Imperial measurements proposal

Architects brand UK government plan to reintroduce imperial measurements "stupid"

Architects and architecture critics are attempting to stop a government proposal to reintroduce imperial measurements to the UK by calling on people to respond to its consultation

"Dear architects and designers and anyone who loves millimetres – please respond to this clunky gov't consultation on the return of imperial measurements," wrote The Developer editor-in-chief Christine Murray. "Warning... the questions will make you angry."

UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced a review on whether to bring back imperial measurements in May following the UK's exit from the European Union in 2021.

Consultation suggests imperial measurements would be a "Brexit benefit"

As part of the consultation, the government is conducting a survey asking: "If you had a choice, would you want to purchase items: (i) in imperial units? (ii) in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent?"

There is no option for only metric units.

"The consultation document is skewed, asking whether you would like imperial measures or imperial measures alongside metric equivalents," Murray, who is the former editor of magazines the Architectural Review and Architects' Journal, told Dezeen.

"The accompanying document suggests imposing imperial measurements would be a Brexit benefit, but it's more hassle than anything else, making calculations difficult and throwing up nonexistent compatibility issues such as threads not matching up."

The UK previously used the imperial system, with units such as pounds and stone for weight, and feet and yards for length, before mostly transitioning to metric from 1965 to the early 1970s.

The metric system, with grams and kilograms for weight, and metres and kilometres for length, is widely regarded as easier for people to understand because it operates in multiples of 10.

Under European Union rules, both the imperial and metric systems could be used by traders with items like milk sold in pints, but more prominence has to be given to the metric measures. The architecture and construction industry exclusively uses the metric system.

Now that all EU laws are being reviewed, the government is considering reintroducing imperial measurements.

Consistency "ever more important" for future of industry

Switching to imperial measurements, or using both systems, would create several challenges for the construction industry.

Director of infrastructure at global engineering studio Arup Tim Chapman and director at Ainsty Risk Consulting David Hirst outlined several of these in a blog post for the Institution of Civil Engineers last week.

A key concern is that a change would make it harder for UK-based practitioners to operate within the global market, which aside from the USA almost exclusively uses the metric system – also known as the International System of Units (SI).

"British designers have punched above their weight internationally for many decades, assisted by their ability to work nimbly to a range of global codes," said Chapman and Hirst.

"This has put the UK in a strong position to influence the development of global engineering standards, while the US, despite its huge economic muscle, often struggles to gain the same traction."

Chapman and Hirst outlined a benefit in the access universalisation gives to global supply chains, and fear that introducing a parallel system of units would create project delays, cost overruns and even a dangerous potential for error where complex engineering is involved.

"As we push for more modular and manufactured content to make our constructions cheaper, better, quicker and greener, consistency of units becomes ever more important," they wrote.

Architects want to "persuade them not to"

Architects on social media reacted negatively to the proposed changes, with several trying to persuade others to respond to the online consultation.

"I mean they're actually doing it so please say what you can here to persuade them not to," wrote Nimtim architects director Tim O'Callaghan on Twitter.

"Will the UK really be that stupid to convert back and abandon the metric system? It makes no sense... But I must admit currently a lot of things makes no sense in the #UnitedKingdom innit?" wrote architect and Ganguly architects founder Armin Ganguly.

Others reserved their criticism for the survey itself, which was described as clunky and skewed, although the option of filling in an online form instead of an .otd document appears to have since been added.

"Construction sector colleagues – please take the time to respond to this," wrote landscape architect and Thirlwall Associates founder Claire Thirlwall. "The survey is awful but one perk of the format is you can reply in detail."

Consultation aims to give "more choice" to businesses

The government's website for the consultation says it wants to hear from a broad range of stakeholders that interact with all consumer transactions based on units of measurement.

It says it will be reviewing the current law to "identify how more choice can be given to businesses and consumers over the units of measurement they use for trade, while ensuring that measurement information remains accurate".

The consultation will close at 11:00pm on 26 August 2022. The Royal Institute of British Architects told Dezeen that it plans on responding to the consultation and will publish its response in due course.