Structural issues: the cost of material and the value of labour

Architectural review june 2021

I make a living selling cakes. The recipe has two ingredients: egg and flour. The proportions are astonishingly flexible: I can use more egg and less flour or vice versa. Cake baking is really taking off, so the government decides to collect taxes from cake-makers. In order to do this, they make the arbitrary decision to tax the egg by 20 per cent. This makes the egg relatively more expensive than the flour. Very soon, all the cake-makers are trying to make cakes with the smallest amount of egg possible. There is a reduction in egg sales. Tax receipts drop accordingly, meaning the government has to increase the rate of tax on eggs to 30 per cent to get their pound. This, in turn, causes further reduction in egg use. Cakes everywhere are now very floury. Flour production has ramped up dramatically. Agriculture has tipped heavily towards intensive grain production, which has damaged the soil and created a dust bowl. Colossal ‘black blizzards’ rise up over these limitless wheat fields and blow through our towns and cities, suffocating forgotten batteries of millions of starving hens. This is called tax distortion.

Instead of flour and eggs, imagine we had material and labour and, instead of making a cake, we were making a building. Material (including energy) is the flour and labour is the egg. Labour is heavily taxed but materials for new buildings are hardly taxed at all. Under these circumstances, as with the cake, I would be inclined to minimise the amount of labour I used in proportion to material: more flour, less egg. Not only would I try to reduce site labour but I would also try to reduce management and design. I would design things very quickly, with considerable rationalisation to minimise design labour. I would design things that were buildable with fewer people using the brute processes of machines favouring repetition and standardisation. Because everything is designed and built for the worst-case scenario, these rationalisations naturally engender overuse of material. As with the floury cake, this overuse of material also has consequences. 

When we think about waste, we think about leftovers. We envision piles of disregarded material that will be thrown into landfill. Waste also means unnecessary use of material. When you look at a completed building, you don’t see waste but you should. It is more than likely that the building is 30 per cent heavier than it needed to be due to labour-saving rationalisation. 

In concrete buildings, heavy ‘flat slabs’ proliferate while thin shells or waffles are rare. Flat formwork is faster to make. Heavy ‘I’ section steel beams are standard instead of lighter trusses because the rolling mill is cheaper than the human welder. Flat CLT slabs are preferred to natural timber carpentered by hand on-site. Hundreds of tonnes of concrete are poured into mass concrete footings because it’s quicker to dig straight trenches with an excavator than to vary their widths. 

In the past we used to think of waste as a crime against the needy. Now waste is also a crime against the environment: it means carbon, pollution and extinction. Until the end of the 20th century, our preoccupation was with producing enough food and material for everyone to live decent lives. The idea that humans could damage the planet might have seemed presumptuous a century ago. Suddenly there were seven billion of us. Now the idea that the planet will survive us seems presumptuous. 

The problem is that so much of our ingrained behaviour has come from the former period, including our tax system. In the UK, income tax was introduced by William Pitt the Younger in 1798 to finance the Napoleonic Wars and bolster another distorting fiscal measure, the window tax. Today income tax and national insurance account for about 45 per cent of all taxes raised; while new-build construction is exempt from VAT, fuel duty is only 4 per cent and the aggregates levy, for example, raises only 0.05 per cent. This system of taxation favours capital over labour. If I set up a factory full of workers, I would indirectly pay a lot of tax. If, instead, I invest in machines to do their jobs, I would pay hardly any. Corporation tax is on profit and the cost of feeding and watering robots is tax-deductible. Not so with labour. The tax is taken from wages before humans pay for their food. 

Many people have called for tax policy to be set to counter carbon use. Writing in 2019 in The Guardian, John Vidal said that we should tax cement and other high-carbon materials directly, returning the proceeds to people as tax breaks. He argued that carbon taxes and trading measures adopted so far have been ineffective in changing industrial behaviour. On the issue of tax inequality between machines and humans, Bill Gates says robots should be taxed to pay for the social adjustment of the people whose jobs they are replacing. New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has called for an automation policy designed to protect the 36 million jobs that may be made obsolete by technology by 2030. As early as 1976, Walter Stahel wrote The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy, with the idea that human labour used in repair and maintenance could replace the energy costs associated with discarding and remanufacturing broken products with machines. All these issues arise from the cost of labour relative to machines and the idea that it isn’t worth our time to be materially frugal. 

In the 1950s, Félix Candela and Eladio Dieste were part of a cohort of engineers working in Latin America designing thin shell structures. These highly efficient structural forms use a fraction of the material of conventional structures. Although they take much longer to design and need curved formwork, which is much more laborious to build, in that time and place labour was cheap and material was expensive. Pier Luigi Nervi was probably working under similar circumstances during the same period in Italy, where hyper-efficient structures like the ribbed dome of the Palazzetto dello Sport are arrestingly beautiful and take on a sophistication normally only seen in the natural world. This all but forgotten architectural movement is now seen as an exotic ‘future of the past’ and was long ago snuffed out by economics, but it could indicate the nature of a new future. 

In this future we could shift the tax burden from labour to material. The cost of lazy material use is now so high that the client is incentivised to carefully choose and pay higher fees to designers with a track record of doing more with less. There are now audited parameters to help them make their selection. Designers compete on material economy. Design teams are now formed of tightly integrated engineers and architects who have had to hone their skills through significant additional training. In the past, design approximation led regulators to mandate high levels of strength redundancy or safety factors in structures for public safety. This was materially very costly. The upskilling of practitioners, together with greater time allowances, leads to greater precision in design so that now certain firms demonstrating greater acuity are licensed for far lower safety factors than before. Practitioners can work together to devise audacious ways of making a project economic. Static form-finding can inform every design. 

In this future, a client needs a building with a basement. The upper floors are heavily loaded so an optimised floor slab is needed. The best possible people are used. Jana, a specialist formworker, is brought in. She is trained not only in carpentry but also in statics and stress modelling. She is introduced to the team early on and works with the engineers to find an efficient and achievable coffering pattern. After several weeks of iterations, the team has developed a tessellated alligator-skin grid of beams that use a set of three repeated shapes which reduces concrete volumes by 70 per cent. The skin of the building needs to be light – no more neo-Victorian, coal-era brickwork. José, a fabric facade specialist, is employed, working with them to find a facade shape that suits the anticlastic insulated fabric wrap. Flat rectangular basement walls are weak and so these tend to be thick, reinforced concrete. Jack, an expert in three-dimensional soil analysis, develops ellipsoid plan forms that require very thin stone compression shells instead. The drawings and design documents are triple-checked as errors create waste. Construction is planned meticulously. Finishes are a thing of the past – structures have to be beautifully made and so construction work is done slowly and carefully. The work is brought to fruition by workers who have trained for years in their areas of expertise, take great pride in their output and are now better paid. 

In this possible future, there are more jobs but industrial production is falling. Sustainability hasn’t meant less economy or less enrichment: it has meant less waste. It has meant less exploitation of material and energy in exchange for more human activity. It has meant better employment using more skill and intelligence in the way we work. In this possible future, wages are higher, pollution and carbon dioxide levels are dropping and, most importantly, the story doesn’t end with dust bowls, ‘black blizzards’ or dead hens. 

This essay was originally published on The Architectural Review