maandag 15 februari 2010

Paradigm shifter

In my pursuit to built a mutidisciplinary team and need to check my project with specialists I also sollicitated Mr Anton Aan de Stegge. He is Hollands' largest independant builder of resedential houses, leads over 40 construction companies with a turnover of over a billion euro per year. Main reason for me to hear his opinion on my project is his indisputable reputation as a pioneer when it comes to innovation, in particular concerning rationalisation, standardisation and industrialisation in the building process. Since the eighties he has strived to built houses at lowest cost possible, when he realised his children would have to work and save earnings for at least 15 years before even being able to start buying their first home. A thought he rejected and qualified undesirable in that era of time. He sat together with Ministers and municipalities and cut cost in the building process where possible by maximally integrating aspects of the building process. Later he took the initiative to set up a MBA with/at the TSM business school to share and deepen knowledge on integral building management. An innovator in this traditional sector could only but help the project with his profound experience and insights.

After a warm welcome, we sit in his greenhouse of his old mansion overviewing his estate and he starts firing questions: "why do you want to built in the Netherlands? We're an overregulated country when it comes to building law. Why do you pay any attention to the fact your project maybe doesn't fit within law restrictions? Why do you gather so many stakeholders, all with their own interests? Why do you want to produce your home in a industrialised way? Why do you stress the novelty in your project? Do you think innovation comes from technological innovation?"

Without threatening but serious and with raised voice: "If you're a paradigm shifter I don't even want to talk. I've spend millions and decades to change and know things evolve slowly."

For all his questions he offers lessons he generously shares. On the topic of change and transition he says: Firstly liquidate the number of stakeholders that hold interest in your project. Liquidate them. Instead of adding players. The less parties the better, the bigger the chance you'll be able to realise your initial plan. Secondly focus on your predecessor(s) or forerunners(s). That is were you can hook up with, more than in what currently is established. Thirdly, look for room to do what you want to do, avoid restrictive conditions. Think of building law, fire & safety law, govermental restrictions. Instead, look for room to experiment.

He continues. "It is not easy to have building processes changed, to have transitions in building put into reality. The reality is that if we all would want change in whatever direction, change -even with governmental support, wether nationwide or local- is difficult to achieve if not achieveable at all. I've witnessed so in projects and seen it in my personal attempts. Being in charge of many building companies I have not been able to influence the change in the building process to a great extent. We could do more and everyone agrees: change is possible and needed. And some mayors and other relevant political leaders also shared this notion based on their own experience, that even if they personally supported transition with a vast majority they didn't succeed in realising the desired change. Why? There simply are too many stakeholders, too many independant professionals and people involved to have full control of the processes which is needed in transitions. You can't rule them."

"This holds true if there is consensus, if there is support for change, whereas in reality people or organisations do not want any changes at all. People in control want to stay in power, they are comfortable where they are and they are where they are due to the status quo. Their interest is to keep it that way. Don't expect to find partners for your plan in the establishement. If you hear they want some change, look at what happens in reality. They may adopt plans, or even raise funds to start several studies and give attention to the plans and studies, which is the best way to neutralise plans and changes. No one will be able to say they didn't do anything and at the end of the day you'll see little truly is done, nothing has changed. So don't try to change a sector or come up with innovation in that perspective. Nobody wants it and if people would, nobody could."

On the role of technology as innovator Mister Aan de Stegge is clear: "Every technical problem has it's technical solution. This is also the case in your project, but don't dive to deep into technology as a solution for the next step you'll have to make. The problem is not within the technology, so your answer isn't there either. Besides, technlogical innovation often is not at the core of innovation at all. Transposing well-known techniques from another sector of another application into a new one can result in innovation as well. Manufacturing processes from car manufacturing in building can result in a revolution. Be aware that with technological innovation often non desirable technological gadgets and functionalities come along that can prevent and frustrate an innovative step. Companies find it hard to produce simplicity." As an example he takes the television: "I just want a tv than can be switched on or off, that enables me to zap trough it's channels and that has adaptable volume, but I can't buy it anywhere. In most of products, also in software, one only uses a fraction of possabilities, rest is undesired extra gadgets and complexity with it's threats of failure. Keep it simple. Companies and specialist tend to make solutions too complex. I believe in your project if it's made simple, not if it starts with building innovation and if it's stuffed with technological gadgets. As such, I look at domotics as a inhibitor as well. In it's complexity it can give rise to problems more than being problem solving: what if a sensor is dead, or if some button or indicator fails? Monitoring yourself, or having people monitoring systems for you is much more reliable -maybe more expensive but more reliable."

