Re: Re: Future for Irish Architects..

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Final, Response Third Part

I need to mention something about policy creation while I am on this topic. Policy creation by the Department of the Environment to be specific. It needs to be carried out in such a fashion that skilled professionals in urban design and planning are retained in the process of land development. Department of the Environment policy, no matter how good its initial intentions might be, should not dislodge architects and planners from the process of development. But sadly, in my experience at the height of the building boom, that is exactly what it succeeded in doing.

The Urban Forum, of which the Institute of Architects of Ireland is part, is aimed towards developing a new national spatial strategy. I think it is wonderful that architects are indeed engaging themselves in this important process of policy creation. This certainly needs to happen. I received a lot of training as an architect myself in Dublin and like to believe it stands to me as an asset. I like to believe in my own foolish way, that architects are engaging in the process and actively involved in the mechanics. But getting back to the very thorny problem of unemployed architects I have some final points to make. I will first use a quotation from Jay W. Forrester:

Unlike decisions, policies are timeless and enduring. If a policy is sufficiently comprehensive, it can continue to apply over an extended interval of time. Depending on the objectives of a model, policies might remain unchanged and effective as long as years, decades, or even centuries.

This is why it is important that young architects out there become involved in Feasta, because it is a voluntary think tank devoted to working with long term policy creation. Land value taxation being one of its on-going projects.

I believe that Part V of the planning act was conceived with the best of intentions. I remember the chief architect of South Dublin City Council giving a lecture about this to students at Bolton Street. Eddie Conroy was very excited about this, because it offered all kinds of new opportunities for design and integration of communities. The part V legislation promised so much back then. But it was conceived without any notion of system dynamics. Please see below for some information on that.

What the part V legislation achieved was to create the conditions in which a brand new ‘sale-able expertise’ could thrive. It wasn’t a ‘sale-able’ expertise that architects were going to provide in their shop unfortunately. As time went on, Part V began to exclude anyone with an honest passion for building communities. I worked on projects, in which the major decision making power was wrenched away from the architect and given towards the individual with Part V expertise. These people were generally not architects. They would not ask questions that were to do with space, as an architect would do.

Bear in mind, what I have mentioned previously about the architects farming out of the low end. It felt good to give up the low end, to estate agents and planning consultants. But if losing the low end today, is no of no concern. Then what happens if you lose the ‘high end’ tomorrow? Which is typically what happened to companies such as Digital Equipment Corporation. It is what happened to Irish Architecture also. Part V legislation was a very ‘low end’ kind of product. Something that didn’t require the broad skills and training of an architect. But gradually as time went on, I found the experts in Part V were getting more and more sophisticated and taking away more and more of the decision making power from architects.

Clayton Christensen gives a very good explanation of the ‘disruption’ practice in his book. Because the low end disrupter isn’t viewed as much of a threat to begin with, the disrupter is free to improve while not feeling much pressure from the higher end competitor. The same thing will happen with the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive. Some architectural practices in Dublin trained members of their staff in this area. Only to fire them, as soon as the downturn came. Perhaps the fee-earning potential of EPBD isn’t huge at the moment. But the architects behaviour regarding EPBD, is a classic example of not retaining skills, where the money will be made in the future.

I recall a speakers night at no. 8 Merrion Square in the mid 1990s. The subject of discussion that evening was houses designed by architects. The issue was that architects cannot afford to be involved in designing one-off houses for clients. It is almost impossible to make any profit doing that. One unfortunate architect that evening, told the audience of his experience on a house project. Where the client really, really wanted to get an ‘Aga cooker’.

When it came to drawing up a budget for the project, it came to a decision between the Aga cooker and employing an architect. The Aga cooker won out, and an architect was not appointed. When I think of this story I like to imagine the see-saw that kids use at parks. On one end is a big cast iron Aga cooker, and high up in the air, at the other end, is the poor architect. Effectively, what the Department of the Environment did with Part V of the planning act was to re-introduce the Aga cooker. People with Part V expertise were simply more beneficial to property developers and got the decision making power.

The Department of the Environment needs to have an understanding of system dynamics in order to fully appreciate the impact of its policies. The following is a quote from Jay W. Forrester’s paper of 1998, Designing the Future.

Understanding physical systems is far more advanced than the understanding of social, corporate, governmental, and economic systems. The field of system dynamics is leading to the new profession of enterprise designer. Methods now exist for designing the structure and policies of human systems so that the systems will better serve the people within them.

Between the Part V expertise, the writing of the project brief and the planning consultancy, architects really lost a lot of their home ground during the Celtic Tiger building boom. That was okay during the boom, because their decreasing field of influence was compensated for by volume of work. A way to think about it, is the catering trade. On one end of the spectrum is the ‘chipper’ van in the main street at the Rose of Tralee festival. I remember as a kid I used to love eating those chips. I would watch as people staggered out of a pub, across the road to the chipper van and barely managed to stammer: Bag of chips and a coke.

