Philip Ashton PhD may be a reluctant televison star, but he’s happy to embrace the publicity Channel 4’s Bricking It has given young people in construction. We meet project management’s answer to Jamie Oliver.

Philip Ashton PhD
Philip Ashton PhD

Philip Ashton didn’t want to be a television star. But then, as a middle-aged, softly spoken academic, it did not appear to be an immediate concern. Until, that is, he got a phone call from Channel 4. Some producers at the channel had been reliably informed that Dr Ashton, the head of construction research at the University of Brighton, was the ideal man to head their new construction-themed reality TV show. So it was that, after some reluctance on Ashton’s part, an unlikely star was born.

Bricking It was a televised challenge, an abridged version of which was broadcast last December. It featured 10 unemployed and unqualified people between the ages of 17 and 21, and the format was similar to the highly successful Jamie’s Kitchen. This time the challenge was to build a £350,000 flat in south-east London in just 24 weeks. Ashton was the project manager, and became a bit of a favourite among the show’s fans – although it appears that he didn’t have too much competition on that score. TV critics, from The Guardian to the Daily Mail, were swift to get their claws out for the show’s young stars, who were perceived to be incompetent, lazy or just plain psychotic.

The Spectator was particularly vituperative: “Why don’t they just take the worst kids on Bricking It, grind them down into cement, and then use them for the building’s foundation? It’s the only way they’re ever going to serve any remotely useful function in their miserable, doomed lives.”

Ashton, 41, now back in his preferred habitat of a university office, has had time to reflect on the programme and whether it had anything pertinent to say on the young workforce now entering the construction industry. “It was an absolutely unique project. There is a lovely saying: ‘Never put two apprentices together, because you get half a day’s work out of them’. Well, imagine putting 10 together.”

Ashton was responsible for selecting the participants. He denies the rumour that Channel 4 engineered the team to create sensational situations and says the trainees knew better than to play up to the camera à la Big Brother. “I wanted to choose 10 young people that gave a fair and reasonable representation of the thousands who applied. They are reflecting the state of young people out there today; the lack of drive, the lack of enthusiasm. That’s what is entering our industry at the moment. They wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in my day,” he sighs.

Ashton’s day was the late 1980s and early 1990s. He moved up from a joinery apprenticeship to senior managerial roles in construction companies, the last of which was at Brighton firm Integra. In 1994, he decided to go into the academic world, gained a PhD in risk management and began lecturing on the sustainability of the built environment.

Sustainability is clearly not the only subject he likes to lecture on: he is also a passionate advocate of the need to improve the image that the industry projects to young people.

They reflect young people today; the lack of drive, the lack of enthusiasm. That’s what’s entering our industry at the moment

He says: “Whatever level you are, it is great fun. It’s like being a big boy playing with big toys, in the same way that you played with Lego when you were a kid.” By this stage, he is evangelical: “You’ll never be out of work. You can travel anywhere in the world. We need to do more to attract young people into construction.”

But young people have to improve too. Ashton says that he agrees with Prince Charles’ controversial comment that young people have unrealistic expectations. Ashton blames reality game shows, where contestants sit around doing nothing, for undermining the values of hard work.

Ashton might sound tough, but he acknowledges the trainees’ achievements on the show. “They really grew up in every sense of the word. They moved from being unemployable, irresponsible and taking no degree of responsibility for themselves to knowing they had to secure a job and take responsibility for their actions.”

Indeed, the youngsters are not the subject of his harshest criticism. The only member of the Bricking It cast Ashton would have happily dispensed with was the property developer, Berkeley Homes, whose site in Woolwich Royal Arsenal was used for the programme.

“They were a real nightmare,” he says. “They were dreadful. They were supposed to be supplying all the materials and the space and they couldn’t have made my life harder if they’d tried. They were everything that is bad about our industry – late, wrong, incorrect, you name it. I was really ashamed of them.” He then reels off a list of problems with plasterboards, paint and toilet seats. Troublesome situations – apart from squabbles between trainees – he says, were deliberately cut out from the three hours of the final edit in order to make it “a positive promotion of construction. It wasn’t supposed to be a programme about rubbish”.

