Collaboration in the Industry

Yesterday I was part of a panel speaking at Nottingham Trent University (The Poly to me). It was a session looking at how collaboration works (or doesn’t) in our industry. Actually I was a bit of a lone voice as the audience and some of my fellow panel members were quite ‘building’ focussed.


There was an interesting question put to us; “Do we need Universities any more – can we teach people via Apprenticeships and on-the-job training“. At first sight this is a fair point. Particularly in my profession. Some of the work I do could be taught in an office. Some of what we do can best be described as a process. So yes part could be learned.

But a profession is more than just a process. The joy of my work is that I am sometimes challenged to think. To come up with solutions. Solve problems.

I was asked in the week on another occasion whether any of what I learned at the Poly was ever used by me? Well it is. The core skills I learned about technique I use most days. The the legal framework in which we operate hasn’t changed much (other than the odd bit of case law) and I use that a lot. My knowledge of building construction still is critical to my day job.

So my view is that we do need Universities to train our future surveyors to think. To grasp the core skills of building construction, measurement, value and the law. Understand how property works as an asset class. We can collaborate with the learning institutions to make sure these skills are delivered to make surveyors employable.

What I don’t think Universities can do is teach ‘commerciality’ and I guess that only 1 in 10 graduates enter our office with it. We can probably teach it to another 4 and the rest will probably never get it. That may be tough – but I suggest is true.

The (not so) Great Mall of China

If you regularly read my blog, you will know that I have been to China twice in the last 12 months – both times to Shanghai. I was amazed to see the level of development. When we went to Ningbo, I couldn’t quite understand how you could build a city – but my questions were simply lost on the City Planners. They didn’t understand why we were questioning the demand side of the equation.

When I was in Shanghai in March I drove past hundreds (I don’t exaggerate) of apartment blocks being built. The scale of development is eye watering.

This week, my friends at Nottingham University sent me this link on You Tube. It is worth watching it! It shows the side of China the officials don’t want you to see. In essence (if you haven’t got 15 minutes) there are estimated to be 64 million empty apartments. The Mall visited by the reporter is simply empty – although they have a nice web site.

This is all rather worrying! At the end of the report the question was whether there would be an uprising and civil unrest. On the face of it you would worry, but my experience of the Chinese people is that they are incredibly tolerant; the State rules with a rod of iron.

The video…

Shanghai – the facts

Shanghai is a difficult place to describe. It’s big, brash and noisy – it demands that you pay attention! I have had a couple of days to reflect on what I saw this time. And what I learned.

Although a couple of weeks ago was my second trip it takes you a while to adjust and comprehend the place. But to put some things in context:

* 21 million people live in Shanghai – 1.3 billion in China as a whole.
* GDP growth in China has been 11.2% on average for the period 2006-2010 – the Government target is 7% over the next 5 years.
* China is now the Worlds second largest economy (the US is still the largest)
* The UK imports £24bn each year but only exports £7bn – the UK Government want this to equalise.
* Inflation is running at 4.9%
* By 2015 half of the Worlds building will be taking place in Shanghai.
* 400 new Cities are being built and their average size will be the size of Birmingham!
* 15 million people are moving away from the Countryside to the Cities each year – by 2020 900m people will live in Cities.
* China was the largest producer of CO2 in the World in 2020

It is quite difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of what is going on here. I find it hard to explain in words – even looking at some of the brochures I brought back don’t really explain it. We just don’t see ‘development’ like this here in the UK. I’m not sure it is happening anywhere else in the World in this manner.

So is it good?

One of the speakers at the Conference I attended was quite damning – he raised the issues of corruption – there are four or five construction companies doing all of the work. Someone is getting very rich.

Then there is the ‘green’ aspect – and you can’t help but wonder if there is lip service being paid to the issues. On more than one occasion I heard stories about the ‘green features and standards being designed in, but not bult in. The latter simply because there is so much going on it cannot be all checked.

But my real issue is that when you peel back behind the veneer some of these buildings are not actually very good. Whilst we might develop buildings for 65-80 years, I am not convinced that the stuff being thrown up is at that standard. I wonder if they will last 20-25 years! I will return to this point again I think….

Can you print a building?

Today such an idea seems a little far fetched? Printing buildings?

This one's a model - but the next might be your home?

