Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Ultimate Multi-Tasking

Running Man (life123.com)

For this blog entry I am trying out the ultimate in multi-tasking. I am finding that I have less and less time for exercise as I travel around the regions of the UK. I spend the week eating sandwiches and the weekends partaking in too much alcohol and nice meals. All of this is helping me to grow to be twice the man I have ever been before.

It is difficult to survive on salads day in and day out and it is not a delicacy which cross-country trains are renowned for. I am therefore rekindling my efforts in the gym.

My Christmas present last year was a running machine, bike and rowing machine which have had very little impact on my well-being.

It has become apparent, however, that owning these devices is not sufficient to aid your health. After several false starts I am really going to make the effort to use them at least for one week!

I do find the gym incredible boring so I am seeing if it is possible to multi-task. I am currently dictating this as I walk at 3.5 miles per hour on programme 1.

I have not fallen off the treadmill as yet and I will keep you updated as the weight falls off over the weeks ahead.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Living in a recession

Illustration by Claudia McGehee.

We are all in a very strange situation at present. We currently sit in the middle of a recession where all around us budgets are being cut funding is disappearing and businesses are contracting. On top of this we have the added unknown of a potential new Government and changes in policy.

For business all of this presents a new set of challenges. We have to try and second guess what a new Government may do and how we can plan a strategy around this. Many of the plans we are making are based upon how we operate today. However in less than a year the Government could very quickly implement new policies which would affect everything we do. You only have to look at the change of policy by the Learning and Skills Council to see the massive impact that this had on the construction industry in such a short space of time.

A counter to this uncertainty is the amount of opportunity which appears during such times. Companies looking at joint ventures or working together are on the increase. Markets which were previously saturated now provide opportunity. Even recruitment is providing opportunity. Over the last 10 years one of the greatest challenges to our business has been in recruitment for our needs. Now we find incredibly talented people working in warehouses or maintaining gardens.

Recession is just another business challenge where risk and opportunity have to be balanced for long term sustainability.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Photos from the TES Classroom of the Future...

For more images taken at the event, visit the _space life Facebook page by clicking HERE.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Poles apart

I am just returning on the train from two days spent at the Times Education Supplement exhibition at Olympia. We were asked by the organisers if we would support them in presenting the classroom of the future at their event. We were provided with 65 square metres in which to build the futuristic space.

I agreed to support TES as this was not the normal type of event we would attend and it was attended by teachers rather than designer and builders. These would include BESEC for example.

This event was very much attended by the users of our buildings. The exhibition would give us the chance to test some of our thoughts on the teaching profession. Our thinking in relation to learning environments has be driven by our own beliefs, research and guidance issued by the government. Our classroom of the future or learnspace as we like to refer to it is a flexible diverse and adaptable space. I believe the classrooms of the future will be heavily influenced by IT and furniture. In a single space we have tried to allow the ability for several activities to be carried in a single period. The activities could include create, investigate, communicate, generate, educate, collaborate and integrate.

Much of this is already adopted in the way primary children are taught. They use group working and project based learning. Their furniture is flexible and they sit on the floor or even outside. At secondary school everything changes. We use 56 square metre rooms with 30 seats and desks all facing the front where knowledge will be imparted.

What has been interesting from the exhibition has been the reticence from the teaching profession. I initially thought the issues were about fear of the IT. However I think the issues are deeper. The teachers seemed to feel by having a class broken down into small groups it would be too hard to manage and they wouldn’t have the time to control the students.

There is without doubt two very polarised camps. The design and construction industry seem to have aligned with the government and PfS in delivering new schools. At the conferences supporting this camp there are very few teachers. On the other side there are the teachers who have their own defined view. At present never the two shall meet.

We can't continue to design and deliver schools and spend all of this money and not engage and embrace the profession who will be working in them. The BSF programme is about transformation but at the moment we are delivering schools without the teaching practices aligned. We need to get an understanding from both sides and see how we can move forward together. We mustn’t forget the driver for this investment is to improve the futures of our children. Until we move away from the pressures of delivering grades there will not be the space to update how our teachers teach and our learners learn.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Classroom of the future

A 3D of our TES 'Classroom of the Future'

I'm on way down to the TES (Times Education supplement) exhibition in Olympia in London today. This is a 2 day gather of a wide range of the teaching profession. We are showcasing learnspace which is our classroom of the future. We have a 65 sqm space which we have set up as a space which could be the classroom of the future.

We believe spaces need to be flexible, adaptable and diverse to suit a whole range of learning approaches. We have an IT partner who is showcasing the latest technology. We will have everything from large format screens for sharing information to itouch for personal information.

We have a couple of furniture partners who range from the specialist fixed furniture through to loose furniture. Ergonomics are forgotten in a learn space and need to be given more consideration in the future. This should be an exciting couple of days.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Sir Bobby

Sir Bobby Robson / The FA

Monday saw the memorial service for Sir Bobby Robson at Durham Cathedral. The attendance and warmth shown by everyone at both the Cathedral and St James Park was an unbelievable testament to what people thought about this man.

