The origins of Murphy’s Law – that everything that can go wrong, will – apparently lie in aeronautics, but could easily have arisen from the building industry. Building is to housing as sex is to human life. It’s impossible to consider one without the other and yet the relationship between how we build and maintain our homes and how we live in them often appear to be poles apart. The estate where I work is about to embark on a six-month programme of improvement works and I suspect that Murphy’s Law will be fully tested.
The contract hasn’t really begun yet, but already some familiar fault-lines are appearing. Communication between some of the key players, particularly the triangle of the Council, its main contractor and residents, hasn’t got off to a great start and when a basic piece of administration didn’t happen at the end of last week, there was an instant reflex to point the finger of blame, leaving me with a sense of foreboding about what’s to come, but why is it that we embark on building projects with a level of anxiety more suited to open heart surgery?
The anxiety probably starts with our alienation from the biological instinct to have shelter that began when we moved out of caves and got somebody else to thatch the roof or dobe the wall. The self-buld movement seeks to reconnect us with the process of taking direct control of our habitat and so, unwittingly, do shanty towns, but I don’t think this is a solution to our housing needs. However, the act of ‘sub contracting’, which is endemic to the construction industry, is at the root of many of its problems.
In the early 1970s, there was a union-led campaign against ‘The Lump’ i.e. sub-contracted labour in the building trade. When I was a labourer on sites in the 80s the term was used with disapproval by some of my relatives because it signified low wages, poor working conditions and casualisation. Today the practice of multiple layers of sub-contracting isn’t even questioned and has spread like a disease into other sectors, causing manifold problems that are illustrated by my experience this morning. Today I’ve spoken to people from four different organisations involved in ‘setting up’ the site for the works we’re having: four different companies, with four different contracts, four different lines of communication and accountability – and this is just the start. You also have to multiply the procedural bureaucracy around construction, which has become increasingly complex (partly for good reasons about health and safety) and therefore, legalistic and again, this can only add to overall costs and potential frustrations.
I desperately want this work to go well. The improvements should benefit residents and insure the future of the estate, but I’m not optimistic. The Russian Doll nature of the industry also conceals a culture that often seems to encourage Murphy’s Law. There’s no short answer to any question of ‘culture’ and I may return to this, but there’s a level of cynicism in the building trade that’s legitimised from the top-down, where the drive for profit filters down through over-pricing, to exploitation and corner-cutting, ending with the demoralised cry of despair I saw scrawled on the site toilet wall thirty years ago – ‘Fuck the Job!.