This paper is about the qualitatively different nature of the labour process in the British construction industry compared with that in Germany. The rationale of the British system is based on controlling costs through overseeing contract relations, themselves circumscribing a range of narrow, clearly defined and priced tasks. The production process has become secondary and production expertise restricted. In contrast, in Germany cost aspects are incorporated into, rather than separated from, the production system, built on the interaction of capital and labour and on a high level of production expertise. Employment relations rather than contract relations predominate and circumscribe a set of skills drawn from the potential of the labour force and dependent on broad-based vocational education. The paper is based on a detailed investigation of social housebuilding projects in Britain and Germany. It is the first of two papers concerned with the overriding cost rationale of the British construction process at the expense of considerations of production. The effects of this is examined here in terms of the structure of expertise and skills within firms, the nature of the subcontracting and the composition of the construction team. The paper shows the need for more and a qualitatively different constellation of skills, professional and operative, in Britain. It thus contributes to the debate on achieving a higher skills equilibrium (Crouch et al. 1999; Brown et al. 2001), expands transnational sector comparisons (Stewart 1994) and identifies areas at which change should be directed in the UK construction industry, as promoted through the Latham, Egan and subsequent reports (Latham 1994; Construction Task Force 1998; Strategic Forum for Construction 2002).