The construction sector through the eyes of an anthropologist

News - 01 April 2020 - Communication BK

Where the built environment is being faced with a need for change, the construction industry will have to provide solutions. But is the culture of the construction industry sufficiently geared to change? The interface of technology and behaviour is the special field of Alfons van Marrewijk, engineer, anthropologist and new professor of Construction Cultures at the faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft. “The construction industry is packed with rituals, which people are hardly even aware of. By paying attention to the how and why of these rituals, you create space for change.”


Alfons van Marrewijk is the son of a market gardener. He remembers well how his father and other pepper growers would exchange information during winter evenings in Westland. “They were each other’s competitors, but by sharing knowledge and experience, the whole sector got better and better. Later, I was amazed that it doesn’t work like this in the construction industry. Builders have a tendency to play their cards close to their chest.” The industry is starting to look towards new methods for collaborations. Constructors and clients are for example starting to work together in early stages of the process, to exchange knowledge on design and construction choices.
His interest in the dynamics of collaboration while working as an engineer led him to study cultural anthropology as an evening course. “I learned to walk in the shoes of a whole range of professionals. This convinced me of the added value of seeing collaboration in the built environment through the eyes of an anthropologist.”

Conservative culture
As a practising consultant as well as an academic, Van Marrewijk is specialised in organisation science, and in particular change processes. “I look at the way in which organisations work together, in chains and in projects, examining the shared values and standards, habits and patterns and written and unwritten rules that together make up what we call culture.”
As an academic he combines his work for the TU Delft chair, one a day a week, with part-time appointments at the University of Oslo and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. ‘Construction cultures’ has found a natural home at the department of Management in the Built Environment, and has been made possible by Bouwend Nederland [association of building and infrastructure companies in the Netherlands]. “The building industry is faced with huge sustainability tasks, but in addition to a long tradition of craftsmanship, is also characterised by a conservative culture and a high level of competition; two characteristics that can stand in the way of innovation.” Governmental bodies, from local municipalities to the Central Government Real Estate Agency, have far-reaching ambitions for circular construction. “Architects are also keen, and have ideas on how to achieve this, but they have to be willing to work with recycled materials. Then the builders and installers say that they want to create a building in the way that they are used to. So at the end of the day, little of the original ambition remains.”

From his chair, Van Marrewijk wants interventions that have led to behavioural changes in other sectors to be applied to the building industry. One example of such an intervention is reflecting on collaboration behaviour and opening it up for discussion. “There is a tendency to say: we have a contract so let’s get on with it. People start work straight away, without making good agreements on what will happen if any setbacks occur. While the practice of public-private partnerships shows that you need to start by investing heavily in trust.” The questions needed to achieve this are not being asked. How do the various parties see the project? What is the working practice of the others like? How do we give each other feedback? “How do we deal with escalations? A behavioural intervention can lead to these questions being asked at the beginning of the project and – just as important – that they remain on the agenda throughout the building process.”

There is a need for cultural change at every level, from interacting individuals or groups in the building chain to organisational level, according to Van Marrewijk. “New practices that are set up as part of circular constructions also need to be institutionalised, or they will not stick.” This happens when they are made a part of the tendering procedures of the Central Government Real Estate Agency and in the guidelines and methods of the BNA (the branch association of Dutch architects) and Bouwend Nederland. “However, innovations that have come about in recent years at project level have not been fixed or formulated. So often we continue to reinvent the wheel.”

Action research
In his own words, the professor carries out a form of action research: the research question often emerges from an active problem from the field. One such research project is on the role of the below-ground infrastructure in construction projects. “How to avoid delays and budget overruns resulting from the relative invisibility of all kinds of cables and pipelines under the ground is an extremely relevant question for the field, which I am working on with Joop Koppenjan from Erasmus University, Hendrik Ploeger from TU Delft and two PhD researchers, to try and find an answer.” Together with Ellen van Bueren and Hans Wamelink from the department of Management in the Built Environment in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, he is also leading a brand-new, four-year NWO research project into interventions in the chain of circular building. “And I am working together with Marcel Hertogh and Hans Bakker from the Faculty of CEG to examine the collaboration between organisations in the context of total design of infrastructure.”

Van Marrewijk will also be giving a number of lectures to students, on case studies as well as qualitative research. “How can you incorporate the experiences of an organisation in your work? As an anthropologist, I probably use a different research method than the students here are taught. I think it can be very interesting for them to hear more about this.”

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