It’s been quite a century for construction. Building revisits the major events of the past 100 years and asks what they cost, and readers choose the most influential people and innovations.
From cast iron to titanium, from the wireless to the Internet and from Charles Barry to Norman Foster, the 20th century has seen the construction industry transformed. Construction materials, communications and personalities have all changed radically, although some themes and schemes have bounced in and out of the news throughout the century.
In 1901, The Builder showed Charles Barry’s scheme for government offices next to the recently built Houses of Parliament. The magazine returned to the topic of MPs’ offices in 1999 with Michael Hopkins and Partners’ controversial Portcullis House, due for completion early in the next millennium. A dome was built to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951, and another is the centrepiece of the year 2000 celebrations. And prefabrication appeared as a quick, easy and cheap way of building homes after the Second World War, only to be hailed as the way ahead for construction firms chanting the Egan mantra at the end of the century.
The Builder did not celebrate the turn of the century in 1900, leaving that to “misguided persons … destitute of the first elements of both arithmetic and logic”. The magazine was at pains to explain that “the 20th century commences with the first year after 1900”, telling readers to wait until 5 January 1901 to experience a “feeling of a certain solemnity and importance in the entrance upon a new cycle of a hundred years”. But tragedy struck in the first year of the new century: Queen Victoria died after 64 years on the throne, marking the end of the era of empire. The mood of change was reflected in the growth of suburbia, the introduction of town planners to the construction profession and the opening, in 1909, of the first rapid transit link between north and south London, the first section of the London Underground Northern Line.
Then, in 1914, the country’s early optimism was abruptly snuffed out. The horror of the First World War changed attitudes to politics, religion and morality; society altered irrevocably. The Great War also had a dramatic effect on building costs. By 1920, prices had rocketed to three times their 1914 equivalent.
The high wages that followed the war – a result of the shortage of workers – were whittled away rapidly during the early 1920s. In 1924, the threat of lower pay and the use of unskilled men to build homes brought about the first nationwide building strike, followed two years later by the General Strike.
The depression set in. Building prices fell accordingly during the late 1920s and 1930s. At the height of the depression in 1932, almost one in three construction employees were out of work. Prices took a turn upwards after 1933, just before the first two chimneys of London’s Battersea Power Station started smoking in 1937.
In 1939, the world was thrown into turmoil once again. The Second World War had a profound effect on construction; indeed, respondents to Building’s recent readers survey overwhelmingly nominated Adolf Hitler as the individual who has had the greatest influence on the industry. Massive bombing campaigns caused the wholesale destruction of great European cities. At the end of the war, building costs again increased sharply to almost double the cost in 1939.
The post-war period was marked by the Festival of Britain in 1951. London’s Royal Festival Hall was completed for £3m. A celebratory dome was also constructed as part of the festivities, but this was just a fraction of the size of the Millennium Dome, with a diameter of only 365 ft.
Extensive public building programmes helped to keep the industry in good health during the 1960s, but the 1970s were a rollercoaster ride for construction. Prices rocketed 35% in 1972, and the following year, the oil crisis, the three-day week and the miners’ strike all added impetus to spiralling prices. By the end of 1973, building price inflation had soared out of control at 107%.
What followed in the 1980s was a boom-bust cycle. In 1988, construction orders peaked at £26.3bn. London Docklands was redeveloped as a monument to Margaret Thatcher’s deregulated economy.
But the new order did not last. Thatcher’s reign came to an end in 1990 and, by 1992, 3830 construction firms had become insolvent. On the upside, the early 1990s saw the completion of a great civil engineering feat as the £10bn Channel Tunnel finally connected the UK to the Continent.
And the century is ending on an upbeat note. Construction output is at its highest since 1990. The country is marking the start of the new millennium with a monument to compare with anything built for the Festival of Britain: the £800m Millennium Dome. Queen Victoria’s empire may have disintegrated, but the Jubilee Line Extension is up and running. Just.
Building’s survey results: The person who had the biggest influence on the industry this centuryThe 20th century has been dominated by superheroes and villains. In Building’s survey, designers and engineers were edged out by the century’s political leaders. Adolf Hitler was the overwhelming choice as the person who has had the greatest influence on the construction industry over the past 100 years. Gardiner & Theobald senior partner Michael Coates chose Hitler because “tragically he was the catalyst for the wholesale reconstruction of so many European cities”. At second place in the top 10 is Margaret Thatcher. Britain’s first female prime minister fostered privatisation, which led to the introduction of the private finance initiative. Mansell chief executive David Beardsmore explains: “She led the free enterprise culture which is now regarded worldwide as the best way to prosper.” The more clear-cut heroes are designers, such as Lord Foster and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and entrepreneurs. Sir Lawrie Barratt, Thatcher’s favourite housebuilder, is included for his forceful marketing of new homes. The list also features inventors, such as Sir Alastair Pilkington for float glass, and Buckminster Fuller for geodesic domes.
The 10 people who have most influenced constructionAdolf Hitler Baroness Thatcher Lord Foster Sir Lawrie Barratt Hermann Goering Sir Alastair Pilkington Buckminster Fuller Henry Ford Sir John Egan Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The innovation that had the biggest impact on the industry The building industry began the 20th century marvelling at electricity and ends it extolling the virtues of e-commerce. IT innovations took the first two places in Building’s readers survey. From the design process, where CAD is commonplace, to site-based computers, construction is learning to live with IT. “The desktop PC has created major advances in efficiency gains,” says Mansell’s chief executive David Beardsmore. The innovation in third spot was first developed in the 19th century. Reinforced concrete took to the sky in the UK in 1911 with the construction of the Liver Building in Liverpool, dubbed the UK’s first skyscraper. On a more down-to-earth level, women can thank the housebuilding sector for the fitted kitchen, chosen by John Wood, sales and marketing director at Crest Homes, as the innovation of the century. Electricity, which arrived in the 19th century, led to labour-saving domestic devices that rendered the housemaid redundant.
The top 10 innovations Computers The Internet Reinforced concrete Fitted kitchens The motor engine The Labour government reforms of the 1960s, which saw the end of direct labour and the move towards subcontracting Heating and ventilating systems The calculator, which replaced slide rules and log tables The tank track mechanism for its use on all-weather, all-terrain machines, vehicles and diggers Mobile phones
Wonder & blunder of the millenniumA surprise wonder and a predictable blunder of the millennium have been picked by Building readers from a shortlist spanning the entire globe and the past 1000 years. The Blue Mosque in Istanbul was picked as the wonder of the millennium. One of only two non-Western buildings on the list, this astonishing domed mountain of masonry was completed in 1616 and remains a pinnacle of engineering and architectural achievement. Named for the 20 000 blue Iznik tiles decorating its interior walls, the mosque’s lofty central dome is surrounded on four sides by cascading levels of minor buttressing domes and semi-domes. The runner-up is closer to home, architecturally speaking at least. Readers’ second favourite building was Sydney Opera House, completed in 1973 to designs by Jørn Utzon and engineer Ove Arup & Partners. Marsham Street offices in London were chosen as the blunder of the millennium. The four, speculatively developed slab blocks, which frequently appear in Building’s Wonders and blunders column, were built in 1971 and prelet as central government offices. Now abandoned by the DETR, Marsham Street is being used as a shelter for homeless people this winter while it awaits proposed redevelopment.