Dear Mr Plumber: The times they are a-changin’

By Vollie Brink

Some time ago, I was asked to compile a profile of the consulting engineer for building water services, and later for the consulting fire engineer for buildings. So, I decided that I should also profile the plumber and comment on how I envisage this role changing in future.

The one thing that is certain in life is change. We live in a constantly changing world in which we have to adapt or die. The design of buildings is changing to suit evolving needs and along with this, building construction methods, materials, and equipment are changing.

How the office is used has changed too. Nowadays, the office has become mobile: the modern professional has a rucksack with a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone to work from anywhere. Client meetings are also often held remotely. The total work environment has changed and it will continue to change. As the work experience and environment change, we need to plan for how this will affect our work. Some professionals specialise in forecasting what will change, how these changes will affect us, and how we will live, work and play.

I was part of a working group of professionals responsible for updating the plumber’s final examination, and found that this trade has ceased to perform certain functions traditionally undertaken by plumbers. An example of this is that the plumber no longer does the guttering of residences and other properties. I expect that more work will be outsourced in future. This is already happening when it comes to items installed by a multi-skilled specialist who can undertake (and guarantee) all the components of a complete project, such as piping, electrical and mechanical work. These professionals are more than just plumbers.

In other countries, the engineer completes both the basic design philosophy and the design performance requirements. The contractor then designs the detail and produces the drawings for the engineer to approve; therefore, the role of the engineer has changed drastically.

Nothing is preventing this from happening locally in future. It means that the profile of the plumber will hugely be affected — along with the plumber’s training and competence. This method should result in a need for fewer engineers and more better educated plumbers with higher competency levels.

South Africans need to generate more work for unskilled and semi-skilled people. I foresee a future with ‘super plumbers’ who have multiple plumbing competencies, working with semi-skilled workers to perform specialised tasks for them. Additional modular construction systems are also set to change the profile of plumbers and the people working around them.

I also envisage a hierarchy of plumbers who work on both offsite and on-site pre-manufactured systems. In 1980, I visited Denmark to view a project where a hospital had been built in this way. In Switzerland, families manufacture pipe configurations at their homes, which are then sent to the site to be installed. I believe that the drainage systems, water systems, and electrical systems of houses can be — and must be — manufactured offsite by communities and delivered to the site where needed. The ‘workshops’ could be located near to the development to limit transportation and other costs, thereby increasing the possibility of affordable housing.

These lightweight prefabricated buildings can last just as long as brick houses, and they offer the advantage of having better insulation values to comply with SANS 10400-XA. This is a huge boost in terms of providing houses complete with plumbing and other services.

So, how do I foresee the plumbers of the future? They must be planners par excellence. Please let me know how you envision the plumber of the future by contacting me at


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