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Why you can't compare cars with buildings

£540 for repairing a scratch that hadn't even penetrated the base coat of two doors - I was appalled!

Considering the immense technological sophistication of modern cars - the on-board computer power of the bmw 7 series far outstrips that of the Apollo mooncraft - it is really quite ridiculous that this minor paint- job, involving perhaps two men for half a day, can represent some 10 per cent of a three-year-old car's trade-in value.

I tell this story as a counterpoint to the inappropriate comparisons that are so forcefully made in the recently published Egan Report, which on the one hand chastises the allegedly slow and crude design and construction shambles that pertains to building, while on the other commends the super- efficient and sophisticated design and manufacturing process that supposedly underpins the motor industry' s presumed success.

We all know it's possible, and highly desirable, to reduce capital costs and defects in buildings, and of course we should reduce the relatively high level of accidents and fatalities that occur with grim regularity on our sites. It may even be possible to economise further on construction time while increasing 'predictability, productivity and profit', but unfavourable comparison with the highly automated and controlled mass production of our manufacturing industries is of limited value.

The Egan Report also calls for greater standardisation: 'houses [are] essentially repeat products . . . ' Again, apparently sensible, but complete nonsense when subjected to any real scrutiny.

People delight in their hi-fi and motor car conveying an image of state- of-the-art technology, the latest in digital displays boldly proclaiming man's ever-increasing superiority over nature. In contrast, the housebuilders pander very successfully to a more primitive craving for individuality and craft in that most basic human requirement: shelter. In this respect, no one can deny - however derisory the efforts are of those who serve this market with their Tudor 'titbits' tacked on to otherwise banal designs - that the housebuilders know their market.

In contrast, whether it's Foster at Milton Keynes, Stirling at Runcorn, or lesser-known architects at Harlow or Hertford, housing has been generally unpopular when made of 'crinkly tin', or standardised panel systems.

Sir John, it seems, does not recognise these consumer constraints on standardisation, but I bet he doesn't park his Jaguar outside a mass-produced house!

To put it bluntly, little good will accrue from making bald criticisms of the building industry that are based on false or inappropriately applied analysis. Sir John Egan wouldn't, of course, dare to compare the efficiency, economy, and reliability of the building industry with that of another area of his beloved motor car industry, the repair workshop - he knows only too well that for mechanical and bodywork jobs alike, we suffer an extremely expensive and all-too-often abysmal service (and, let's s face it, the demands on paint sprayers and fitters are pretty light when set against the tasks of our major building companies).

It doesn' t take long to work out why car bodywork is so expensive: it is largely non-repetitive, unpredictable in complexity, and highly demanding in terms of co-ordination and direction of labour and materials, both of which must be ordered and organised on a 'job-by-job' basis. Rather like the building industry, really!

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