He has always been someone who I have admired and who has provided me with some of my best memories in football. Italia 90 was possibly the highlight for me however he also managed to get Newcastle United on track.

I have never heard anyone say anything bad about Sir Bobby. I did not know him personally, but saw him at several events over the years and he was always very humble and friendly.

How he spent the last few years of his life was an inspiration – raising thousands of pounds for good causes for the North East.

Sir Bobby died without anyone having a bad word to say about him and most successful man I have ever seen.

One of his childhood friends spoke at the service and said he had never changed despite his international success.

He may not have had the big house or the yacht, yet so many people felt so much for him and he left such a legacy it is a great lesson for all of us. It gives us all something to strive for while on this planet.

I think we need to campaign for a statue in the centre of Newcastle to act as inspiration for us all at so many levels not just football.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

A Spot of Holiday Reading

After my adventures in Florida at the beginning of the summer, I quickly found myself in need of another holiday.

We have just returned from a trip to Madeira - a beautiful island and the home of Ronaldo!

As ever, my holidays give me the opportunity to catch up on my reading. My taste in reading materials are a little ‘anorak-ish’ but I thought I would try my hand at reviewing some of the books I read whilst I was away, as I don’t have much more to report on because I didn’t get much further than the swimming pool!

Leading from the Front: My Story. Gerald Ronson

The first book I read was the story of Gerald Ronson who heads up the Ronson Group, which was a very successful business in the 70s and 80s. It ran petrol stations whilst more recently the group has become an international property developer.

Gerald Ronson is now aged 74 and is still working a 6-day week! His story is fascinating and takes you through how he grew a business, lost it all, and then grew it back again. He was infamously involved in the Guinness shares trial and ultimately ended up spending time in prison. He gives an interesting account of his life, how he shaped his future and what is important to him.

His family and community are a large part of his life and he has spent much of his time supporting Jewish charities over his 60 years in business. He is so matter of fact about the people he has met, from royalty to celebrities, many of whom became his friends. His company crashed in the last recession and after some poor investments in America, he was forced to sell large parts of his equity.

He continues to run the business on a day-to-day basis and is now the grandfather of property development in the UK - seen it all and done it all.

This was a fantastic read especially with the focus on development and the economy. Clearly, Gerald Ronson puts his family and his community at the top of his priority list and he clearly demonstrates how you can have success yet still share with others.

Common Sense Rules. Deborah Meaden

Out of the current five dragons on Dragons Den, four of them have written autobiographies. I have now read all four after reading the recently published, book by Deborah Meaden.
This is a fairly light business book giving common sense examples of how to run a business, as well as examples of how Deborah Meaden grew her organisation and ultimately sold it to venture capitalists.

Much of the information is common sense but still useful by giving a brief insight to the author who is clearly an effective and focussed business manager. This is a quick read targeted at those who watch Dragons Den.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Investing in Standards During a Recession

Going back to the 80s I was one of the greatest critics of the BS5750 and the Quality Assurance process. I remember wading through huge documents and ticking thousands of boxes just to be able to demonstrate we had carried out everything in accordance with our procedure. The reason for my criticism was that I was not convinced that this delivered any real value to the business.

However, over a number of years the standards have been reviewed and have been changed to ISO 9001 which used the Demming plan, do, check, act model.

We spent a lot of time as a business reviewing ISO 9001 and decided to develop our own continuous improvement wheel based on plan, do, check, act. We used the 9001 standard as a base however. I remember in the past when we had a QA audit there was two weeks of frantic activity before the Auditor arrived to make sure that every box was ticked and every piece of paper was in the right place. Now we look forward to the auditor arriving and make no special arrangements for these particular days. We use the audit as opportunity for continuous improvement.

We have named out internal management system _scils (_space Continuous Improvement and Learning System) and have been able to integrate other standards within it without major change.

We have recently been accredited with ISO 14001 in relation to environmental standards. Far from believing that quality standards are a hindrance I have now moved my thinking to believe that such standards are imperative in time of recession. Particularly with ISO 14001 it has structured our thinking in relation to waste and risk. We now look at every aspect of the business and consider where waste is being produced and how we can minimise it. By measuring what we use in the first place we can monitor resource movements and percentages against others.

We are now aiming to include the ISO 18001 standard within our _scils model to ensure that our Health and Safety achieves the highest standards.

During a recession when process, waste and risk are very important I would recommend any business to invest in these standards to ensure that the organisation is run as efficiently and effectively as possible as I believe they add real value.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Big Four O

Life begins at 40... / photo

I reached a major milestone at the weekend. On the 11th July I hit the grand old age of 40. Some say life begins at 40 and I look forward to what that may bring. I have to be honest usually birthdays have little impact upon me however, I got to thinking that if 80 is a good innings, by the time you get to 40 you are half way there meaning that its all down hill from here!