Well, it may not actually be science fiction! It is alreeady possible to ‘construct’ a three dimensional object from a special printer. The printer works like your normal ink-jet – but rather than laying ink it lays down material (usually a plastic) – and over a period of time the design grows. It is an additive process rather than subtractive – which often wastes material. Obviously you only use the material you need!

You can read about one firm offering the service here – watch their YouTube video in the side bar!

The Industry is moving ahead at apace. Originally these machines were used for prototypes – but they have increasingly been used to produce finished articles. And they are now beginning to work with more than just plastic. Metals have been introduced.

As you might expect, some ideas have also been put forward in dealing with buildings. This could be in ‘creating’ new printed material for use within a building. But there are rumours of a system being looked at where concrete could be layered through nozzles building up the structure on a rig.

This does sound like science fiction – where a design is sketched up on a computer – a rig is installed and the building then appears miraculously before your eyes!

If you are wondering how this is possible – look at this guitar made with a 3D printer! If you can make a guitar a simple four walls and a roof should be childsplay?

By Tim Garratt Posted in Nottingham Tagged 3dprinting, , Inkjet printer, Manufacturing, Material, Science fiction, YouTube

The green agenda carrot and stick

I was at an interesting event a couple of weeks ago. It was a Nottingham Green Tech Business network event at Bio City. A panel of assembled luminaries shared their collective experiences of how we were moving towards greener buildings – and housing in particular.

It became clear during the discussion that things need to change. There is talk that within the next few years the cost of energy will sky-rocket – and an average home will need between £3,000 and £5,000 a year to stay warm and lit. There is a real danger of fuel poverty in the not too distant future.

Legislation (the stick) is driving some of agenda – particularly in housing. Zero Carbon is the target. But as was pointed out, zero carbon does not equal zero fuel bills. And it is not the whole answer. We have become quite obsessed with our carbon footprint, but in reality the building fabric we construct is also of importance. This is where the discussion was centered – the overwhelming view was that we need to re-think the way in which we put buildings together and erect them. Our problem may be in the way we prefer to see our buildings – with brick skins…

I have been a sceptic of some of the technology we are using. Eco-bling is a big market, but it can only be part of the solution. Just because a house has solar panels, ground source heat pumps, triple glazing doesn’t automatically win brownie points at the green awards. Human behaviour plays a huge part. Both general education, but specific learning of how systems work is critical. There was little point one of the panel suggested in having a green tech piece of kit with a switch – when the switch had been wrongly identified as an immersion heater! They didn’t understand why their bills were going up!

I thought the most interesting question was ‘how do we cost-effectively improve our existing housing stock’. The answer was ‘insulation and draught-proofing’. These relatively simple measure would make an enormous difference to a households energy consumption. The amusing finding in one study was that in some areas where free loft insulation had been offered, residents take up was poor – because, when quizzed, they said that it was a lot of hassle to clear the loft!

I may well be in the latter camp!

The story of Buildings

I have been catching up with some Grand Design episodes which I never seem to get around to watching until there are a clutch hogging disk space on Sky+.

Spot the new bit?

Some episodes are centred around a greenfield development which reflects the ambitions of a furtive mind. But some involve the restoration or development of an old building. These projects, to some extent, are a much more difficult proposition. The propensity to get it horribly wrong are huge.

I dislike pastiche architecture. Faux gothic timbers have no place in architecture. Pre-weathered materials usually look just awful. They smack of impatience. I am never sure why – unless the designer thinks the building won’t be around for long?

In one of the recent episodes of Grand Design a couple were restoring a former Guildhall in Suffolk. The Guildhall element was around 500 years old – and despite looking like an agricultural barn it had an important ‘story’ to tell in the local history of the village. It had a ‘narrative’. This is important.

Buildings evolve over time. They are often adapted and building historians are able to read them. They do this by investigating changes. So, if we introduce ‘matching’ or ‘pretend old’ it doesn’t work. It is therefore important that if it is our turn to alter a building we should do it in our own style and with our own time materials. Matching in is the worst thing we can do.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have sympathy for an old structure. But in 2010 we have access to a vast array of materials which are of our era. Some of them will compliment an old building without detracting from it or violating it.

It is not always easy to get restoration or renovation right. But it should be possible to show our intervention in a positive way and clearly representing our part of the buildings history. It is part of the story!