Last edited 13 Jan 2021

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The changing form of building worldwide 1984

Paper given by Sir Peter Trench, CBE, TD, BSc., Hon FCIOB, Hon FRIBA, to the CIOB International Conference, September 1984.

At the outset I should like to explain how I have interpreted the brief given to me. “Form of building" I shall interpret as "the nature of the construction process, the shape of the construction industry and the demand for its services". I do not mean the visual shape of building.

My timespan is that of my own in the industry, namely from 1946, and I have added a few years on for good luck - not for you, but for me. So, here goes!

1946, in Russia, in Europe - both east and west - and, by the end of that year, in the Far East, saw the start of rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War. Skilled labour was in short supply and many countries, for example, Germany, lacked the basic raw materials of construction. I remember quite vividly brick rubble in Hamburg being recycled through primitive block-making machines in the streets to produce the structure of new buildings. Russian cities had been demolished almost in their entirety, and Japan had to contend with a nuclear clean-up. For the U.S.A. it was more a question of resuming where they left off, rather than replacing damaged buildings. In the United Kingdom, with building permits and the main building materials, such as steel and timber, on a strict priority basis of rationing through licensing, we started to sow some of the seeds which now, some forty years later, are being harvested under the Housing Defects Act - the immediate post-war prefabs - costing a few hundred pounds to put up and now rating an average of £10,500 each to patch up!

The Fifties constituted a decade of returning to normality. We in this country were sending teams to the U.S.A. to see how building, among other things, could be produced more productively. We are still sending them!

By the Sixties, construction throughout the world had experienced great changes and it is worth pausing to reflect on some of the reasons. First, of course, the very need to replace rapidly and then add to the building stock was a prime motivating force. In the industrialised countries the changing social and personal aspirations and expectations of owners and users of buildings were beginning to be felt. Where the resources were available, demand was beginning to be met in forms other than by way of improvisation, and the construction industries were settling down to meet, and over-rely on, the increasing demands of the public sector. Governments and corporations had taken the place of individual building clients. Progressively better communication was an important factor in this kind of change. Knowledge and experience was being transferred from one country to another and the means had become available of rapidly transporting men and materials to areas where they were needed.

The industrialised world, led by the U.S.A. with its Marshall plan, had appreciated too that aid, first to the war-torn, then to the underdeveloped and the developing countries, was not only of benefit to the recipients, but had considerable spin-offs for the donors. The great world financial aid institutions had been set up and had considerable influence over the construction industries, which were spreading their wings and taking an ever-increasing interest in fields far from the home base.

If the Fifties were years of recovery, the Sixties were years of impatience, impatience that the great pent-up demand was not being adequately met. Indeed, demand greatly exceeded supply. There were of course great construction achievements - Rotterdam had been almost totally rebuilt from nothing and Levett had appeared on the U.S. housing scene.

It would be ignoring a large chunk of construction history if I left out of this short historical survey the advent of the "system building" era in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, for, apart from anything else, it is my personal view that that phenomenon was not just an unfortunate episode never to be repeated, but a false dawn to a day which may well arrive again - not in that precise form, but in shades of it. It is important enough to spend a few minutes on it.

I would like to emphasise for the sake of historical accuracy that in my opinion the use of reputedly fast-build systems to solve the public sector housing problems was not the brainchild of our industry, but was encouraged by all political parties at Westminster and, down the line, by many local authorities. We cannot however side-step the fact that we as an industry failed to come up with alternative medicines to cure the disease of underproduction to meet demand. Moreover, the very systems which were introduced into this country like a rash of measles (Tracoba, Coignet, Skarne, Balency, to mention but a few) were being used, and had been used for several years, on the Continent - in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France and elsewhere. Apart from a short-lived technical incursion into a highly sophisticated school system, the U.S.A. never entered the systems race. Indeed, they never had to, because they were busy perfecting the alternative philosophy of rationalisation, standardisation and variety reduction – “buildability”.

The U.S.S.R. on the other hand had not only entered the prefabricated, precast system game, but are still in it.

