site stupidity, male chauvinism and trainee humiliation are all alive and well.
Uncovered: the Scouse navvies who hit the pub every night to compete for the highest reading on their stolen police breathalyser. Exposed: the sacked engineer who adapted an office block's blueprints so that a boiler pipe in the service ducts ended up spiralling around the exterior walls. Revealed: the executive on a rare site visit telling his staff: "I'm here from head office. I'm here to help."
Collected here are the true and shocking tales that the Movement for Innovation and Respect for People would rather you didn't read.
Construction cavemen exposed
Despite the efforts to boost the profile of women in construction, it seems the spirit of male chauvinism is as strong as ever …
A female architect at Lord Rogers' office was fed up with a contractor who insisted on calling her "pet". "For god's sake," she snapped. "Will you stop calling me 'pet'?"
"Oh," said the contractor, suitably chastened. "Sorry, sweetheart."
Working on the refurbishment of Ealing Town Hall, a bunch of M&E workers stirred up trouble when they wolf-whistled the wrong woman. She turned out to be part of the council's Women's Unit and not the type to accept such harassment. She complained, and the firm's managing director was called in.
He managed to smooth things over, then returned to head office … where he was told, to his horror, that one worker had just faxed the feisty female an x-rated photocopy of himself, signed by the boys on site.
Site operatives on a Nottingham hospital job seemed unusually keen to start work each morning. So one curious manager followed them on to site, to discover the real reason for their enthusiasm. He watched as one by one they arrived and headed to the back of the new hospital where they queued up at a window and took turns to look out – straight into the shower block of the nurses' quarters.
Ritual humiliation exposed
Setting up co-workers and embarrassing initiation rites have always been at the heart of building site culture. Recent stings include the following …
One trainee on a Carillion job was told to scour the site for the lost bubble from a broken spirit level.
On a large west London site, an agency labourer became notorious for his sponging. He would cadge bacon butties from gullible subcontractors, always promising to carry out favours in return. He was also the type, however, who never seemed to be around when anyone did need a hand.
Quite by chance, it was later discovered that the labourer was unable to read – a fact used to devastating effect by a plasterer the labourer tried to needle for lunch. The plasterer agreed to buy an extra egg and chips provided the labourer went to the local Ladbrokes' to collect a bet. The plasterer also told him to hand the docket in and demand his money in cash.
The labourer ate his lunch, then went to the bookies, duly handing in the betting slip and holding his hand out in expectation. Five minutes later he was knocked to the floor by two policemen, then taken to Paddington nick for the rest of the night.
On the betting slip the plasterer had written: THIS IS A HOLD UP – I'VE GOT A WEAPON. HAND OVER THE CASH AND YOU WON'T GET HURT!
After a panic in one site hut that an essential "weight" had gone missing, a fresh-faced trainee was told to hit the hardware store and bring back a replacement. "Make sure it's a long one," the manager told the lad as he pulled on his coat. A few minutes later, the trainee was in the store asking politely if he could have a "long weight".
He was left standing for 10 minutes as the cashier read the paper before the penny dropped.
Posh boys exposed
Manicured to their gloves, architects are known as the sophisticated face of construction. Most of the time, anyway …
An employee of one contractor suffered a nasty shock during the black-tie opening of his firm's prestige theatre project. Having escaped to the gents during the show's interval, he stood there waiting for nature to take its course. He was calm enough until he heard the rustle of silk behind him, then turned to see a vision in a ball gown, bouffant hair and make-up standing a few feet away.
When the skirt came up, the terrified man rezipped himself, before breathlessly making his way back to the safety of the lobby. Outside he met the building's project manager who took one look at his ashen face and said: "I see you've met the architect then."
A site visit from the architect is usually enough to make a project manager fret, but one London-based boss suffered a particularly bad visit. When he shook hands with the black-clad designer, who had just been brought into his office, he noticed a familiar, yet wholly unpleasant smell.
Looking down at a brown trail of footsteps, it was clear that before entering the hut the architect had trodden in dog muck. Not wanting to embarrass his soiled guest by saying anything, but equally unhappy about him being in his office, the manager tried to usher the architect outside into the fresh air.
His tactful approach was ruined, however, when they found his secretary near the front door, down on her hands and knees and furiously scrubbing the floor.
Tough guys exposed
They may like to think of themselves as the industry's hard men, but sometimes site workers are about as macho as that guy from the Village People …
It was handover day for a leisure centre in Warwick. The contractor was taking the client around, showing off the new facilities that had been brought in on time and on budget. Everything was going smoothly until the party reached the swimming pool and found a bunch of beefy builders splashing around and enjoying an unauthorised dip.
They seemed to be having a good time and thought being caught was even funnier, until it was pointed out that the water had just been "dosed" – filled with the concentrated chlorine used to give new pools an initial deep-down clean. The chronic itching they suffered over the following 24 hours amused them even less.
A heavy session after the completion of one major project led to a boozed-up site worker collapsing comatose in the toilet cabin. Despite shouting at the booth and banging on its walls, his co-workers could not stir the snoring man and in the end had to dismantle the entire cabin to get him out.
When working in Australia, an English labourer clearing out an asbestos-ridden shed managed to disturb a nest of highly deadly redback spiders. Within seconds they were crawling all over him, and though in no danger thanks to his asbestos-proof gear, he was still too scared to move … until a girl working nearby spotted him and brushed the critters off with a mop.
It'll be alright on the site
A well-drilled, efficient and competent industry? Somebody tell Sir John Egan to keep on dreaming …
Working with a multicultural team on an office refurb in Paternoster Square soon exposed the problems a language barrier can cause on site. The first job to be done was the revamp of a maze of service tunnels in the basement of the building. These had three entry doors, one of which opened on to a dead-ended corridor. The foreman told a couple of eastern European workers to brick the door up, leaving the other two for access.
Unfortunately, they understood all three doors had to be filled in, so they wrapped up the job quickly and went off for a nice long lunch … something sorely missed by the team of entombed electricians.
Restoring an old farmhouse on a windy hill in Hereford really blew one builder away. As he carried a huge sheet of plywood from the store to the site, the sheet was caught by a freak gust of wind. This lifted him some five feet off the ground, swept him over a wall and deposited him face down in a mucky cow pen, surrounded by bemused heifers.