The road to recovery? More Apple engineering and less loft conversions…

Of the historic events fighting to get into this month’s Presidential Blog - CIBSE September Board, Ofgem Board, Start of Term - all pale into insignificance against the Amazing: the launch of iPhone5. Otherwise it’s back to work in North Korea and a tolerant CIBSE Board suffers a grumpy President.

iPhone5 first. Its only snag (aside from the new connector and Maps App placing my house in the next street!) is that you still can’t remove the cement that was once on your fingers and now on the retina screen. Yet again iPhone isn’t the contractor’s phone of choice. What a massive global market to miss! I’ve still got an old Nokia with a sealed rubber keyboard (YEN members may need to look ‘keyboard’ up on your iPad) that you could throw into a bucket of plaster with impunity. In that big fat CIRIA book ‘Barriers to Innovation in the Construction Industry’ the thinnest chapter must be ‘Barriers to Using the Mobile Phone’. Before it was invented, how did we ever give clients the impression (well OK, in the Golden days) that we could work on five jobs at once? This blog celebrates Apple engineering.

First, no one has said the new iPhone design was ‘controversial’, only got planning permission on appeal or represented the ‘Shock of the New’. It is globally agreed that it looks beautiful yet fits in. Why can’t our new buildings? I can think of at least one firm of London based architects who would have delivered a signature squashed handbag to get the Stirling Prize nomination for most unusable innovative phone of the year. Second, it works first time. It was designed and manufactured in great secrecy. Indeed Europe seemed to know more about what the holidaying Duchess of Cambridge looked like than the new iPhone - so no ‘soft landings’ for Apple. Nor is it ‘innovative’ in a gimmicky sort of way. Indeed Apple are famous for incremental innovation – innovation that solves a problem that was tangible not novelty that looks for a problem to solve. Apple’s designers work closely with their supply chain in a way that in JCT would land you in Court. They do not need to go to cheap conferences on BIM because from the start there was an information model of the device. There is no other way of fitting components together in such a thin shell. I bet you know a value engineer in our industry who would have at the last minute replaced the lithium battery for a 200g mains transformer and two miles of mains lead.

The list goes on. And the real lesson is that they mint money and we don’t. Apple itself is as close as you get to a property developer since almost everything is made elsewhere (by a Taiwanese company in China but that’s another story…) But Apple are in for the long term not the quick buck and they comply with regulations rather than making money from stretching them. You won’t find zero carbon anywhere on their website. All food for thought (for free) for the Government’s new Construction Adviser, Peter Hansford. I’d like to include Apple’s approach on my systems engineering course but the web is silent on how they really do it. So my students are still stuck with NASA systems engineering handbook. May be the real trick is to employ great people.

You can’t talk about mobile phones these days without talking about Apps. Apps are to Twitter what Carluccio’s is to McDonald’s. While Twitter is for following twits (for want of a better word), Apps are for doing things. Which is a lead into the really neat Honeywell App. My wife and I arrive for dinner and the hostess says she’s glad we’re early because the boiler has gone out and I’m a heating engineer... I would of course have rather explained to her how to get a sustainable matchbox through planning permission but there you go – I open the cabinet praying it is just the reset button. But there seems to be no power, and so I need to open that viper’s nest – the ‘Wiring Centre’. The likelihood anyone has kept the installer leaflet is zero. Then go to your App and there Honeywell offer you every wiring configuration you can remember since Home Fire Briquettes. Apparently it is one of the most downloaded ‘industrial’ Apps in the world. May be CIBSE should invest in a few? The whole Knowledge Portal fits comfortably on my iPhone but pdf’s aren’t always what you need. What would you like to get up on your screen (now a few centimetres larger)? Tweet me (see above) or email the CIBSE Knowledge Management Committee.

Back to work in North Korea then. North Korea? When I worked in Housing in Department of Environment, summer holidays abroad were always perplexing. They still are, probably more so. Things in backwaters abroad were never quite as we accepted as ‘normal’ at home. How come the little country I visited, whose economy is supposed to be a basket case, seems to have kids unattended playing happily together in its village park? What are these teenagers on, that’s stopping them being feral? Is it just too hot to wear a hoodie? Why is that small cafe way off the tourist track still in business with its local clients in the evening? (The PM will be returning to find that his nearest pub has just been converted to a Tesco Metro, the Evening Isvestia unreliably tells me). The local guides were even proud of their little town’s UNESCO status rather than treating it, as London does, as a tiresome impediment to overseas funded commercial property bubbles.

