John Hall over there, sitting on the roof he’s making, is a craftsman in an industry that is being told over and over again that technology holds the only key to the future. So Building spoke to the descendants of the people who built the cathedrals and asked them to talk about how they saw their professions.
Where have all the masters gone? Once, building trades were the preserve of highly skilled individuals. Now the industry is perceived as the last refuge of bodgers, cowboys and idlers.
“It’s a crisis,” says Marianne Sühr, co-ordinator of the Building Skills Action Group, a Construction Industry Training Board-funded organisation trying to tackle the problem. “A craftsperson is someone who is not just skilled but is conscientious about their work. But today we have so many cowboy builders who just don’t give a damn; they don’t care. There’s no pride in the work.”
Sühr believes that the disappearance of the apprenticeship system and the changing aspirations of young people are behind the crisis. “Apprenticeship went hand in hand with the class system. Most working class people had to follow in their fathers’ footsteps; if you were talented, you’d strive to be the best in your craft.”
These days, building colleges are full of underachievers, Sühr continues. “It’s become a last-resort profession – people who would have been labourers have been elevated to bricklayers. Technical colleges are teaching people basic maths. How can you set out a building if you can’t do multiplication?”
Architects say the lack of craftspeople with adequate skills, design awareness and enthusiasm for the job is making it increasingly difficult for them to get projects built to the required standard. “It’s sad, but I’ve found it easier to get things made abroad,” says architect John Pawson. “I go to little companies in Italy and Belgium. In England there seems to be a lack of willingness to make one-offs.”
It seems the architect-craftsperson relationship – once central to the building process and glorified in William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement – is all but gone. “Lots of builders moan about design because they don’t understand new ideas, and they think it’s going to be too complicated,” agrees architect Sarah Wigglesworth. “You need to do lots of goading and coaxing.”
Yet, somehow, remarkable new buildings are still being built around the country; structures that are modern in spirit, yet display the same mastery of materials and loving attention to detail as that exhibited in the finest historic buildings.
Building set out to discover the uncredited individuals behind some of these buildings. We asked contemporary architects to nominate those who live up to their definition of a craftsperson – highly skilled, conscientious and intuitive – and visited those individuals to record their views on the industry and the future of their skills. Their stories, presented over the next 10 pages, provide a snapshot of the state of the building crafts in Britain today.
John Hall, 52, master thatcher from Sussex. Photographed at work rethatching a school building near Uckfield in Sussex.
People have this romantic notion of thatching, but it’s a trade like any other. I’m a craftsman, I suppose, but no more than a brickie or any other person in the building industry. It’s only because not many people do it that people think it’s a craft. Having said that, there are a lot of crap thatchers around – cowboy thatchers. You don’t have to have any training to call yourself a thatcher. I don’t know how Kathryn [Findlay, architect – see below] found me. Yellow Pages, I suppose. The Pool House wasn’t much different from any other job really. It was a very unusual shape with a big curved eaves. They left us to our own devices to work it out. Kathryn wanted a Japanese ridge and she sent me the details, but it was a bit beyond me; it didn’t look to me as if it would work. We did it the British way. I’m a bit of a traditionalist, but I don’t mind doing things for a laugh. I kept meaning to go back and take photos but I never got round to it. We’re like any other builders – we like big vast areas of thatch more than ones with awkward bits because we make more money. I’ve been thatching for 18 years. Before that I was a jobbing builder. I did a one-year intensive course, working with a master thatcher. I could never go back to an office or work for someone else. The best thing is visiting a different place every month, right out in the middle of the country. If I could have the winters off I’d be even happier. I’ve thatched abroad – Holland, America; I did a theme park in Taiwan. The best one was the Caribbean. They were building a thatched house on a rich bloke’s island. I work mostly with reed thatch – it lasts up to 50 years, whereas straw only lasts 20-25 years. The reed comes from everywhere but Britain. We’re using Austrian reed on this job, but we also use French and Turkish reed. We get it from reed dealers in the West Country. It’s like a lot of things in this country, the reed-cutting industry was just left to go – they didn’t care. Good Norfolk reed is a joy to work with, but we just can’t rely on it any more. Each thatcher has their own unique ridge pattern so you can always tell who’s done the job. You get a lot of satisfaction when you’ve finished. You look at it and say, “I put my mark on that one”. Do I make a good living? I make enough, yeah. I do about nine rethatches a year, at about £15,000 each plus vat, and half a dozen repairs. We’re always getting enquiries from people who are disillusioned and want to become thatchers. If you’re fed up with what you’re doing, there’s worse jobs you could do. But they don’t know what it’s like. It’s quite physical, very hard work, a lot of labouring. My son shows no interest in thatching, but I don’t think the art will disappear. Most thatched buildings are listed. As long as there are thatched buildings, there’ll be thatchers. Kathryn Findlay, Ushida Findlay Architects
He really is a stunning craftsman; his work was superb when we were building a Japanese-style thatched roof on the Pool House at Pulborough, near Arundel. Plus, he’s got a moustache that looks like thatch.
