Last edited 02 Nov 2020

Building to the skies

Alfred Bossom’s book ‘Building to the Skies: The Romance of the Skyscraper’, published in 1934, was one of the first major criticisms of the standard of performance of the UK construction industry.

Bossom was an architect who went to the USA in the early 20th century, where he was involved in the design of skyscrapers. This impressed on him that construction was a process like any other, and that if all the parties worked together it could be planned in advance and then carried out to an agreed schedule. He found that contractors in the USA were able to build faster than their counterparts in the UK, but at the same cost, and as a result they were more profitable and were able to pay higher wages.

When he returned home, the deficiencies in the UK construction industry were obvious to him, and he became an advocate for change. He saw an adversarial and wasteful industry in which construction took too long, was too expensive and was not satisfactory for its clients.

He wrote, ‘The process of construction, instead of being an orderly and consecutive advance down the line, is all too apt to become a scramble and a muddle.’

He also saw that this inefficiency impacted on the wider economy, writing, ‘All rents and costs of production throughout Great Britain are higher than they should be because houses and factories cost too much and take too long to build… Bad layouts add at least 15% to the production of the cotton industry. Of how many of our steel plants and woollen mills, and even our relatively up-to-date motor works, might not the same be said? The battle of trade may easily be lost before it has fairly been opened – in the architect’s design room.’

Similar criticisms have followed Building to the Skies, most notably; the Latham Report, Constructing the Team in 1994; The Egan Report, Rethinking Construction in 1998; the Government Construction Strategy in 2011 and Construction 2025, published in 2013.

Sir Michael Latham described the UK construction industry as ‘ineffective’, ‘adversarial’, ‘fragmented’ and ‘incapable of delivering for its customers’, largely the same points as those set out by Bossom.

Several reports have also made projections of substantial savings within the industry if their recommendations were adopted. Notably, the Government Construction Strategy sets out an intention to achieve savings of 15 to 20%.

However, the recommendations of such reports largely fail to gain traction within the industry and the criticisms continue. It might be inferred therefore either that; under the circumstances, the industry operates more effectively than it appears from the outside; or that expectations are unrealistic; or that recommendations have been consistently poorly implemented. It is worth noting that criticism of construction is not peculiar to the UK, and that similar assessments have been made in the USA, for example see Constructing the team: A US Perspective, King 1996.

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