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If prefabrication is such a good idea, why is the use of this technique such a marginal activity on Britain's building sites?

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technical & practice The point of prefabrication

Sir John Egan's 1998 report, Rethinking Construction, promoted productivity gains as the measure of improvement needed in construction, but the (as was) DETR seems to have abandoned any emphasis on productivity.

Its report, Quality of Life Counts - Indicators for a Strategy for Sustainable Development for the United Kingdom (acknowledging the influence of Factor Four, by Amory Lovins et al), promoted instead labour-intensive work within a sustainable environmental policy.

'In the past, focus has centred mainly on improving labour productivity. In the future, greater emphasis will be needed on resource efficiency.

We need to break the link between continued economic growth and increasing use of resources and environmental impacts.'

1In failing to learn the lesson of the Egan report - to make the most of the workforce by turning to capital intensive manufacturing - the tendency has been to say that Egan was wrong.

Pre-fab motors But Egan was never about making contractors or construction managers behave like production engineers, because they cannot do it. The coercive partnership that exists in the capital intensive manufacturing industry among component suppliers, the assembly corporations and their end-product service-providers, simply does not work in the fragmented and largely labour intensive construction industry. Products are made in a factory, whole, or are assembled cleanly by skilled people.

Admittedly, bad management compounds low productivity and poor quality, but it is hard for good managers to considerably improve productivity and quality on site. Poor tolerances are not accepted within the car manufacturing sector. No car manufacturer would attempt to assemble a car on your drive. But up to 30 per cent of construction is work done to correct poor workmanship or design, and labour is being managed at 40-60 per cent of potential productivity, given the level of technology employed.

2Insufficient time for design is another consequence of the failure to prefabricate architecture. A car requires a few million man-hours of research and development and, while each model gains from all of that thinking-time, the cost is spread across the entire production run.

By contrast, millions of pounds of site-based construction depends on the design-thought afforded by a fraction of the project cost. Smaller and more repetitive developments have less architectural thought in them, sometimes causing further reductions in fees. But the solution should not be to work longer for less.

Poor returns The RIBA Small Practice Survey 2000 shows that nearly 10 per cent of the profession earned less than £10,000 a year, more than 25 per cent of small practitioners earned less than £20,000, with seven per cent receiving less than £25 an hour.

The British construction industry employs about seven per cent of the workforce, or 1.4 million people, who generate about nine per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), or just under £60 billion. The majority of construction firms are small, with 90 per cent of work being undertaken by firms employing fewer than 10 operatives.

3Dependent on that activity are the 63,000 or so professionally registered construction consultants, with an 87,000-strong support staff spread across 19,000 practices. They earned total annual fees of £6.7 billion, with £1 billion coming from overseas.

Architects had 22 per cent of that fee income.

4Divided across 30,000 registered architects at home and abroad, 5each earns more or less than an average of £49,100 annually in professional fees, including any overseas income. No director or associate can draw on that income until architects' salaries and those of the shared support staff are paid, and the practice expenses covered. That is immediately strained by the fact that the top 25 practices had a yearly average practice fee-income per qualified architect, ranging rapidly down from Foster and Partners at more than £260,000 to just under £90,000.

6Designing repetitive forms of accommodation on a bespoke basis has not sustained the status of the architectural profession. Architects are too cheap and, by not addressing the scale of production, they remain unable to confront poor workmanship. There has been a consequent drift into design sub-consultancy.

Yet there is little that clients or contractors seem able to do to raise the quality of on-site production, regardless of time-consuming managerial initiatives. The solution might be for some architects to become employees of prefabricated building manufacturers, if they could ever be established, and to take the drift toward sub-consultancy to its logical extent. This would leave others to concentrate on architecture as an artistic labour of love.

Quality of life The ability to raise output per operative through the application of research and development in mass production is vital for our daily needs and quality of life. Unfortunately, construction has fallen way behind manufacturing in the past 100 years.

'A family house at the beginning of the 20th century cost approximately the same as a family car. By the beginning of the 21st century, the ratio between the two was approximately 5:1.'

7In Building a Crisis - Long-term housing under-supply in England, 8the economist John Stewart has observed, 'à that house building completions in 2000 fell to their lowest level since 1946. Excluding the wartime period 1940-46, completions were at their lowest since 1924.'

Production inertia set in during the late 1970s and '80s. Last year, just 166,400 new homes were completed in Britain. As Stewart says: 'à it is not a question of whether England faces a housing crisis but at what stage it will become undeniable.'

