Tuesday, 3 November 2009

"Tradition is an experiment that worked."

Harvest time, and where better to spend it than in south west France, where last week the grapes hung full of sweetness and the leaves glowed red after the first frost. Expectations are of a bumper year for quality (although not as high in quantity as the excellent 2005 vintage), so the atmosphere was buoyant as our little group of guests for the vendange walked along the rows of vines with young and dynamic winemaker Vincent Chansault.

Originally a chemistry student, who couldn’t see where that subject would take him, Vincent discovered his vocation in time to enrol on the right course, graduating from the school of Viticulture and Oenology in Cognac and going on to get the dream job of starting the Domaine Gayda vineyard from scratch at the age of 22. In just seven years, fields of sunflowers have been replaced with a vineyard producing award-winning wines.

As Vincent described some of the challenges of establishing a successful vineyard, there was a sense of déjà vu. The skilled workers Vincent needs at key times come in every year from Spain. He has tried local labour and there simply aren’t the skilled and committed workers available. The industry is an ageing one, with an average working age of 55. Occupational health is a concern, with the highest levels of cancer in the country due to the fertilisers and sprays used on many vineyards.

Capital costs and depreciation are significant too. The steel presses and fermentation vats are custom-made, and the casks made by specialists from fine French oak cost 1000 Euros each – and are worth just 40 Euros five years later, when they are pensioned off. Sounds just like construction, I was beginning to think to myself. Insufficient skilled labour, ageing workforce (average age of a steel erector is 55), capital investment, occupational health issues – not to mention adverse weather conditions and the economy.

But then the atmosphere perked up again. Rather than keeping the soil weed-free, Vincent encourages wild plants to grow between the lines of vines, sowing specific ones such as oats, rye and vetch. Why spray chemicals to clear weeds, he says, as this is not only harmful in itself but actually drives bugs and disease to attack the vines. So in high summer, there are not only the traditional rose bushes at the end of each line (they will pick up the first sign of disease) but meadow flowers and cereals flourishing too, creating the green manure that will help to create the cherished ‘terroir’. Bold, innovative approaches are needed in a conservative and competitive market. "Tradition is an experiment that worked," as Emile Peynaud, wine master extraordinaire at Chateau Margaux, remarked when challenged.

"It’s young people who are driving this thinking," says Vincent, "they are committed to sustainabiliy and organic, balanced food production. It is the only sensible way to move forward."

Just the words that were used the previous week, when Andrew Wolstenholme, CEO of Balfour Beatty Management, launched a report reviewing the impact, 10 years on, of Sir John Egan’s review of construction performance. The report Never Waste a Good Crisis highlights the lack of effective leaders and the need to attract and keep more of the right people in construction. "If our present leaders do not feel up to the task, they should at least support the development of the next generation, who appear to understand very clearly what is needed. When you listen to young people in our industry, they want to be involved in delivering on the environmental agenda and don’t think that what has been called the "frozen" middle management gets it."

So, the message is the same. Young people understand and are committed to delivering sustainable solutions, whether it’s zero carbon construction or green manure in vineyards. Let's hope that global warming thaws the permafrost of middle management quicker than the glaciers. A nôtre santé!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Women rulers

On my desk as I write this, is a wooden inch/cm rule, carrying on its reverse side the words Women rulers: 20th Century Architecture and Design followed by the names of 23 women (the first born in 1856 and the last in 1944) and their most significant construction achievements.
I bought the ruler in July this year in the magnificent National Building Museum in Washington DC, completed in 1887 as a monument to those who had survived the American Civil War and those who had not. In addition to administering and paying pensions, the building’s huge, light and airy Great Hall, was the venue for Presidential inaugural balls for many years.
Some eighty years later, unoccupied and threatened with demolition, the building was reprieved thanks to one of those ‘women rulers’, Clothiel Woodard Smith, whose report The Pension Building: A Building in Search of a Client recommended that it be converted to a museum of the building arts. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is an award winning museum, with highly regarded educational and outreach programmes, constantly changing displays and has once again become a venue for great events.

So against a background of falling numbers of women at Fellowship level and at the top of organisations, let us hope that the tide may now turn. As one of the 0.9% of CIOB Fellows who is female, I am delighted that this year sees the election of Professor Li Shirong as not only the Institute’s first woman president but also its first international president. Dr Jean Venables is President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Ruth Reed is President Elect of the Royal Institution of British Architects and Janet O’Neill is President of the RTPI. Significantly, these three women run their own practices, as did Clothiel Woodward Smith, (and myself) drawing some interesting conclusions from the findings of the CIC Diversity Survey that very few women in construction are self-employed. Many of those that are, seem to achieve great things.

Worth the wait - and a proper look

In 1996 when the Latham Working Group on Equal Opportunities produced its report Tomorrow’s Team:women and men in construction, one of the few statistical sources available to the working group was a Construction Industry Council (CIC) report giving figures on the membership profile of a number of its institutions. So it is encouraging that 13 years on, the CIC has revisited the issue, and that the statistics gathered are more comprehensive.