During the Celtic Tiger, there were a lot of overnight made ‘property developers’ who managed to stagger from the loans department of an Irish bank across the road to an architect. They barely managed to articulate: I want a block of apartments and a side order of luxury homes. An architect would dish it out and allow the ‘client’ to help themselves to salt and vinegar from the counter. The other extreme of course is the gourmet chef. From my understanding of things, the gourmet chef never wastes a thing. Everything is recycled and used in some way as part of the meal preparation. That is the talent of a good kitchen and a good gourmet chef. Their own livelihood depends on this creativity with food. I believe that architects should take the gourmet chef as their model instead of the chipper van.

I will develop this analogy with food and catering further below. But I want to compare the architectural profession to the ‘toxicity’ that developed in the financial services industry. Whereby technology was used to ‘slice and dice’ the toxic loans to sub-prime mortgage borrowers. The clever people took the ‘best cuts’ and re-packaged and re-sold the less desirable portions on the open market. In a way, what large architectural practices were doing was similar. The result was also similar: a systemic collapse in which many architects lost their jobs. That is why I wanted to draw your attention to the RIAI letter to the Department of the Environment:

It shows the extent to which the architectural institution was used to ‘getting its own way’. The letter dictates to the Department of the Environment, the ‘portions’ of the EPBD it wants to undertake and the portions it would rather not. The Department of the Environment response was right on the money: Look it guys, you are in the building industry. Wake up and smell the coffee. That hasn’t deterred large architectural practices in Dublin from firing their staff who have done additional EPBD training. How is the EPBD supposed to achieve its purpose in that context? The letter the RIAI should have written to the Department of the Environment, expressing their discontent was a letter in relation to the ‘cottage industry’ of Part V experts created by that legislation. Many of whom became a voice whispering in the ears of the property development community. The letter never got issued and no. 8 dropped the ball.

A large portion of energy aware design will involve the undertaking of cost-benefit studies for the client. The aim of the EPBD is to provide the most cost effective solution to reducing CO2 emissions from buildings. How many architects out their at the moment even know what an discounted rate of return is? Would it not make more sense for UCD ‘What Now’ to provide simple training in cost benefit analysis techniques for young architects? Instead of making collages with wild flower petals on a wall, or some such other ridiculous exercise? For that matter, would Yvonne Farrell be better off attending the Cost Benefit Analysis workshop along with the youngsters? Instead of making ridiculous statements trying to define architecture and construction?

Lastly, I want to finish with an idea. An idea I hope that you can take with you.

One thing that emerged from a recent conversation I had with a member of the health care service was this. (The person works in the catering department of a large hospital in Dublin city) The idea of a relationship between a patient’s ability to eat properly in hospital and their resulting rate of recovery. I mean, lets face it. When I go a couple of days without proper nutrient intake myself, I feel very much the worse for wear. I happen to be a young man in the prime of health and fitness. Now compare it to the situation of someone trying to battle through an illness and not being able to cope with what they find on their plate.

Recently, the Dublin hospitals have gotten the ability to measure the food waste they are putting into the trash lorry. (Remember what I said earlier about the Gourmet Chef) I guess every ones waste, be it carbon dioxide, organic or recycle-able waste is being measured carefully today. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. As a result of all this ‘measuring’ the Dublin hospitals discovered the weight of food waste going out. They compared this to the weight of food material coming in. The results were shocking. It appears that patients aren’t eating as much of what was believed at all.

It is a proven scientific fact, that inability to consume nutrients will add significant numbers of days onto the recovery process for each patient. This in turn will add to the cost of providing a health service. I was told by my friend in the health service, that we should be aiming to give our sick the very best of naturally produced food. But the way the current global food supply chain works, and with preservatives of all kinds built into products like chicken and other meats, to extend their lifetime on long haul flights, the stuff that patients are consuming is far from being natural.

How does this relate to architecture?

Well it is very simple. Every project that comes into an architectural practice should be monitored like it was a patient. An individual ‘menu’ should be compiled for each patient. That will enable the architectural practice to go and find the skills it needs to acquire in order to fully serve the client. This measurement will allow the architect to see what services it cannot provide the client with. Basically, the more of the clients requirements the architect can service in-house or with close partners, the faster the client will be taken care of. Like the patient recovery times in hospitals. The less time that a client is in transit through the system, the more additional work the architect can take on. This will grow the business and make the architectural practice viable.

That is my humble suggestion at least. It is the best I can do, to illustrate a plan going forward for architecture. It has elements of the gourmet chef about it and elements to do with running an efficient health care service. It has a lot less to do with making toxic financial instruments and handing out bags of chips at the Rose of Tralee.

Brian O’ Hanlon

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