Quiet bubbling: observing the silent co-existence of co-workers on building sites

“The ways in which bodies move through, inhabit and occupy space on a construction site (and elsewhere) rely on both conscious and deliberate acts and on an array of taken-for-granted, unintentional modes of being.”

Dawn Lyon (2013) ‘The labour of refurbishment: the building and body in space and time’ in Pink, Tutt & Dainty (eds) Ethnographic Research in the Construction Industry. Abingdon: Routledge, p35.

This photograph is a rarity. Other than a certain quirkiness (the doubling, of the doubled-over faceless pose) there is nothing of aesthetic value about this image, but it has got me hooked because it depicts a type of working that is actually very hard to find in visual depictions of building sites. Try it: a Google of ‘construction site’ finds either:

– a site devoid of people;

– a site populated by a group of workers or visitors who are all clearly engaged in a collective task; or

– a site view in which only one, task-absorbed, worker is visible

What captivates me about this picture is that it almost depicts a reality that hardly ever appears in published construction site photographs, but yet which is likely to be the glimpsed experience of any passer-by as they encounter their local building site. The under-acknowledged reality is that of the co-existence of multiple-but-separate activities.

Now, I say ‘almost’ above because these two workers seem to both be working on setting out the reinforcement shell for a concrete slab that is about to be poured. In that sense they have a common purpose – they are both acting upon the same task. Ultimately, it could be argued that all co-workers on a construction site are engaged in the same overarching task (the making of the building) even if one is doing brickwork, one is tiling, and another is laying cables. But as that sentence suggests, at the sub-project level each of those three workers is working on a separate task, one that has its own rhythms, reasons and ways of doing.

Wandering through a live building site (particularly after the structural work has been done) is to walk through a hive of individual projects, and to step awkwardly in and out of individual territorial bubbles of temporarily claimed space. Here, each worker has set themselves up in their part of the partly-formed place, in order to then set to work.  And in doing so they have formed their own little sphere of activity – a micro-territory of which they have possession, and they signal that territorial claim in subtle but clear ways, via the spreading out of tools, the playing of music or the laying out of signage. This way of taking a temporary claim to space is picked up ‘on the job’. At college there was no ‘how to claim space’ lecture aimed at cultivating proficiency in individual bubble-making. Yes, there would have been some sessions on how a contractor’s organisation acting as a multi-person organism might ‘take possession’ of a site, and in infrastructure (for instance rail transport) there are complex rules of taking possession of tracks, pipes or cables, but nothing at the level of the individual.

In such situations – where safety risks are otherwise high – the rules of temporary space-possession are made explicit. Thus, to enter the railway line or to descend the mineshaft a unique physical token must be presented. Failure to offer-up that token means that possession of that space cannot be claimed, because possession of the token ‘proves’ an entitlement to enter and the space’s presently unoccupied status. Meanwhile permission to enter confined spaces or to carry out hazardous operations in a particular area may be governed by a paper-trail, the ‘permit-to-work’: no permit, no entry and no work. But in the vast majority of circumstances there is no token, there is no permit, there is no negotiation. Instead, by convention and subtle cues, individual task-bubbles form and fade, and the individuals within them quietly work out how to co-exist alongside others.

This silent space-possession activity is also evident (in everyday experience, but not in photographs) in domestic environments. Think about the last time you “had the builders in” – what did they do to mark out your territory as temporarily theirs? How did they subdivide your space down into an array of individual bubbles of occupancy? And how they negotiate the interaction between these individual bubbles with you, and with their workmates?

I had the experience of co-habiting with a plasterer and his ‘mate’ in my own home last week: and it got me thinking about the above, because the way that the mate set up for his ceiling pulling-down task was so different to that of the plasterer who came a few days later. Where one focussed on simply taking space and keeping to himself (thereby emphasising the separation of his work bubble from the rest of the house), the other was far more deliberative and verbal, frequently asking permission and informing me of his intentions in order to check and define the way that his and my bubbles would interact during his residency. In the end it was the over-elaboration of these normally silent territorial co-habitational rituals that brought the whole thing into focus, making me think of the verbal and visual silence that usually cloaks the proximity of separate co-habitation.

Image source: commercialconcretedenver.com

About lukebennett13
Associate Professor & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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