Craftsmanship and QA

Standing at our local bus stop the other day, I pondered the miserable structure that purported to offer shelter from the heavy rain blowing in on the prevailing wind. Worse still, its gutter-less roof pitched south-west towards the road so the water sheeted down and puddled around our feet.

With its uncomfortable sloping bench seat this shelter is a product of one of several British companies who seem to have collectively cornered a substantial share of a global market created back in 1964. Then, young French entrepreneur Jean-Claude Decaux persuaded the municipality of Lyons to allow him to build bus shelters and keep them clean in return for roadside advertising rights which were then illegal in France. Decaux, who also personally designed the Sanisette self-cleaning public toilet that put paid to the infamous pissoirs of Paris, died in 2016 worth some $6.2 billion! There’s obviously big money in bus shelters….

One manufacturer’s website claims its vision is:

‘To enrich the personal mobility experience with meticulously designed innovative technology, designed by creative thinkers that craft compelling visions for a better way.’

I pondered these words as the rain slowly soaked through my shoes. Ambition and promise yet again cruelly savaged by reality.

And vis a vie my discomfort, was the installation simply at fault, or was the rain meant to cascade off the front onto the heads and down the collars of those alighting their buses? Or had (as I suspect) the shelter’s roof simply been laid to fall ‘forward’ by mistake? Maybe the whole thing had been installed ‘back to front’ for I know of at least one other seemingly identical shelter that faces away from the road, thus protecting its occupants from the spray thrown up by passing traffic in inclement weather. That shelter’s roof discharges rainwater into the roadway gutter.

My journey’s end that day was Seville. There the old historic centre offers a rich array of craftsmanship celebrated in the vast iron grills across windows, the elegant tracery of the metalwork from which the glazed balconies are constructed, and the beautifully carved doorways and window shutters, whilst its ironmongery, decorated mosaic tiling, and plaster reliefs combine to offer a veritable feast to the eye. The result: a rich backdrop to every street, square, alleyway, and courtyard.

But what impresses most is the consistency of quality: those medieval guys, be they blacksmiths or joiners, stonemasons, or bricklayers, all knew what they were doing, and they all knew how to deliver on quality, despite their lack of ISO operational systems and the like.

So how could my short stay in the bus shelter back home have emerged as such a wretched experience? Was it design failure, despite that suppliers’ claims of craft compelling visions…(whatever they might be)….or was it construction failure? 

The truth is that craft and nous at site level, as witnessed in Seville and a thousand and more other towns and cities around the world, remains in decline as an ever increasing proportion of buildings are manufactured remotely from systemised, factory produced components and products.

And with the progressive de-skilling of site labour and the consolidation of Design and Build as the preferred procurement route, the fundamental relationship between designer and installer is compromised if not severed completely. What chance quality?

No problem cry the advocates of ISO 9001: QA will solve it all. But the evidence emerging from the largest Inquiry ever undertaken in relation to UK construction is that despite the Quality Management systems and protocols so loudly proclaimed by our construction industry, all has been far from well. That is very much my experience in dozens of forensic investigations that now span back across some four decades: quality is all too often compromised by modern construction processes. This despite the ascendancy of ISO, and the claim that QA protocols can underpin all services from professional design to manufacture, and from assembly right through to delivery and handover.

ISO is of course not an acronym, coming instead from the Greek word isos meaning equal, and its origins can be traced back to the medieval guilds of 13th century Europe. Their inspection marks on products and work served as an endorsement of quality but come the Industrial Revolution, and the transition to factory manufactured components, those responsible for construction on site became ever more de-skilled. With that was lost the sense of empowerment, autonomy, and ownership and outputstended to be audited, if at all, after completion rather than during assembly. This, despite the claims of the ‘tick-box’ brigade, is a harsh truth that must be faced.

The later 19th century had seen further breaks with the traditions of craft and worker self-auditing processes as, particularly in the USA, the goals turned to ever greater productivity against a further de-skilling of the workforce, but come World War II the US Government saw the urgent need to improve quality: unsafe military equipment could not be tolerated and checking regimes were introduced to ramp up standards.

All this was subsequently fed into the manufacturing operations of Japan during the post-war reconstruction of its economy. Consequently, the quality of Japanese goods which had hitherto been notoriously bad (seriously impacting on its performance in combat) was ramped up. Aided by America, Japanese manufacturing was subjected to the ‘total quality’ approach: TQM (Total Management Quality) was thus born, and Japanese manufacturing systems rather than products became the focus of scrutiny. The rest is of course history: Toyota, Honda and in Europe Mercedes, Audi and BMW, swept the floor as, for the next four decades or so, UK manufacturers languished ever further behind in the value/quality proposition.

But while the ISO systems may have done much to improve product manufacturing qualities in areas such as car and plane production, its beneficial impact on the construction industry – certainly in this country – has been far less effective. Perhaps that’s because cars leave factories in finished form, good to go, but products destined for incorporation into buildings must still be assembled on site by people who have at least some knowledge of, and skill in, construction. Against that most obvious of principles, those overseeing UK construction work are increasingly drawn from the ranks of surveyors and managers whose training and value systems focus on timetable, speed of assembly and cut-throat cost reductions. And of course, risk transfer ever further down the line, and into ever more fragmented and remote quarters of the supply chain.

I can hear the howl of those that I have offended already, but perhaps, just perhaps, they should take a weekend to enjoy Seville and then go sit in my local bus shelter.