The failure of system building in the United Kingdom - and we are living with some of it today - was not only due to social reasons, which did not and do not appear to worry the inhabitants of some other European countries, but also of course to technical reasons. By that I am not referring to the fact that many system buildings have become defective, but because, although most of them showed great speed in erecting the fabric or structure of a building, any attempt to include the service elements in the prefabrication process proved totally uneconomic. There was I know one French system which succeeded in this respect in the U.K., but it was an extremely expensive end product and did not find favour with the restricted budgets of local authorities and the cost yardsticks of the day - "cost yardsticks" have a lot to answer for!

But what intrigues me still is what has happened to those same systems in the other European countries that used them? Were they, as I suspect, occupied by people who neither aspired to low-rise housing nor expected the quality standards demanded here? Or were they just better at building them? Demand for quality is now of course one of the motivating forces for change in the construction industries of the world today - but more of that later.

The Seventies saw the boom/bust period for many of the world's construction industries and of course the energy crisis and the beginning of a world-wide recession. The Seventies saw too those industries look beyond their national frontiers for work to keep their giant construction octopuses on the moving staircase of turnover, often allegedly subsidised by national governments in the process.

The international funding of projects took a dip, with an increasing tendency to spread stages of jumbo projects over time because of funding problems. The illegitimate diversion of those funds to finance consumer spending and prestige buildings, rather than the intended capital investment in infrastructure and housing and basic social building needs, also became a problem.

In Europe the great expectation of the breakdown of interstate construction boundaries came to nothing. It is true that trade in building products increased considerably, but national technical requirements and local conventions restricted the move of contracting and sub-contracting companies from one country to another. The EEC requirements for tendering for public sector jobs were welcomed, but without enthusiasm. Some interchange of skilled labour took place, but in insignificant numbers.

In the Middle East in the meantime the oil rich countries attracted first the British, the West Germans and the Italians, and an intense construction programme got underway. The U.S. influence through the American oil companies and the Corps of Engineers was very much in evidence. First labour and then contractors from the Far East soon joined in and competition became acute. The decade began with the era of local sponsors and finished with the joint venture between the foreign and indigenous firm. Recently we have seen increasing resistance to the importation of products which can be made locally, and in the Middle East we have seen developing countries now endeavouring to export manufactured building materials to the rest of the world.

That students sometimes become professors must not be forgotten, but it is a pity that in the process many seem progressively to discard their earlier liberal views! It must be acknowledged however that the transfer of wealth from non-oil producers to oil producers inevitably means a transfer of the ability to finance construction work. It is to be hoped that such finance will not always be mainly confined to within the national boundaries of those oil-producing countries.

The Eighties of course have seen the worst world economic recession since my story began in 1946: few countries in the free world have escaped and construction has suffered accordingly.

It is against this brief historical scenario that I would like to look at some of the changes which, to my mind, have taken place to date and for good measure throw in a projection or two into the future.

The composition of the world's construction industries, from the U.S.A. through Europe to Japan, has really changed very little - a few giants, a decreasing number of medium-size firms and an ever-increasing number of small. The nature of building has changed though, in that the complexity and specialist services element of a building have increased enormously. This has led to a growth of sub-contracting and of specialist contracting. This has suited the main contractor, whose direct labour involvement has continuously declined. I say "suited" because it gives him the flexibility he requires in a market place of fluctuating demand. This growing complexity of building has resulted in an increasing call for high-calibre management and we have seen the growth of project and construction management across the world, led again by the U.S.A. - the Bechtels et al.

We are now witnessing, particularly in the developing countries, the growth of the joint venture project, with the management expertise provided by foreign companies and the locals providing political liaison, and financed by international bodies, not necessarily governments, drawing specialists and, indeed, labour from different countries under the overall umbrella of an international construction management organisation. The importance of high-class management in such a situation cannot be overstated.

Changes in methods of building have not been rapid, although they have been continuous. Mechanisation has increased more rapidly than rationalisation of building components or processes. To illustrate my point, in this country in the last forty years we have seen great progress in the mechanisation of mixing and placing of concrete, we have seen the introduction of pre-stressing, we have seen great improvements in the economics of concrete design and varying degrees of popularity of precasting. The techniques of on-site battery casting, pioneered at the Building Research Establishment, have been exported to all parts of the globe. We have seen the introduction of the tower crane from the continent to this country in the late Fifties, bringing with it - and herein, I suggest, lay its strength - the need for better organisation and planning of the building site than hitherto thought necessary. Power tools are really a post-war innovation, earth-moving and pile-driving machinery has grown in size and efficiency. And so I could go on. Despite this, productivity has not risen dramatically. It is my contention that productivity, in the sense of more building for less money, is more likely to come from an improvement in the degree of organisation and rationalization of building than through increasing mechanisation.