To achieve housing renewal on a 100-year cycle, we need to be building between 225,000 and 250,000 homes annually, even before the estimated household growth after the first decades of the 20th century is considered. It is unlikely that a 100-year life can be realised from most existing stock. A 50-year replacement cycle would require between 450,000 and 500,000 units a year. At their all-time peak in 1968, housing completions had reached 413,700 units a year.

Sustainable inertia Is it beyond Britain to be able to achieve this increase in output, to make the resource efficiency savings and labour productivity gains at the point of new production? If it is, then what hope have we of achieving a sustainable urban renaissance, built on site?

The worst scenario is that neither capital nor labour-intensive construction output will be increased fast enough. Worse still, this low level of growth is being promoted as 'sustainable'. Rather than develop our way to a cleaner and more prosperous future, the British preference is to talk about consuming less and to reinterpret economic inertia as stability.

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) gives construction output and GDP for 1974-2001 as yearly growth rates in 1995 prices.

9This shows the declining amplitude of the 'boom and bust' of the construction industry exceeding the fluctuations of the overall economy.

Also, in the latter half of the 1990s, the modest period of low, but apparently sustained, growth is evident. In 2000, the DETR and the Construction Products Association, gave the following overview:

'The UK economy has a long-run growth rate in the region of 2.5 per cent per annum. Over the period 1968 to 1997, contractors' output has barely grown by one per cent per annum: the trend rate between the cyclical troughs of 1981 and 1993 was 2.2 per cent.'

The British construction industry is simply not strong enough to support the level of environmental renewal needed. For a reversal of the trend a high-growth economy is needed - in other words, the very thing that is considered 'unsustainable'.

Yet it would be possible to draw a horizontal line at any height up the CITB graph, and declare that to be the target for sustainability in either GDP or construction output. The problem is that such a high-growth target would not be a credible British policy option.

Major investors, wanting readilytradable stock, look for companies which have capital valuations of between £3 billion and £5 billion, and 'à the capacity to be world class', but there is only a handful of British construction companies in this league because of inadequate growth in the past. Rather than take risks, investors encourage the impulse to regulate the economy.

For Ben Ami , the danger of financial instability is an exaggeration, while the problem of economic atrophy is understated. Forceful economic growth has been redefined as potentially destabilising and unsustainable. A backward construction industry is presented as a prudent economic policy. The investors needed to solve the low levels of both labour productivity and resource efficiency, through a scale of prefabrication in Britain, appear to be lacking.

Alongside many architects, investors seem to dismiss the level of growth required for prefabrication, as unsustainable. Without the labourproductivity of prefabrication, there will always be low growth in architectural output and minimal resource efficiencies, ensuring that architects will make both an inadequate environmental impact and a poor living.

Where is the quality of life in that?

Ian Abley is an architect and co-editor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, to be published by Wiley-Academy in December 2001.

E-mail abley@audacity. org REFERENCES:

1.The Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, John Prescott MP, foreword to Quality of Life Counts - Indicators for a Strategy for Sustainable Development for the United Kingdom: A Baseline Assessment , DETR,1999, page 4.

2. Rethinking Construction , the report of the Construction Task Force chaired by Sir John Egan, DETR,1998, page 18.

3. Construction Industry Training Board, Construction Workforce Development Planning Brief - 2001-05, CITB,2001, pages 10-13.

4. Davis Langdon Consultancy for the CIC and DETR, Survey of UK Construction Professional Services - Survey Results, part 1, Construction Industry Council, 1997, headline findings.

5. ARB, Architects Registration Board Annual Report - 1999-2000.

6. AJ Top 100 (AJ 22.3.01, page 53).

7. Allan Ashworth and Keith Hogg, Added Value in Design and Construction , Pearson Education, Longman,2000, preface, page XI.

8. John Stewart, Building a Crisis - Long-term housing under-supply in England , draft of an unpublished report researched for the House Builders Federation, kindly provided to Ian Abley in support of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age .

9. Construction Industry Training Board, Construction Workforce Development Planning Brief - 2001-2005, CITB, 2001, page 11.

10. Davis Langdon & Everest, A study of the UK building materials sector , DETR and the Construction Products Association, September 2000, page 17.

11. Daniel Ben Ami, Cowardly Capitalism - The myth of the global financial casino , John Wiley & Sons, 2001, page 154.

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