Re: Re: Future for Irish Architects..

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On a completely unrelated point – but of relevance to your long posts – I keep thinking of a quote that said “blogging is like AA for people who are addicted to their own opinions.”

The long posts take a huge amount of energy, and of course they do upset my sleeping and work rituals. After one day’s either writing or reading I take another day before I can a-climatize again to normal chores. But that is your whole week messed up, more or less. Which is why I haven’t been seen too much at Archiseek since 2004 and will not be seen shortly. (Other pressing engagements) After I left Dell computers in 2002, they started to encourage company blogs. They learned it was better to have people inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in.

What Clayton Christensen offers us is a model with which to understand catastrophic collapse in the business world. The kind of thing that happened to Digital Equipment Corporation. I mean, how could DEC die? It had the best managers, the best technology and 30-40 years of experience. Blaming the state of the architectural profession on the economy is okay, as far as it goes. Blaming it on poor management, is only useful up to a point. Blaming it on the construction industry gets to the point of being ridiculous. What Christensen’s book should do, is offer guys like James Pike a better model to work with. To understand their situation and how to act within it. Frank McDonald’s analysis was a good of times we live in, but too simplistic I thought. There should be someone within the Architect’s institute whose job it is to study these models and present them in a journal or website so that architects can benefit from and learn to apply them. At the moment I am filling in a slot that someone else aught to be paid money to do.

I have read Christensen’s book and listened to the podcast. One thing he mentions, is a need to avoid dividing your customers into markets. Information about ‘markets’ is only available about the past. By the time you have the information, it is already stale. The struck me quite sharply when I attended the ‘Tall Building Conference’ at the height of the property boom in Ireland, and president of the RIAI, Anthony Reddy told the audience that we need a report on the topic of Tall Buildings in Dublin. That is when alarm bells went off in my head and I began to think about those wonderful managers at Digital Equipment Corporation. I picked up Clayton Christensen’s book and re-read it from cover to cover. A much more useful question, Christensen says, is to ask: What is the job that people are trying to do? What is the job they are doing quite poorly at the moment, but would jump at the opportunity of finding a better way? This is a much more useful question to ask than getting blind-sighted in talking about ‘markets’. If we do not ask the right questions, we are unlikely to find the right answers. Or as Louis Kahn once said, ‘A good question is much better than the best answer’.

The Frank McDonal article seemed to talk about the Medical, residential, commercial, private, public as if they were different markets for architectural services. That is the problem I want to highlight. Indeed, when I did an interview to work for Anthony Reddy associates in later 2006, I was told they were hoping to move into the medical area. Because the government would be investing in a building program there. The question I want to ask is, what job is the prospective architect’s client trying to get done? At one point in the podcast, Christensen uses the example of milkshakes. What is the job that the consumer of the milkshake is trying to get done? How can we improve the product so that the job is done better? If architecture is to continue and thrive in Ireland, it first needs a decent model with which to understand its own collapse. The faster that ‘model’ can be delivered out to young professionals, and get them using it, the faster they will turn this corner. What I am proposing is a fast track, in-service MBA for architects. They shouldn’t have to pay for this, it should be free to any membership paid architect or draughtsperson.

To use another analogy, most architects want to create a Saville row pair of trousers when the client wants a pair of combats. The former is sleek, stylish and makes the wearer feel good, the latter is cheap and has more pockets. Even if you eliminate the cost difference of the end product, they still want the combats because it avoids drawing attention to them.

Indeed that is quite a good analogy, but I would prefer to think of the idea of one’s Grandmother. When she goes shopping, she spends a morning whizzing from one shop to another, comparing prices and deals. In the movie, The Lives of Others, the social scientists in the old East Germany admired a thesis written by a student that divided artistic people into a number of distinct types. At the risk of sounding too weird, I am going to attempt to do the same for the property developer. If there was one very good reference for learning how to understand the property developer, it is the chapter two in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Tipping Point, called ‘The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen’. Most of the good property developers I know are mavens. The wikipedia definition of the Maven is here:

Property developers who are mavens, are like that with everything. If they wish to book a taxi, a plane ticket or a restaurant for a Christmas party they will go to undue lengths to find the best deal in town. Having found the best deal in town, they might discover that they do not even want a taxi, a plane ticket or a Christmas party. That is why it is so frustrating working beside them. Sometimes they take it too far. That is why it did not surprise me, the response from the development community when the Department of the Environment introduced the Part V of the planning and development act. The legislation was very ill-conceived, simply because it played up too much to the ‘natural instincts’ of property developers.

It is like dripping blood in the water where a shark is concerned, ‘chub baiting’ I think they call it. Something primordial switches on behind those dull metallic eyes of the great white. In the case of the Part V legislation, they had to figure out a way to beat it. It is important to understand the primary motivation of the property developer. It certainly isn’t the money. Some of them would be financially much better off if they didn’t do what they do. It is the thrill of the race that really drives them to do it. When DOE introduced Part V they introduced a big lump of bloody meat into the environment, and the attention of developers was distracted away from issues such as good design, and towards ways of beating the legislation. To prove in effect, that it wasn’t equal to their skills of avoidance. If you do read Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter you will get a sense of what I am talking about.

