Everyone can tell when you have a big project on site, because you start being philosophical about contractors, or Sympathy for the Construction Industry.  We have a main contractor from over the North Channel, and a cladding contracts manager who is the spit of Samuel Beckett - with an aquiline face and glasses pushed up into his shock of grey hair.

So we shot the breeze.  What conclusion did we reach?  Of the many analogies you can draw to illuminate how building contractors operate – a three ring circus; the Muppet Show; or an anarchists’ symposium – the most apt is that of a medieval court.

In reality, whilst they may see themselves as progressive, the Main Board directors of large contractors actually preside over an organisation which is feudal, and at least 500 years out of date.  Many construction firms cling to hierarchies, and confrontational ways of working – they think of themselves as a conquering army, and as a result, a passion for the fight overtakes good business sense.  Perhaps that explains why their profit margins are so low despite their high turnover and huge amounts of capital employed. 

Yet the power of the analogy really lies in what happens on site.  I’ve watched several of the big contractors at close quarters – the stock market-listed leviathans – and they strongly resemble each other in how they do what they do.  Immediately the contract is let, they arrive on site from elsewhere, much like the medieval court which voyaged around Scotland  and set up in the fields around the castle.  In this case, the tented camp takes the form of the site establishments: the huts.

Hut City is a diagram of the contractor’s power structure.  Although the Lords Temporal aren’t here, room has to be made available in the admin offices for the courtiers, including a Darnley figure in the QS’s room.  Visiting statesmen are accommodated in the meeting room, and there’s a retinue of camp followers who are provided with a staff mess to change into their courtly rigger boots.  The men-at-arms are given a wee buckie and tabards marked “Security”.  Then of course there is the baggage train, who deposit their shipping containers around the standard, just like a stockade.

Everything is painted in the house colours, and that livery even extends to clothing and tool boxes.  Whilst that identifies everyone, it also makes it easy for fifth-columnists to merge with the ranks.  It is surprisingly easy for a spy in the court to move freely: all it takes is a hat and tabard matching all the others wandering around on site.  I know this because I’ve done it, and it proves that “security” on sites is illusory.  Why would you climb the stockade of spiky-topped Heras fencing, when you can walk directly over the drawbridge and in through the main gate?  That’s called being hidden in plain sight.

When a small, country-based builder takes on a project, he puts a portable bog and a tool store on site, then each day two or three of his vans turn up, filled with time-served tradesmen.  By contrast, when the Court of the Crimson King comes to town, the resulting site establishment costs are crippling.  By creating Hut City, you create a hiding place for the site management, who are already far removed from the lads on the tools.  The site is by now a muddy plain resembling a battlefield, churned up by modern siege engines running on crawler tracks.

Don’t be fooled, archaeologists of the present, by the laser rangefinders, hydraulic piledrivers, and all-terrain dumpers: the early stages of construction are still dirty, crude and primitive.  They take as their precedent the work of Dark Ages military engineers (the original “engineers”) who undermined city walls, built massive catapults, and rode in Trojan horses.  Modern methods of construction have nothing on this: wall ties lie strewn like crossbow bolts, towers of scaffolding lay siege, and the impression of a mailed fist marks the place where the M&E sub fell out with the ceiling installers. 

Construction is bad neighbour activity, much like pitched battles, because of the noise, filth, and the fog of war.  At 7.30am sharp, a row of excavators and articulated dumptrucks are started up: the air fills with blue smoke, coarse language and the throbbing of many large capacity diesel engines.  All this reassures the contractor that “there’s something gaein on”, even if he’s “jist steerin up the mud.”

So with his warlike attitude, an army of hangers-on, and the paraphenalia of battle, the big contractor needs to take the fight to the enemy.  Or rather, he opens a second front.  On one hand, the conflict continues with the architect over extras and delays; on the other, the sub-contractors endure a second round of tendering.  In this, they are paying tribute a more powerful force.  The royal house is building up a war chest, and imposing payment terms on the vassals is a good way of accomplishing that. 

Anyhow, the analogy of military misadventure could be spun out for entertainment value, but it can be swiftly routed by noting what came after the Dark Ages … Enlightenment.  250 years ago, architects were called the “Masters of Works”.  A client proposed to construct something: the architect liaised with him, then designed, organised and oversaw building work.  The Adam Brothers offered a turnkey service, much as an architect-developer with a direct project management arm would do today. 

The Victorians, by professionalising design, and splitting it from construction, set us back by several centuries.  That lost time has yet to be recovered.  Only by re-uniting the folk who draw buildings, with the folk who make them, will we drag the construction industry out of its Dark Ages.

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