Koyodi Lipedi, 40, from Nigeria, concrete caster. Photographed at work on private domestic commission in Hampstead, London.
There’s definitely a buzz in being a craftsman. There’s a certain pride in feeling very much in control of what you’re making. People are relying on you to produce the object. We love what we do and we understand what we do. Concrete is probably the greatest invention of the modern age, the greatest gift of the Romans. It’s such a durable material compared with stone. It’s astonishing that we can produce something to challenge nature. It’s a fantastic product; it outperforms marble. And you can introduce an almost endless range of finishes. I love the play of touch and appearance. You can produce surfaces that look textured, but when you touch them are glass smooth. Concrete represents one of the greatest opportunities for form and appearance in modern buildings. Most other materials these days are machined and pressed into shape. Concrete is more earthy. You need something to offset the hard, clean surfaces. I rely on a team of highly skilled assistants. They normally have some kind of arts background; people who have design training and like working with their hands – they have to really like working with their hands. And they must have patience and a good eye. They must be able to respond to the imperfections of the material. But it’s difficult to find good people. Nowadays, people aren’t interested in the building crafts, which have been dying for years now. There’s been far more effort put into mass-producing things than the craft of putting together non-standard objects. There’s great pressure to make a living – that’s why people cut corners. A lot of builders do that and get into trouble. I met Block Architects two or three years ago. I did a concrete floor and worktop for them. I enjoy my relationships with architects. I studied architecture at the Architectural Association, so it’s easy to see where they’re coming from; I can understand the space; I can advise them of the finishes and colours to use. I enjoy moving from site to site, different spaces, different clients. When we’re on site, the builders tend to spend the first few days pooh-poohing us. But then they get more and more interested. By the second week they’re milling around us, asking loads of questions; and by the end of the job, they’re saying “give us your card”. We love that. We’ve spent the past few years building the thing into a business, discovering new polishing methods, mastering techniques, which was really exciting. It’s important at the very start not to be tempted by the money. To build a business with the right production attitude, quality of product comes first. I’m completely happy. It’s like being at school again. Graham Williamson, Block Architects
We did a project with Koyodi a couple of years ago; he did an insitu bathroom floor and kitchen work surface. He spent ages getting the surface perfect. His level of finishing is spot-on; his attention to detail is great. He’ll provide a lot of samples and he’s willing to try new things.
Clive Williams, 52, from London, all-round maker. Photographed at the workshop of his firm, Forum Makers, in Islington, north London.
It’s the challenge that I love – creating something from nothing. Some guy does a sketch and it’s the challenge of turning it into something tangible. Not many people understand the enjoyment of doing that. I’m a maker–craftsman really. I trained as a product designer but I don’t design any more. I enjoy making things – I get a real buzz out of it. We work in any material – wood, metal, plastic. We do welding, CNC programming, moulding … we kick ass. It’s accumulated knowledge built up over the years. If we don’t know how to do something, we just phone up and ask – we take pride in what we do but we’re not proud about that. We try to help architects and designers with their design ideas, bring them down to reality. They need people like us to create their schemes. We help them with the brainstorming process to solve the problem. These office chairs for example – I carved them straight from [furniture designer Ross] Lovegrove’s sketches. Then the manufacturer digitised what we made and mass-produced them directly from that. But we don’t get recognised for our work. The Kielder shelter [a diamond-shaped bird-watchers’ hide beside a Northumbria lake] is totally outrageous. I went to see Softroom Architects to view the first concept sketches, then we did our own construction drawings. We agreed we’d do it in a particular way and we just carried on from there. We made very little money on that – we broke even. The specification is really high. As a maker, I don’t believe you’re going to make a fortune. Some jobs you’ll make money, some jobs you’ll lose money, but as long as you consistently enjoy what you do, it’s OK. Computers have taken away a lot of the crafts, and a lot of our work. When I started out in 1984 I was modelling phones and suitcases, but consumer durables are all done by computer now. That’s why we’ve had to diversify. We do a lot of airline work; full-size mock-ups of aircraft interiors. Our most recent thing was a full-size train for Siemens – a full, 23 m long mock-up. In the construction industry, we’re trying to get into cladding: building full-size, mock-up facades. That’s a real growth area these days. The home makeover programmes on the telly: I don’t know if they’ve done us any good or not. There’s been a huge surge in DIY, which is damaging the professional people a lot – people won’t pay to have things done properly. There are fewer and fewer craftspeople on the ground and we’re frowned upon. Young people want to press buttons instead of make things. Oliver Salway, Softroom Architects
Clive’s great. He’s the kind of person you’d have in the engine room on the USS Enterprise; he’d give a sharp intake of breath and say it wasn’t possible and then do it. When he makes a promise, he’ll deliver. He built the Kielder shelter for us – a small, unconventional structure fabricated in stainless steel. He has a very good level of finish and he’s used to ridiculous deadlines.
