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Two ethnographic narratives of construction craftwork in action a comparison of housebuilding and building conservation_RWBrett.pdf (3.48 MB)

Two ethnographic narratives of construction craftwork in action: a comparison of housebuilding and building conservation

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posted on 2023-11-21, 16:24 authored by Richard Brett

Workers in the construction industry are sometimes labelled as craftworkers. This is used to convey the manual nature of the work they do. However, in anthropology and philosophy, the work activity of craft is an authentic way of being in the world. Some of the essential characteristics of craftwork are, for example, skill and engagement with a (typically) manual task. Craftwork results in things of high quality because it pursues perfection.

Housebuilding and building conservation are two sectors of UK construction wedded to manual production methods but with different craft narratives. In mainstream housebuilding, the word ‘craft’ is used by developers to build a narrative of quality and care, which, while plausible because manual workers are the key resource, is undermined by the use of prefabricated components and abundant quality failures, making the narrative inauthentic. In building conservation, craftworkers provide the necessary authenticity for the fabric-first philosophy of conservation which requires like-for-like repairs and the use of traditional or sympathetic materials and techniques. This research examines these two work settings because they share craft as a common word but use it in different ways As such, work activities are not defined in a binary manner as being craft or not. It is the extent to which these activities resonate with the meaning of craft that is investigated. Comparing these work settings provides a new narrative of craftwork that addresses the potential misnomer in the way housebuilders describe the activities of their manual workers.

Craft research is often accomplished through an ethnographic methodology because it affords an intimate nexus of researcher, participant, and context. Construction management research is slowly seeing the emergence of ethnography as a research approach, but the temporalities and dynamism of construction sites are obstacles to successful ethnography. The response here is a short-term ethnographic methodology that generates rapid and extensive data collection from a short spell in the field, leading to the rich findings that are the essential hallmark of good ethnography. Video cameras are used during the fieldwork alongside traditional fieldnotes. The resulting digital media enables ongoing re-engagement with fieldwork. The dialogue between theory and observation continues long after the end of the fieldwork to generate intense analysis. Two ethnographic episodes are undertaken with the researcher acting as a minimally participating observer. The first is on a speculatively developed housebuilding site. The second is on a building conservation site. The resulting ethnographic narratives reveal the presence or absence of craftwork in the mundane, unexceptional everyday activities of construction workers in each setting.

Comparative discussion establishes that skill and autonomy are present among workers in both settings. What separates them is an engagement and confidence in the work that pervades the conservation site and not the housebuilding site. Above all, the conservation site workers are resolutely more determined to define the way they do their work. In doing so, they demonstrate an authenticity lacking from the housebuilders and thereby lay a greater claim to being craftworkers. The housebuilding site betrayed a lack of confidence and capability among workers who did not have the knowledgeable, problem-solving outlook found in the conservation workers. Use of the word craft in relation to housebuilding was found to be a misnomer. The findings show project context serves to enable or restrict the craft potentialities of workers. The conservation workers are indulged with time to enable them to be craftworkers. Contrastingly, the production pressures of housebuilding prioritise quick work. Housebuilding materials and techniques are more akin to assembly than making. Working in this context is not conducive to craft practice. Workers building houses are not allowed or expected to undertake acts of craft. The comparison to building conservation, where craftwork is a central project tenet, amplifies the absence of craft in housebuilding. Further, an important insight from the conservation site is that craftsmanship is not a rare gift. This study establishes that it can be acquired quickly in the right context.



  • Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering


Loughborough University

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© Richard Brett

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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Derek Thomson ; Scott Fernie

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  • PhD

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  • Doctoral

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