Mark Addis, Birmingham City University
Philosophy meets construction? Not a natural mix you might think, but a research project shows that thinking about the ‘whys’ can help the industry improve its image
There are some strange things in the world, but one of the strangest must surely be a philosopher involved with construction. However, I recently ran the Philosopher in Residence in Construction Companies project at Birmingham City University, along with Professor David Boyd of the construction department. The project, funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Transfer Fellowship, involved interviewing members of staff at Thomas Vale, Mouchel and Rider Levett Bucknall.
At first glance, construction seems to be the most distant of any discipline from philosophy. But the two connect through practice being about knowing as well as doing — in other words, greater understanding leads to better practice. Philosophy asks the basic question “why?” and through the project we met many people, from bricklayers to senior managers, who were interested in the “whys” of their practice. In construction, the pretence tends to be that it is all about getting our hands dirty and doing the job without thinking too much about it. The reality is somewhat different.
Our project showed that there are a number of activities in construction where the reality and the representation of it are not the same. This matters because the representation is what people without detailed knowledge of the industry — clients, decisions-makers and the public — take to be the case. And these differences between reality and representation contribute to the poor reputation that construction continues to have with the public.
Construction Manager’s May cover story highlighted the problems the construction industry has in communicating with the public and the need to do this better.
Part of improving the reputation of the industry involves producing better accounts of the really skilled work that takes place on sites every day, and our goal was to help these firms and the wider industry find a new language to communicate what they do.
The project highlighted a divergence between the kind of knowledge which the industry said was needed, and the sort of knowledge actually used. If asked, many people, both inside and outside the industry, would say that the knowledge that matters in construction is factual, or technical. However, this contrasts with the experience of actually working in the industry, which often involves non-factual knowledge about how to handle particular situations, especially dealing with people appropriately.
Accounts of what goes on in construction tend to be reductive and factual with the result the industry needlessly sells itself short. Work is described in terms that make it seem simpler than it really is. For example, we interviewed a carpenter involved in the refurbishment of kitchens under the Decent Homes programme. The specification of the work included boxing in pipework. The abstract representation of this task sounds simple — here is a pipe which needs a box putting round it. However, the reality is that the carpenter has to negotiate the physical space, the tenant (who might possibly be awkward), and the time constraints. None of the high-level technical and people skills required are captured by the abstract representation of the task.
Failing to employ the right concepts to describe what happens in construction makes it hard to communicate the achievements of the industry effectively. Using the wrong concepts to describe things is like using the wrong tools for the job. Part of improving the reputation of construction involves producing better accounts of the really skilled work that goes on in sites every day.
Philosophical thinking enables greater clarity about these kinds of issues, giving us the intellectual space and confidence to engage with people outside the industry. Better discussion about the practice of construction involves a greater understanding of its nature. Improving the image of construction is complex, but finding the right language is an essential first step.
Mark Addis is Professor of Philosophy at Birmingham City University