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Last edited 10 Sep 2020
Workmanship in construction
Trade skills in construction began to be recognised in the late middle ages. The crafts of carpentry, masonry and ironwork dominated construction before the emergence of design professions. Many of the city guilds can trace their origins to this era. During the industrial revolution, the term 'workmanship' also started to apply to engineering and manufacturing.
Britain emerged from the Second World War with a construction industry dominated by some very large contractors that had grown from war time work and faced the future of rebuilding Britain ravaged by the Blitz. Wimpey were the biggest of these contractors largely directly employing all the labour necessary to execute its projects. Taylor Woodrow, even with half the annual turnover of Wimpey, employed 40,000 people.
These large contractors often included specialist subsidiaries and each managed large apprentice schemes across the building trades. Apprenticeships were at the heart of training a skilled labour force. These large construction companies were managed, both at site and board level, by people from a trade background that had progressed up the management ladder.
Under such a regime and with a mobile labour force moving from project to project, any lack of skill was spotted by a trades foreman within hours of starting work and 'cards and money' and a dismissal notice were ready by the end of the working day.
In the 1960s, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT), Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) and other trade unions became very strong and flexed their muscles by targeting a number of high profile sites for industrial action. Liverpool and London were famous for this type of disruption to projects. Horseferry Road, Shell House and the Barbican were notorious problem jobs.
As a result the larger contractors 'de-risked' labour problems by sub-contracting trade work to 'labour only' trade organisations who were too small and financially weak to be targets for industrial action. However, in this new, highly-competitive market with narrow margins there was no room or money, let alone organisation, for apprenticeship schemes.
With the change from trade management to graduate management, and the reduction in apprenticeships there has been a tendency for designers to move site trade skills to factories that produce components and assemblies, leaving minimal installation skill required on site. This shift has re-focused the designer’s attention on detailing and specification writing, guided by numerous national standards, regulations and procedures for certification.
The imposition of building information modelling (BIM) on the industry by the government and parts of the private sector is an opportunity for the construction materials manufacturing industry to further automate their production machinery, reducing manual skills required even in the factory.
Workmanship has been moving further and further down the supply chain, with less reliance on manual tasks. It has also been a question of economic viability in respect of labour rates. It is no coincidence that highly-skilled, intricate manual work is abundant in those parts of the world where labour is cheap.
However, in a few instances UK clients will pay extra for hand carving or highly skilled work, often through the direct employment of 'artisans and tradesmen'. The use of hand-carved stone in the cladding for Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square is one good example.
 Regulations and standards
- Building Regulations 2010 edition 2013 Regulation 7 for use in England.
- Approved document 7 Materials and workmanship.
- European Regulation 305/201/EU-CPR 1st Jul 2013 which governs conformity to the EUROPEAN Technical Assessment and its CE marking on building products.
- BS EN ISO 9000 which covers systems and a series of standards.
- BS 8000 Codes of practice and workmanship on building sites in 17 parts:
- Introduction and general principles
- Concrete (mixing and transport).
- Carpentry and joinery.
- Roof tiling and claddings.
- Plasterboard and dry lining.
- Floor screed.
- Not used.
- Wall and floor tiling.
- Painting and decorating.
- Above ground drainage and sanitary fittings.
- Below ground drainage.
- Domestic hot and cold water services.
- NBS (National building specification) provides inter-related specifications and information on over 5,000 proprietary products and systems used in construction.
'Building work shall be carried out-
(a) with adequate and proper materials which –
- are appropriate for the circumstances in which they are used,
- are adequately mixed or prepared, and
- are applied, used or fixed so as adequately to perform the functions for which they are deigned; and
(b) in a workmanlike manner,'
Approved document 7, Materials and workmanship, states that in relation to workmanship, 'you will meet the requirements of regulation 7 if… Workmanship is such that, where relevant, materials are adequately mixed or prepared and applied, used or fixed so as to perform adequately the functions for which they are intended.'
The contractor’s obligation is to carry out and complete the works in a proper and workmanlike manner as shown on the contract documents. This means that the contractor must carry out the works with reasonable skill and care, to the reasonable satisfaction of the contract administrator.
Disputes often arise as to whether or not workmanship is in accordance with the specifications. However, it should be possible to verify standards by testing, inspection, mock-ups and samples, and documentation such as manufacturer's certificates. If specific tests are to be required these will need to be set out in the contract documents.
Workmanship has come under particular scrutiny recently as the standard of specification has increased, and it has become more common to test completed buildings to assess whether they are performing as expected. Poor workmanship can be particularly apparent with issues such as sound proofing, insulation performance and air-tightness. This difference between anticipated and actual performance is known as the performance gap.
The standard of workmanship can be improved by providing adequate training, appropriate instructions and clear checklists as well as ensuring there is on-site supervision and monitoring and an ongoing process of feedback to ensure continuous improvement.
On large projects (over £20m) it may be appropriate to appoint a resident site inspector (sometimes referred to as a clerk of works) to inspect the construction works as they proceed on behalf of the client. The site inspector provides an independent assessment of the works and will generally report to the contract administrator.
On very large projects it may be appropriate to have separate site inspectors for mechanical and electrical services, structural works and architectural works. It is important to note that site inspectors in this context do not supervise the works (which might be perceived as taking some responsibility for the works, when in fact the contractor is responsible for them), they merely inspect the works in order to give an independent view to the contract administrator.
NB: In a submission to the Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools in 2016, The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) criticised the transfer of responsibility from construction professionals to other parties less involved with the design process and sited the dilution of the role of the design team as one of the causes of poor quality construction.
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