Re: Re: DDDA / Docklands Miscellany

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@johnglas wrote:

Brian, your posts are very interesting, but after the second paragraph I’ve normally lost the will to live. You’re showing far too much of the tendency towards academy-speak, which may be wonderful in overawing a tutorial but somehow loses its flavour ‘out there’ in the real world. This notion of ‘provocation’ in order to induce thought is the equivalent of defending much bad contemporary art on the basis that it ‘makes people talk about art’ (but it’s still bad art).
The problem with thinking laterally, particularly in relation to economics, is that it can produce precisely the voodoo economics that have landed us in the present mess. Architecture and design – in an urban context – must above all be ‘grounded’; getting out and walking about will outdo any amount of theorising. By all means have a vision; but a ‘theory’? I’m not so sure.

Johnglas,

I am delighted you asked me that question. Why do we need theory in the building industry? I have been waiting for someone to ask me that question for a long while. I have been preparing my answer for as long, as you can see by the length of my post below. If I can take you on a virtual tour, our first stop should be here: If you look at the David Wetzel lecture in multimedia section at http://www.feasta.org

Take your good time, listen to the hour long lecture and dwell on it. Even better if you own an iPod. Dave underscores the point about how little real information we have about land and property. If you are looking for possible causes of the current mess we have in, there is one very large culprit. We don’t really know the value of land. Nor furthermore, do we have any commitment within our government to find out what the value of land might be. It is one of the biggest Vodoos of all. Because during the boom years, everyone I know was speculating what Liam Carroll might be worth. What Sean Dunne might make. Or what Bono might do next. That leaves the property industry very, very vulnerable to speculative booms and busts.

I know a bit about this, because I used to work in the computer industry for Dell. They high tech industry is rife with the same kind of speculation. At the height of the dot.com era, a venture capitalist famously said, perhaps internets stocks are under valued! Within that context it is almost impossible to organise resources efficiently. (Think of the major architectural practices as an example) How are professions supposed to develop any competency in building construction and sustainability. If the plug keeps getting yanked? Just as designers and property developers begin to get their head around the problem, they are wiped out quicker than they started. It is very easy to do what Frank McDonald does, and quickly point fingers at developers. But if you study David Wetzel’s lecture, you will see the problem is much deeper than that.

All this background information I hope serves to illustrate the high points and low points I have gone through in the course of my involvement with building professions. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience when I sat down one evening to watch Prime Time, and a building site, which myself and my fellow architects/engineers/project managers had spent 40-50 hour weeks, for many years, working to develop, was suddenly being levelled to the ground! I learned something that night about the country I live in. About the property industry in general. How far a distance our best public servants can manage to travel away from the ideals of integrity and fair play.

I flicked through a friend’s book today, by Robert J. Shiller called The Subprime Solution. A very poor book as economics books go in my opinion. (Couldn’t say that to my friend) But it did have significance to me for one reason. The author wrote a book about the stock market, Irrational Exuberance a few years ago. We have an abundance of information about stock markets around the globe, upon which to base research and study. Dating back a century or so. But when Shiller took on board a project to write about the Subprime mortgages in America, he discovered to his astonishment we have almost no information about land and property. If you take that point in the whole context of economic theory, and everything to do with markets ability to discount future profits, into current prices etc, you can see how strange the property world seemed to Shiller.

If you read books about construction contracts, and in particular about design build contracts, you will also learn that construction is a bastion of old fashioned proceedures in terms of contracting too. But that is a much longer discussion than I have time for here. I referenced to Don Topscott’s book, Wikinomics, the chapter about the global plant floor. Which should allow people here to sink their teeth into that issue, if they wish.

I attended a conference in Dublin about tall buildings a couple of years ago. On the speaker panel that evening was Dick Gleeson, chief planner for Dublin city council. Also a valuer or surveyor from CBRE. Ken Shuttleworth, a founding partner at Foster architects. And a tall building structural engineer from Buro Happold. Anthony Reddy moderated discussion afterwards. The conclusion was that we need the state to give us better direction as to the future of tall buildings in Dublin. The problems inherent in that are pretty many, given what I have said above. It struck me as odd, because managers often base their strategy on information about the past. What information about the past could facilitate a manager to make a decision about a tall building in Ireland? Nothing. So you are back to theory, whether you like it or not.

It means, to take certain leaps into the future we do need to build robust models and theories to work with. This is why I mention De Bono so much. He seems like a person who is too theoretical, and architects should have to worry about his teachings. But in order to soften out the spikes of the boom and bust cycle, in relation to land, in relation to development, we will have to develop better models. Better theories. We all have to sit around the table together. How many developers sat at the table, in the discussion on RTE radio one, The State We Are In? Not one. It reminds me of a thing, the Maltese architect Richard England once said to me: When I go to a site, I look for present absences, and absent presences. He could be talking about developers, at round table discussions about development, held in Ireland!

By way of analogy, the renewable power generation companies (even state organisations such as Eirgrid in Ireland) are already talking about predictive techniques to do with the climate. So that future output of renewable energy (itself subject to terribly erratic spikes and troughs) could be predicted with great ease. To run a stable power grid on a national level at close to full capacity, you need stable predictable power. That is why 100% renewable energy generation is a non-runner in the Irish context. We will need non-renewable power generation to maintain a baseline supply of power. We are facing the same challenge in the world of construction economics I would humbly argue. I have studied Liam Carroll’s organisation up close, and from the inside. And I would have to say he built a company, and structured it, to maintain stability. But even his company can’t sustain the troughs like that of North Wall Quay. No company or bank, could be expected to operate that close to the wire.

At the heart of the problem in North Wall Quay are two developers, Liam Carroll and Sean Dunne. At the heart of both their frustrations, is a public service institution who is ham fistedly trying to organise develop and predict future outcomes – to enable us to schedule resources, building works and to bring expertise into the project. For instance, the payment out to the architects of the North Wall Quay tower about to be demolished, was in the region of 100,000 Euros per month. That is not chump change for anyone. I have no diplomas, degrees or phDs after my name, only a name. But Dave Wetzel told me, he started in live as a bus conductor. Yet he has a better overview of the problem than many people I have heard speak. I see no attempt by our public service in Ireland to engage with the ideas of Wetzel, or any other solutions for that matter. That annoys me intensely.

If you are interested in management and have some time to devote towards continued learning and development, I recommend looking at Clayton Christensen. Christensen is relevant to building and development why? Christensen has done much work to develop theories that help managers in situations where they lack adequate information, or data, upon which to base their decisions. (He was an advisor to Andy Grove at Intel for instance) You are familiar with the movie Minority Report? Well, Christensen’s teaching is nothing like as fanciful as pre-cognition of events before they happen. But if you spend some time, and look at his book, The Innovator’s Solution, you will see what I mean. I made this point to the editors of Plan and Construction magazine, at the wine reception after the tall buildings conference. They must have thought I was bonkers! But lets just say, I hadn’t developed my ideas very well at that time. Ken Shuttleworth overheard me talk about Dawkin’s theory of Memes that night, and my friend talking about faxes on toilet paper. But heh, I guess we make up a crowd!

Brian O’ Hanlon

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