The maven is one type. However, when you get up to the level of Liam Carroll you are talking about the ‘connector’. Or rather, the super-connector to be precise. For all the media stories about Liam as someone who is shy and avoids people, that doesn’t quite tell you the story. You could not meet a man that is more ‘connected’ within the construction industry. In the normal course of events, I am unlikely to stand next to a managing director of an Irish bank. But throw a super-connector like Mr. Carroll into the mix, and anything becomes possible. Liam is a single individual connecting tradesmen on one end of society with financial people on the other. When it comes to business, Liam is more driven than my Grandmother ever was, when she went to town to do her shopping. Liam decided to re-organise the whole street in order to best serve his own needs. He managed to do that, and surprisingly the shop traders did not object.

As an architect who tries to treat each project as a patient (and certainly some of the clients could do with a bit of institutional help) one cannot avoid the fact that the value of architecture is not evident to the vast majorty of people involved in building.

I had to over-simplified the above 3-part ‘call to arms’ for organizing the architectural profession. I left out the issue of the dis-functional client, even though it is a very present problem for architects. But I felt it would obscure the point I was trying to make. When business was flowing well, it made sense to have property developers running around getting bits of their service from different shops. And later trying to assemble it together into a complete package themselves. Instead of using the analogy of combat trousers versus Saville row trousers, I like to use the analogy of those shoppers who ‘scoot’ back and forth between different shops, carefully comparing one price with another, and generally wasting a day, which could be better spent otherwise.

Indeed, if architectural practices tried to service all of their clients to the ‘nth’ degree during the building boom, their staff might have balooned a lot more than it did. That is, their staff might have increased by a factor of ‘5’ rather than ‘2’ or ‘3’. Communication between a group of a dozen people is sometimes challenging. Increase that number to 24 or 36 in an architectural practice and you are pushing it. Unless you introduce new techniques for working. When you introduce new techniques for working, you risk getting on the wrong side of your staff. That is what happened during the building boom. As one witnessed members of staff leaving a practice to start up on their own. The rate at which it happened during the building boom was disproportionate and it startled me. Individuals had built promising careers in large offices, but left when things got a bit ‘too chaotic’. The question now remains, how some of these off-shoots can salvage enough pride while making it back to an office they might have left in defiance. This all points further to a need for ‘super-connectors’ in this industry of construction and architecture. Without the connectors, nothing functions as efficiently.

Now how do you solve that problem – more telly programmes? more magazines? public lectures to the unenlightened?

That is certainly a step in the right direction, but one reaches a point of diminishing returns.

It would be nice to get Bill Bordass or Adrian Leaman over to deliver a talk or workshop. I am exchanging some emails with Adrian, who is hoping to get Stewart Brand over from the United States. Stewart wrote a book called ‘How Buildings Learn’ which was inspirational to the Useable Buildings team. The Useable Building concept is one I like very much. It sounds quite similar to Clayton Christensen and the story of the milkshake. The whole idea of sustainability folds in quite neatly when you go through this process of designing useable buildings. In other words, sustainability doesn’t feel like a chore, as it can do at the moment. It should be about more than checking boxes to keep the planners off one’s back. Planners have a duty here to ensure a creative and exciting relationship takes place, instead of the opposite.

Architects have a tendency to be negative in the way they approach their task. To look for sub-goals in order to replace their primary goals. The notion that design should be about ‘sleakness of lines’ and seductiveness of form is a sub-goal that was allowed to become a primary goal. Sustainability should not have to be ‘integrated’ into the design process, as you witness at the moment. It should have been a primary goal from the start. The obsession with form, a mild form of autism, runs right through the architectural culture. It hopes to conceal a deep seated dis-illusionment that lies underneath. This begins in architecture school, where you are punished if you don’t tow the line. The damage inflicted at that point follows the individual through every decision they make for the rest of their life. That culture has to change. It is the main reason, I decided to flunk out of architecture rather than continue to flog something that was clearly quite dead, in its soul.

The useable building idea does threaten to undermine the way we think about architecture now. The way we currently teach architecture and how we deal with the client. It is similiar to what Clayton Christensen would call a ‘disruptive innovation’. Of course, Liam Carroll already had this innovation built right into his organisation. Because it was such a broad network of connected players all pushing to get a job done, the feedback was pretty much constant on everything. One was exposed to a stream of information, you are unlikely to encounter sitting in a consultancy practice. Unless we ask the right questions, we are unlikely to find the right answers. I had some electronic conversation with the property developers Corcoran Jennison from Boston earlier this year. They have brought it to an even higher level. Frank McDonald wrote something about their project for the Irish Times. An interesting book I came across in the ‘Quantity Surveyor’ section of a library one day is this one. (I cannot help doing multi-disiplinary experiments, even when I am in the Library . . . there is really no hope for me)

Understanding The Construction Client
ISBN: 9781405129787
Boyd, David and Chinyio, Ezekiel

This book offers guidelines for a better engagement between the construction industry and its clients. Students of construction need to understand their future clients and this will be a key text in this field. At the same time, the industry needs to re-appraise its current understanding and dealings with clients; this book provides the means of doing this effectively. The book gives information about clients in a number of sectors (e.g. government clients; developers; NHS; supermarkets; Housing Associations) which will help the industry to understand what the client’s business or service needs are and how construction fits into this. This will be generic information with an emphasis on what needs to be found out to engage with individual clients fully and successfully. A number of short case studies are presented demonstrating this. The book concludes with a toolkit for ensuring successful client engagement.

Brian O’ Hanlon

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