The United States has, I suggest, industrialised its building industry by rationalising design, by making the cost difference between the one-off and the standard a major consideration and by simplifying, wherever possible, the building process. It has not industrialised by shifting building activities into factories. This latter intrigues me, for I cannot see how in the long run we can avoid it. An amalgam of rationalization and off-site prefabrication is likely to be the answer to increased productivity - and particularly speed of construction - and it is an anachronism I suppose that this amalgam can be seen at work on a uniquely one-off building project in Hong Kong - the new Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank - where the service modules are being made in Japan (the U.K. failed by a whisker to get the contract) and shipped direct to the site. I still cling to the thought that in time not only will skilled site labour as we know it today be very expensive and in short supply - for a number of reasons, but particularly because in most countries site conditions can never be as attractive as factory conditions in so far as recruitment is concerned, but also the international drive for quality will make control all important, and that control is far easier to implement under a factory roof.

The change from quantity to quality is a very real one and stems not only from an increase in the degree of consumer protection legislated for throughout the world but also from the fact that the consequential cost of poor constriction quality is now catching up with us. A great increase in the repair and maintenance and refurbishment fields stems not only from the belief that the post-war momentum in the increase of the stock of buildings can be reduced, but also from the fact that so much of that stock has been poorly designed and/or poorly built.

There are, I fear, serious lessons to be learnt here by those countries which have increased their volume of building without adequate consideration of their own climate or even their capacity to maintain complex equipment. It can of course be argued that it is better to have roofs which leak than to have no roofs at all. The enigma of first costs versus subsequent maintenance costs is a worldwide phenomenon already, but life-cycle costing is in its infancy. Much depends, I suppose, on whether you build to own or build to sell - and how rich and how farsighted you are! There is no gain saying however that the future of the repair and maintenance brigade is very bright indeed! But can one avoid the conclusion that, in the main, future construction in the developed countries will require increasing attention to accuracy and less to craftsmanship as we knew it? The use of computers in design, manufacture and, indeed, the erection of buildings has a bearing on this.

There is, of course, as always, a counter-balancing factor to increasing productivity, namely the plethora of new and ever-increasing regulations, standards, performance specifications and safer codes of practice. The very demand for higher quality is a real challenge to more economic building, but it is a challenge which has to be accepted and met.

This leads one naturally into the debate on innovative methods and new materials. As an industry we are continually being accused of conservatism and opposing change. Recent events make one wonder however whether there are many instances where a rapid change from methods and the use of materials tested over the years had paid off in the short term. I am not talking about fashion, I am talking about technology and defects.

It is not so much the direct effect of the introduction of a new standard or a new material, but the untested side effects on other materials - the quality repercussions from material to material and the interdependence of components. The prime example is the great energy-saving campaign and in particular the increasing standards of insulation being called for. Last year at a conference in Munich I listened to a French scientist telling an international audience how many billions of Francs were being made available by his government for the purpose of better insulation. At the end of his lecture I asked how many billions of Francs were going to be made available to combat the increased condensation resulting from the increased insulation. I didn't get an answer.

The importance of construction research - a particular interest of mine - just cannot be over estimated, but the communication of the results in a really comprehensible and practical form is just as important. I am not referring just to communications within national frontiers, but the need for the exchange of "lessons learnt" on an international basis.

I would like to leave two quite separate thoughts in your minds concerning the future development of materials. The first concerns energy and the need to conserve it in most areas of the world. I accept that technology might one day prove energy conservation as we know it today to have been a waste of time, but I do not think we can plan on that assumption. Materials, with a high energy content in their manufacture may one day be too costly for use in construction. Urgent research is needed into possible substitutes for those high-energy-consuming materials.

