Vox pop: What can today’s industry learn from the way things were in the 1950s?
David Knifton, business development director, Clegg Construction
When I think of the fifties, I think of all the prefab homes that went up after the war because of the desperate housing shortage. Yes, it got over a problem, but the prefab solution didn’t work long-term, nor did the high-rise blocks we put up in the 1960s. We’ve got a similar housing shortage today, but the lesson we have to take from the 50s is not to build prefabs or high-rise! If that means opening up greenfield sites, so be it — the alternatives risk storing up problems for the future.
Vance Babbage MCIOB, director, B&M Babbage
I’ve been talking to my dad, who went into building in 1952 straight from National Service, and he talks about the days when a bricklayer would go to work with a tie on. We need to bring back the general appreciation of good craftsmanship, which was so evident in the 1950s. Back then, bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers and joiners were as valued as doctors, dentists and other construction professionals.
Training was much more thorough in the fifties, apprenticeships would last five years and even when completed, it wasn’t automatically assumed that you were able to lay a line, cut roof rafters or paint a room, you were always learning as a journeyman.
Today mobile phones and the internet place everyone under constant pressure to react quickly and be on call 24/7, but back then a simple quotation for a job could be a month’s work by the time you’d written to the client, arranged a meeting, discussed the work and reflected on the job.
Bernard Keogh MCIOB, MD, Arque Construction
In the fifties the onus was on building houses as cheaply and quickly as possible after the war, so there was a refreshing simplicity without the architectural bells and whistles we expect today. The quality of construction was higher because they tended to use natural raw materials, such as solid timber floorboards.
Today we live in a highly regulated industry, but actual quality checks on site are severely lacking. Back then, an apprentice would be answering directly to a mason, who would in turn answer to the foreman etc. It was far more hierarchical, so work was properly supervised and quality was ensured. Today we trust tradesmen to go out and do a good job and mistakes don’t get picked up as easily.
Janet Wood MCIOB, Retired from contractor Faulkner Wood
Regulation was a lot simpler in the fifties, there was a more common sense approach and documents were easy to understand and read. We could easily trim the verbiage from a lot of our documents. During the war, the government set up a number working parties to produce reports on how the country would cope after the war, which included the Simon Report on building contracts, which was short and to the point. In subsequent decades we’ve revisited the same subject of this report through the Emerson Report in 1962, and more recently the Latham and Egan reports, which have gradually increased in size and complexity, but essentially deal with the same topics of being organised, identifying client needs, and managing the supply chain.
Phillip Hall MCIOB, MD, Hall Construction
I was born in the fifties and completed my apprenticeship with a contractor established during that decade, an old-fashioned firm with a joinery shop, a masons shop, and plumbing and electrical shop. I’ve noticed today’s industry reverting to the old ways of doing things. For example, in the fifties there was very little materials wastage, recycling was a daily activity and waste was picked up on a site and taken back to the yard for reuse.
Back then it was an exciting time for construction and there was energy around the idea of rebuilding Britain. Today we need more of that energy to attract more people to get involved.
Nick Riley, director, Lewis & Hickey Architects
Architecture in the 1950s was heavily influenced by cost and speed of construction. There was still a significant lack of housing and materials were limited. All of this led to the introduction of pre-fabricated building systems such as CLASP, used extensively for schools. This offered cheap, simple and fast modular building systems. Today we share a lot of the same challenges that existed in the fifties, and “offsite” building solutions are again becoming more prevalent.