Michael McHugh, 52, from Tasmania, joiner. Photographed at Westside Design Studio, his workshop in Bath.
I suppose a craftsman is the best description of what I am, although that conjures up images of a person with a fine set of tools, working on their own. I’ve got a bit of a maverick view of it: I don’t follow the rules, the rule that says you must use this tool or this joint. I like taking creative risks. The problem-solving is the thing I enjoy most – burrowing into it until you’ve pulled it apart and understood it. It’s pleasurable, but a lot of it is pure graft. I never considered doing this for a living, but looking back, I was always interested in wood. When I was a teenager, I built a wooden speedboat with a friend. It was quite ambitious and it didn’t sink. When I was 15 or so, my father saw this log on the beach in Tasmania, where I’m from. It was blackwood – a bit like walnut. He dragged it home and it sat in the garage for a while. One weekend I decided it was going to become a sculpture and attacked it with a tomahawk. The encouragement I got from that catapulted me to art school. That sculpture is still in the foyer of the school. I’m lucky I didn’t have a conventional training. It allows me to think a bit more freely about the way materials go together. The sculpture stuff was a great asset when I worked on the bandstand with Niall [McLaughlin, see below]. The drawings weren’t really detailed; it left an awful lot of creative thinking to make it a reality. Niall and I get so much out of working together. We’ve evolved ideas and affected each other’s methods. For the bandstand, there were a lot of impractical, expensive solutions proposed, but we went for something we knew we could make. Wood is such a variable and wonderful material. A living material with individual character and smell – just like people. Each tree is different. We had some American ash recently; we cut it up and found a bullet right in the middle of it. It conjures up an image of the tree’s history; it gives you a sense of age. We’ve been quite lucky; we’ve had some good working relationships with contractors. And some nightmares as well. The bigger they are, the worse they tend to be. They ruthlessly take as many shortcuts as they can. Anybody thinks they can build – and a good coat of paint will cover up a multitude of sins. There’s a lack of training. That’s always been a problem in this country. The apprenticeship system was abandoned, then came the YTS scheme. At school it’s become blurred with technology, which could be good but they never have enough budget or facilities. I’ve been lucky over the years finding people who have skills. I never have a problem. We had a Frenchman once. He was fantastic – the training they have there … They have a guild system that helps people find work and give support. He’d had a more traditional, thorough training. He showed us techniques I was amazed by. But I think design and construction in this country is going through a fantastic renaissance. If the skills aren’t being taught in this country they’ll be sucked in from abroad. The Romanians, Hungarians and Albanians have brought new skills. Niall McLaughlin, Niall McLaughlin Architects
We’ve always used him. He’s extremely fastidious; he always has a solution. If you send him a set of drawings, it always comes back looking better than expected. Most recently he built the canopy for our bandstand at Bexhill-on-Sea. He was the hero of the piece – it was a highly complex shape and he worked out how to build it.
Dave Church, 53, from Canvey Island, Essex and Ken Rose, 61, from Molesford, Suffolk, restorers. Photographed on a job in Kilburn, London.
Ken Rose: We do stone restoration, stucco work, flint-knapping, lime rendering. They all crack your hands up. I suppose we are craftsmen in our own way. Put it this way, there aren’t many people who could do it so well. Dave Church: We did the flintwork at Southwark cathedral. We had to knap the bleeding stuff – all 15 tonnes of it. Ken: You have a blunt axe. You hold the flint in your hand and cut it to size. Dave: Knapping’s a bit dangerous; you get lots of cuts. There are bits flying all over the place. They’re so sharp you could shave with them. Ken: It’s all handed down. The blokes that taught us are all dead now. You started as improvers in those days; you learned on site. Not apprentices – apprentices went to college. We’ve taught a few boys but a lot of them haven’t got the talent to do it. If they go to the loo 14 times a day, just forget them. Dave: You’ve got to have the flair for it. You’ve got to be good with your hands and have a good eye. Ken: I’ve been doing it 45 years. Dave’s been doing it about 35 years. We used to do a lot of church work years ago, but it’s faded away. They get normal builders in now. It’s cheaper but they don’t get the work done properly. A lot of them are just bodgers. Dave: It’s all down to tender now – the cheapest price gets it. They call our work cosmetic and they think they can do without it. But some of our work is still on the wall after 35 years. Ken: Everything’s done by an accountant these days. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long its as cheap as possible. You see houses going up with flints in but they’re not knapped in, they’re just bunged in. Dave: It’s all done in a rush now. You keep hearing people saying the industry’s going down the pan. Ken: It’s all gone crazy. Ptolemy Dean, associate, Richard Griffiths Architects
We were building the new library and refectory building at Southwark cathedral and they were recommended to us. They were brilliant because they responded not just to the materials, but to the spirit of the materials. What was exceptional about them is they were a pleasure to work with – always happy and jolly – and they were proud of what they did.