It was an American tourist from Stanford, who I got chatting to, who suggested that we might both be living at home in clones of North Korea. We both have 24 World News that, like the news media in North Korea, seems to present an outside world that bears no relationship to the world when we actually visit it. Before I stepped off the plane I like every other passenger from England assumed that every other country in the world is using open season on garden conservatories as its way out of economic recession…

One real world reality check is more worrying. Most of us in this industry have worked, even lived, in the Arab world. Events in the Middle East are casting a new shadow on our domestic business that I’m not too sure we’ve fully acknowledged. A quarter of UK natural gas is now LNG coming from crazy places through even crazier seaways. Gas dominates UK power production. Book your seat quick for the CIBSE Annual Lecture on energy security by Alistair Buchannan of Ofgem. Be prepared to be scared!

In much the same reality check country, everyone I meet in the industry knows that the planning system isn’t holding back economic growth unless you define the later as a narrow minded greengrocer might. What is holding back construction is lack of money. There is lack of money because of lack of wider confidence. Those house builders still doing nicely haven’t breached the planning regime, they’ve found off plan investors in Asia. Indeed elsewhere in the world draconian prescriptive planning regimes, rather than holding back the economy, have delivered if anything better survival in the economic storm because they restrain asset bubbles. It’s Vermont Good vs Florida Nasty.

On past track record I do not suppose for a moment that Treasury know what they are doing in housing and construction, anymore than medieval doctors did faced with the plague. That instinct dates back to the ancient days of the infamous 1970’s Housing Cost Yardsticks whose ultimate contribution to economic growth seems largely to have been reaped by the demolition industry. It has dragged on through things like the bizarre Barker report and a naive implementation of PFI. George Soros viewed Real Estate Investment Trusts as toxic time bombs. I am only a humble plumber so I would not know, but I see Treasury are proposing to extend them as part of the recovery package. Recovery to what exactly? The next Bust?

Should we, who largely squeeze pipes, wires and ducts into the drawings of others, get into all this, or should I continue to doodle at Construction Industry Council meetings? Theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die as I learnt at school. Well on my campus the IT engineering graduates are streaming on, Mech Eng students buoyed by the car industry are much the same. In contrast construction recruitment on many campuses has nearly stopped dead. What services engineers should want is a construction industry that, while not immune from business cycles does not actually amplify them. The collateral damage of boom and bust in British construction affects everything we try to do to improve ourselves. At the CIBSE Board we heard from Andy Ford about the progress for Women in Building Services Engineering. We know that other more stable industries like law provide viable careers for women. But do our industry entrants have to really combine their engineering skills with the investment prowess of Nicola Horlick so they can take maternity leave in a recession and get back to work in a boom? On the way to the Board at Balham your president read the Government’s well intentioned strategy to recover the housing sector, parts of which looked reasonably certain to make things worse. That led to a very grumpy chairing of the Board. Sorry folks.

Let me end on an upbeat note...back to Apps. Half my train this morning seemed to be using the brilliant new iPlayer App to catch up on BBC Television. Google this and you’ll find a write up by Chris Elphick who designed it. Bludgeoned into an inferiority complex by your Supreme Leader, perhaps you assumed Chris’ team used some smart IT designer team-worker software called something trendy like TingsDo or Kangeroo, light years ahead of a humble Stage A workshop or sketches on Riverside Cafe napkins. Instead the Web picture shows a white board full of... Post It Notes. So much for IT Wunderkind...
And the Wunderbundesrepublik? The news this month is that Berlin is pushing back final completion of its airport (which sought planning permission first in 1996 please note Staatsminister Simon Burns!) by yet another six months, itself a regular six monthly event (‘UberTerminal Fünf'?). There is the message from British Construction. We’re not that bad compared with the Golden Boys – just trust us with some real projects not dodgy loft conversions!


  1. Chris Jones CEnv5 October 2012 at 21:15

    A few of us have lobbied CIBSE for years about the Resources Crunch and this blog only mentions gas, nothing about oil.

    In 2004 I approached a well-known figure at a CIBSE event at the Cafe Royal, about UK Peak Oil in 1999 and UKCS gas, showing signs of peaking too. But what about global Peak Oil and the impact on gas prices ? I was assured that the UK had more gas than it knew what to do with. In 2012 we see signs of uncertainty (here) from OFGEM and while welcome that CIBSE is asking where the gas in the pipe and electricity come from, this seems a late entry to the macro picture.

    And I haven't even mentioned ERoEI which is a much, much bigger problem.


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