July 25, 2014 2:26 pm

Why building a house today is no quicker than in the 18th century

My first boss forbade the use of a first-class stamp except in the case of exceptional emergency

Have you noticed the summer slowdown? You start by worrying that something’s gone horribly wrong. You’re getting fewer emails, but it’s not because you’re suddenly irrelevant or because there’s less to do. This was the week that Britain started going on holiday. People have stopped writing emails. And while your inbox can breathe a sigh of relief, so too, can your mind.

The startling news, reported in last weekend’s FT, that the German government is considering a move to the typewriter for the production of the most sensitive of documents (unhackable as the humble typewriter is, in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations) prompted me to reflect on a deeper fact in the life cycle of the office. It wasn’t so long ago that I started working; in an era where none of us had emails, and the mobile phone was a crassly embarrassing novelty. But the office where I started my professional life was a backwater even then. The fax machine was banned; meeting notes were dictated, and a stack of little tapes joined a typing queue that could take a day or two to emerge. My cheerfully Luddite boss, Charles Morris (best known perhaps as the architect to that other great admirer of technology, The Prince of Wales), forbade the use of a first-class stamp except in the case of an exceptional emergency; testament to his view that next-day deliveries were the sign of a lazy mind. Twenty years later, we email out vast packages of information like Tesco lorries servicing shelves.

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IN House & Home

A couple of years ago, I spent a week working with Charles on a collaboration, and found myself once again in the dreamy, beamy oak-framed attic of the old Norfolk manor house where he has his architectural office. From the secretaries’ room came the curious sound of an electric typewriter, clacking away one line at a time. I remember at the time thinking what a bizarre noise it was. Has anyone studied the ever-increasing silence of the world of work? Imagine the bustle of the 20th-century office; and picture my architectural practice today, where people sit in silence, gently tapping the elegant, soft-touch keys of gleaming, aluminium-cased Macs. It is as if we have taken a monastic vow, the better to worship these altars of speed and purity. I hesitate, sometimes, to pick up the phone for fear of disturbing the peace. I’m beginning to wonder if I miss the sound of the typewriter. Perhaps the Germans are on to something, after all?

. . .

The work, at the end of the day, is the same, but the number of man hours required to achieve it is not

For noise has been replaced by speed, and speed of information is king or that is how it appears until I looked at evidence from my own working life. I have two types of client and builder. One is very quick to respond to every question. An inquiry flies from each to the other, via our office, and is sent on with the flick of a finger. The replies are often startlingly instant. “But you’re a powerful banker, and you’re in a different timezone,” I think to myself. “How can it possibly be more important to tell me which hook you’d like on the shower door than to do what you’re meant to be doing.” (There is one golden rule, of course for these people: never ask more than one question at a time. You will rarely get a reply to those).

Other clients play things differently. They write letters (and cheques) by hand. Decisions are made every six weeks in a design meeting. We don’t speak for weeks and we rarely hear back. And the curious thing is: those are the jobs that sometimes move most quickly.

Despite advances in technology, it still takes 18 to 24 long, dark, muddy months to build a house. In that regard, nothing has changed since the 18th or 19th century, except that then it might have taken three weeks for the architects’ instruction to reach the site; and whereas then a major country house might have needed four drawings to describe it, today there are 4,000. If economists wonder about declining efficiencies in 21st-century economies, perhaps they need to start looking here; the work, at the end of the day, is the same, but the number of man hours required to achieve it is not. The real work happens at the same pace it has always happened. A brick is put on top of another brick, by hand, by a bricklayer – who didn’t get to where he was by building brickwork fast; he does it beautifully, and at exactly the right pace. A wall takes the same time to build today as it did in 1920 or 1720. And it doesn’t matter how fast your broadband is.

Ben Pentreath is an architectural and interior designer

David Tang is on leave

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