Secondly, and to be more specific, I for one need to be reassured about the future softwood timber resources of the world. One hears dramatic tales of acid rain and polluted forests and consumption outstripping re-afforestation. Supposing, just supposing, there is truth in this, what economic substitutes could we turn to for our housebuilding, for our formwork, for our scaffold boards, for our furniture? The imagination boggles. And if you want to frighten yourselves further, then read what the 1983 World Bank Annual Report has to say about the seriousness of the fuelwood situation in the African countries, where fuelwood constitutes up to 80% of the energy sources in the region. Referring to West Africa, for example, it says, "most countries will have to halve their fuelwood consumption by the turn of the century if there are to be any forests left".

Please will somebody establish the true position and allow me to sleep more easily at night - or not, as the case may be!

No paper such as this would be complete without mention of the change in relationships of all of us concerned with the building process. The man who pays the bill for construction has become more important - and rightly so. The architect is no longer automatically the leader of the building team in all countries of the world; the complexity of construction and its economic make-up has seen to that. The quest of the British quantity surveyor to convert overseas countries to the use of his professional expertise has had some success, but his own role has been changing at home while he has been prowling abroad. Specialists now proliferate.

And what of the builder? Who am I to tell the Chartered Institute of Building how successful it has been in increasing the standard of management in the construction industry. But it must set its sights even higher. The requirement for high-calibre management in building throughout the world is almost insatiable, despite the temporary reduction in the overall volume of new building. Indeed, the more difficult the economic conditions, the higher the calibre required of the man directing operations.

There are many other countries in the world who turn out better construction men than we do, dare I say so, and I really do believe that we have a lot to learn from the training of, say, the Bauingineur of West Germany, the Construction Engineer in Sweden or the Site Superintendent of the U.S.A. Too little attention in some countries is given to the status and importance of those who teach building and building management, for herein, I believe, lies the key to a more successful construction industry, no matter where it is located.

It is perhaps appropriate here to refer briefly to the changes over the last few years in the relative strengths of the world's construction industries. So much attention has been paid to the Middle East that we may have missed the phenomenal growth in the Far East. For example, from 1978 to 1983, Japan, with a population of under 120 million, was employing over 5 million people in construction and was averaging about 1.25 million residential buildings per annum. It has probably the most efficient construction industry in the world today and is worthy of much more detailed study than it gets.

It is worth remembering too that over the last twenty years the free market developing countries of Eastern Asia had an average economic growth of 7.5% per annum, admittedly from a fairly low starting base, and what is just as important I suppose, the population growth rates have now started to decline. Korea has expanded its manufactured exports faster than any other country in the world. But China is obviously of enormous interest with its one billion inhabitants.

In 1980, the People's Republic of China took its seat in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It has doubled its exports since then and is now a keen customer of capital goods as well as exports. It has achieved an annual economic growth of 6% over the five years. As the television advertisement would say, it is a market full of eastern promise.

Please forgive me if I end this paper riding a personal economic hobby horse. It is not altogether irrelevant for it concerns possible changes in economic thinking concerning construction in a national context. I may be wrong, but I detect in some countries a move away from using the industry as an economic regulator to just ignoring it altogether! Construction seems to have become a by-product rather than an end product. The economic health of a country does not depend on the economic health of the industry, so the argument runs: indeed, the reverse is true - the health of the construction industry depends on the health of the economy we have become the cart rather than the horse. When the economy is strong, we can turn the tap on again. Till then, let the industry fend for itself.

Interpreted in another way, what is being put forward is that, after three decades of a relatively high volume of building, particularly in the industrialised countries of Europe, the stock of building is now generally adequate, and particularly in the public sector, where responsibility for certain capital investment must lie, such investment can be postponed and must be postponed because of economic circumstances until the sun shines again.

To this, I would say that any country which economises in or postpones construction will, depending on the timescale of that postponement and the size and quality of its building stock, inevitably pay the price of that postponement in terms of economic growth and living standards. It is my belief that in the same way as there is an optimum speed for any building project, which if exceeded or reduced will cost money, there is, in theory anyway, at any one time an optimum capital investment programme required to sustain, or at least not to hinder, national economic growth in the long run. I am prepared to be labelled a Keynesian if necessary in concluding this little economic diatribe by saying that I for one still believe that the construction industries of the world should seriously be considered as the vehicles for economic regeneration.


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