Regarding technique and industrialisation in building: "In the Netherlands we have outstanding know-how and if we would apply all the knowledge we have we would even be able to offer 'mass customisation' in domestical building. We can built quick and at low cost and are one of the best in the world in bringing together disciplines troughout the building process. Yet I still see ways to improve. For example to cut in disciplines and roles and responsabilities. In fact you only need 3 disciplines: a technical, responsable for all that comes with the infrastructure and wiring (water, electricity, heat: installation), the constructor, responsible for constructing in stone, glass, steel and wood and a finisher, responsable for the finishing (painting, tiling, paving, plastering). Now we have much more sub disciplines involved."

"For the use of ICT in the building process, for example to deliver prefabricated parts, you would need volume. If not, the set-up cost and engineering cost will by far outrun handwork and be cost-inefficient." He has lived the example himself, as on one of his houses on his property has had 2 exact the same extensions each built in a different way, as to compare cost. The prefabricated, computer engineered part had engeneering cost that were five times as high as the total cost of the part built by handcraft, altough it was built in one day and the craftman part was built in 5 days. Moral of the story: standardisation needs volume to pay for itself. "Don't try to make industrialisation a starting point of cost reduction for one or a few houses. You will only be busy managing the processes which will make your house cost millions instead of some hundred thousands of euros's. Industrialisation or prefabrication in itself, just as technology, is not necessarily bringing your project alive. It may follow if the concept is a success"

"Around the globe Finland probably is the best in the overall integration of the building process. Government and companies work together, like they did with Nokia. Alas you can't copy paste everything and building is culturally determined. For example over here constructors use iron frames to work on ceilings, even if it is but 50 centimeters of height, whereas else builders prefer to walk on stilts. Here people want to live in brick houses, grouped side by side, elsewhere people prefer wooden houses, standing alone."

After 2 hours Mr Aan de Stegges teaching has massively knocked down some of the fundaments of my approach. I was looking at my plan as an innovative project, that was about a new way of building, that would lean on technological innovation, and would satisfy many stakeholders' interests, bringing together many specialist troughout several disciplines. A project that looks for Partnerships in (governmental) establishement and at the same time cross the boundaries of building law and a project that would use standardisation/prefabrication as point of departure. None of these seem very usable or productive concepts in his opinion.

His lessons however aren't a knock-out. I may look at the opposite, or look at suggestions he made between the lines, or considering giving up without spending many yeras of work, time and money, saving frustration. "If you want to industrialise, you will need volume. For that look for others that share your way of living. For that focus on the living concept: how does a day of life in your house looks like? What is it like? What makes it unique, what does it takes, what does it gives? Some 35% of the people built there houses themselves. Focus on the concept of living and go look for peers. When analysing databases on income, age, social, economical, cultural and educational background it seems there is a relation between who we are and where or how we live. And if you can't find any peers up front you can always decide to built the house for yourself and I would be happy to help you building your house."

That probably would be a one off, hand made, wooden, low tech house, maybe with followers in a later stadium.

Before returning home I'm invited to another house on his estate where Mr Aan de Stegge passionately works on engineering, designing, nurturing and restoring rare and unique cars, and woodworking besides. There I witness he owns an electric car. How preppy and modern it seems, but it isn't, on the contrary. The car is over a 100 years old and at that time already drove at a speed of 40 km per hour for 8 hours at a stretch. "There were no problems of infrastructure in those days as it uses 5 batteries of 12v and could charge electricty using the 60V infrastructure of those days. Technological solutions always are available and always are there, but they only are adapted broadly if people massively want them, they never are at the starting point of that will." So I conclude that change is a psychological and sociological issue and a matter of business. This stresses the importance for a showcase that can persuade others involved on the improvement of personal and environmental quality and have it done with positive return on investements compared to the benchmark of traditional housing.

I have shifted my paradigm on the project thanks to a talk with Mr Aan de Stegge and will write about the personal quality of living of my concept in my next posting.