The discouraging element of the CIC Diversity Survey Gathering and Reviewing Diversity Data on the Construction Professions, is that some professional institutions appear to have retained the deep resistance to providing data that was demonstrated in 1996. Then, as now, some bodies failed to answer requests from the Latham Working Group for information, others refused, expressing the view that asking for such information was intrusive and irrelevant.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that the institutions with a traditionally high representation of women and with openness of information gathering have built on their critical mass and positive culture, demonstrating an increasing and proportionately very high rate of female membership. For example, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has grown by 8% to 31% since 1996.

However a feature that the 2009 CIC Diversity Survey authors did not comment on is the significant increase in female membership amongst two institutions that were almost off the scale 13 years ago. The CIOB has doubled its female representation since 1996 and the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) had less than 1% women membership in 1996, but has increased fivefold, something that deserves more acknowledgement from the authors than simply being described ‘only 5%’.

Although the CIC Diversity Survey quotes annual student numbers at the RICS falling from 4,700 to 2,400 between 1994 and 2001, this rose to 7,7782 in 2006 of which 27% was female. In the seven years that the RICS Raising the Ratio Task Force was operating (sadly and summarily disbanded last year and not visibly replaced) it produced excellent research, carried out amongst men and women, identifying the reasons for becoming surveyors, the reasons for leaving the profession and proposing ways in which the right people could be recruited, retained and developed. In addition to women student numbers increasing, the percentage of percentage of women chartered members internationally increased from 10% to 15%.

So what is needed to bring about a better gender balance in construction? Genuine commitment, openness and leadership from professional institutions, flexible and realistic working practices from employers and encouragement and visibility for those women and men who strive make a difference. Starting with the CIC Diversity Panel perhaps, who initiated the survey but who are not identified anywhere on the report or the CIC website.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Sur le pont...enfin!

As someone who professes a passion for bridges, it has been something of an embarrassment to admit that several visits to France in the past four years have not included crossing the spectacular Millau Viaduct, the highest road bridge in the world.

But 2009 was the year to put this right and the wait - and the six euro toll - was well worth it. Driving across the Millau Viaduct is a breathtaking experience. Taller than the Eiffel Tower, the bridge soars high above the Tarn River Gorge, the seven slender piers reaching into the clouds and supporting the roadway with cobwebs of steel.

Only those people who suffer from a bridge phobia as acute as that portrayed by Michael Palin (in Alan Bleasdale’s entertaining drama GBH back in 1991) should turn down the opportunity to see this glorious example of civil engineering.

And it is a feat of civil engineering. Most of the world may believe that the bridge was designed by the British architect Lord Foster, (who includes the wobbly Millennium Bridge in his portfolio) but the official designer of the Millau Bridge was Michel Virlogeux (who has many wonderful bridges, including the Pont de Normandie, in his).

As Virlogeux expressed it, in an interview with New Civil Engineer magazine a few months after the opening of the project, "I'm the designer, he is the architect." http://www.nce.co.uk/le-concepteur/538054.article. Illustrating the difference between design and architecture, Virlogeux carries 100% risk for performance not related to construction. Responsibility for design was written out of Foster's contract, Foster's contribution to Millau is measured by its invisibility rather than by any obvious stamp of authorship.

"The engineer must not be reduced to the man who does only computations. But nor must you reduce the architect to someone who just does the finishing touches. It's something that must be more integrated," says Virlogeux. The Millau grand projet demonstrates that such integration has been both effective and harmonious, with French engineer and English architect actively seeking further opportunities to work together.

Virlogeux offers the maxim used by the western world's first known engineer, Vitruvius, as a guiding principle. Utility and functionality, stability and durability, and beauty. In that order.
As he says, "The greatest art comes from making things very simple, but very elegant and perfectly adapted."

Go visit – and marvel.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Sport of Kings?

An eventful sporting weekend last week, with the 100-1 outsider Mon Mome romping home to win the greatest steeplechase in the world, the Grand National at Aintree. The horse not only had the longest odds for 42 years, cheering the spirits and bank balances of bookmakers, but was trained by Venetia Williams and owned by Mrs Vida Bingham. As a final satisfying flourish, the race commentator was Clare Balding, one of the BBC’s premier sports commentators.

And to dispel any thoughts that this was a fluke in the feminine statistical graphs, four of the seven winners at Aintree that same Saturday, 4 April, were trained by women.

Mon Mome’s owner, Mrs Vida Bingham, is a 75 year old international bridge playing widow. She says, "I asked Venetia to be my trainer because she looked honest and trustworthy."

Trainer Venetia Williams was originally a jockey, but a fall in the Grand National in 1988 followed by another just two weeks later that broke the Hangman’s bone in her neck, put paid to her riding career. Hence the shift to trainer. Now she is hailed as the heiress apparent to the grande dame Jenny Pitman, who has trained two Grand National winners.

After 56 years with Queen Elizabeth II on the throne - a skilled horsewoman, daughter of a renowned follower of the turf and mother and grandmother of world class equestriennes - isn’t it about time horse racing was renamed the Sport of Monarchs?