Royal Arsenal head of sales John Hall admits there were problems, but stresses the fact that the job was out of the ordinary. He says: “That’s what happens when you build a one-off apartment. It hasn’t been made to Berkeley Homes’ standard specifications. Everything was a one-off: the door handles, the kitchen, the glass staircase, the wooden finish in the bathroom. I have the greatest respect for Philip, but he should know that the construction process is never smooth.”

However, it is probably fair to say that the programme did not create quite the kind of publicity that Berkeley might have hoped for. As The Times put it: “Who would now want to buy a flat in this development, unless it came with cast-iron guarantees that it wasn’t the one they’ve seen being botched by this band of untrained youths?”

The building was a just a vehicle, a metaphor – the change was in the trainees

Ashton couldn’t care less about the outcome for Royal Arsenal. For him the programme “was a good opportunity to show people how proud [of our job] we are”. To this end, Bricking It did raise the profile of careers in construction, and thousands of queries were later sent in to the Channel 4 website.

So has he become the Jamie Oliver of the construction industry? Ashton concedes he may not have the good looks or youth appeal of the Naked Chef, but all he is concerned about is that he has reached his target of securing an apprenticeship for at least half of the 10 trainees. Seven are now apprentices.

Ashton’s judgment on Bricking It is that it has been “a good window for the construction industry to show what we actually can do.”

To his mind, the trainees proved the sceptics wrong and could feel justly proud when Royal Arsenal construction manager Andy Carson found nothing to criticise in the flat they handed over – on time.

“The building in our particular case was just a vehicle. It made a good metaphor for a lot of things,” Ashton concludes. “The change was with them. They learned a lot about themselves. They are now ready to go and pursue what they want.”

  • Channel 4 will broadcast the full six-episode series of Bricking It from 7 March

The project

Sir Tom Shebbeare, director of the Prince’s Charities for the Prince of Wales, suggested the idea of Bricking It to Channel 4 Learning. The royal charity associations are keen to encourage young unemployed people to learn vocational skills, such as construction. The building of a community centre in Birmingham was suggested for the programme, but the Royal Arsenal site was found more suitable for the visual purposes of television.

Ten trainees – three women, seven men – worked on the site for six months for £200 a week. From an initial £50,000 bonus, the six remaining participants had to share a final £18,000 – because of delays and other incidents.

Hannah Lacey

20, currently working at Royal Arsenal for electrical company Aircall Engineering
On the programme I’m very grateful to the programme. It was certainly an experience and I have learned a lot. I’d never done anything to do with the construction industry. I’ve become more tolerant with people on a building site. Also, I now know that it is a myth that a woman can’t be working there.
On Dr Ashton He was quite strict as a boss. He’s quite academic, but he was very helpful.

David Edwards

19, now an apprentice in electronic engineering at MITIE
On the programme The timescale was very strange. They cut six months of our lives into three hours. They cut out the moments where we were really enjoying ourselves, doing the work and having fun. It was not all about construction, but working with other people and finding out about the politics of the working environment. It offers an overview of everything that is as important as learning your own trade.
On Dr Ashton He is much more friendly and helpful than he might have looked on the film. He really looked after us on the site.

Zac Rodes

20, currently working as a carpenter in a medium-sized workshop in Bow, east London
On the programme It was very useful and helpful. I’d been on site before but had never worked in carpentry. It went very well. It was good to learn different trades. I’ve learned how to do plaster, electricity, carpentry and so on.
Now I hope to complete a course and become a qualified carpenter. The great thing is to know that you can do your job in different countries. That’s my dream – to go and travel once I qualify.
On Dr Ashton He’s all right. I got on with him the best from all the other people on the project. We understood each other.