My 30ies were an exciting time for me and this period generally coincided with the last 10 years of growth. Whilst growth was very exciting it provided its own challenges and headaches.

It is likely that my 40ies will have a different set of challenges as we steer the business through a difficult period.

For the man who has everything birthday presents were always going to be a challenge. The best present was the party which I had last Saturday night. These are rare occasions where all of your friends are gathered together in one place at the same time. Obviously one is your wedding providing you only have one and the other is likely to be your funeral which you won’t be at.

The one thing that struck me on the evening was that friendships are recession proof and in my case I have been fortunate enough to have a solid bunch of friends through the ups and downs over the years.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Batten Down the Hatches

Over recent months one of the terms which I keep hearing in our industry and in particular from architects is that they plan to ‘batten down the hatches’ and ‘ride out the storm’. I think in the past this has been the way many architectural businesses have responded to recessions and generally the profession is badly hit by such down turns. Much of this is caused by the fact architects depend upon capital spending and in recessions this is one of the first things to be cut.

Over the past decade our industry has made huge strides forwards in relation to its approach and technology. There is no doubt that there is still further to go but my worry is that much of the hard work we have done in relation to partnering or integrated working will be stopped and potentially be forgotten.

As an industry we need to continue to invest in training and development.. With Building Information Modelling and integrated project delivery we are on the cusp of a revolution. Unfortunately many companies are battening down the hatches and cannot afford to invest.

I also worry that by battening down the hatches the storm will happen around us and when many companies open the hatches there will be no industry left.

At _space we made the decision to think very carefully about how we move forward but do not intend to batten down the hatches or bury our heads in the sand. We will continue to invest in our people and technology and think differently about our industry.

Hopefully this will stand us in good stead for the future and in fact help us weather the storm.

We are always looking at how we can diversify our offer to enable us to sustain our business for the long term.

Monday, 6 July 2009

An Old New Town

Milton Keynes/Wikipedia

I spent sometime in Milton Keynes last week, this was the first time I had had the privilege of visiting this much talked about town.

My first challenge was getting there, as a regular train traveller cutting across country was going to be problematic. The answer was to head into London and back out to Milton Keynes. I was on a secret mission and the first thing that struck me on that particular day was the incredible heat with temperatures reaching 32 degrees.

At _space we talk much about sustainable communities and I am always looking for the collective elements that can make this happen. Clearly, at some point, Milton Keynes was thought to be state of the art. Many years later the masterplan has been developed and the new community created.

What I am not sure about is, if this is an integrated or sustainable community. It has all of the pieces but many of the elements operate in isolation. It has to be economically sustainable in that it is operated for several years and continues to grow. However the roundabouts and road system gave little priority for pedestrians with huge industrial zones being surrounded by forests of trees.

The housing seemed to be remote lacking the usual mix of a buildings and styles developed over many years.

Much of the architecture was of a similar 60ies and 70ies style again with little response to human scale.

It would seem from the outside that commercially Milton Keynes has been successful, possibly due to its good links to London by both road and rail. I would challenge however, whether this is the best place to live if there is the rich mix of uses, ages and architecture which can create a place.

I came away from Milton Keynes believing that it was difficult to force a community to happen on a rigid plan such as this. Communities need to evolve over time and respond to the times in which they develop.

Places also need to be particular to their geography and I did feel that whilst I thought I had not been to Milton Keynes before I had visited the same place in Telford and Washington.

Friday, 26 June 2009

North-South Divide

North-South Divide map/Wikipedia

The recession is starting to have quite a cultural impact on the architectural profession. My view has always been that in architecture there has been a London market and a regional market. Much of what has been delivered in the capital has been commercial responding to the asset boom driven by the banks. This has included offices, hotels and high end housing.

The majority of the construction industry is now driven by Government spending and investment in education and healthcare. This has encouraged many of the businesses in London to look further afield for opportunities.

The concentration of skills in London will help to increase the quality of public buildings being procured across England.

With regards to the upgrading of the of the schools estate, Partnerships for Schools are now very reliant on CABE as the custodian of design quality. Over the last few years the BSF process has been driven by delivery and the procurement itself. CABE’s involvement will undoubtedly raise standards and encourage bid teams to respond to the need for design quality.

This shift will give the opportunity to promote the benefit of the investment in design as part of the huge capital investment being made by the Government. As a northern business we must ensure we are part of the dialogue with bodies such as CABE and the RIBA which are traditionally based in the south.

Monday, 15 June 2009

America, Economics, Apple and the genius of Walt Disney

I haven’t completed my blog for two weeks now, and with good reason. I have been on holiday in Florida spending time at the beach reading books along with Mickey Mouse and friends.

The pattern for my holidays is that I return with lots of new thoughts from the books I have read and what I have seen. This holiday is no exception.


I have taken an interest in economics after the events of the last few years. The books I have read have been fascinating and enlightening. I am now sure things will never be the same again, and we need to ensure we don’t make the mistakes of the past.

Over the last 10 years we have had unprecedented growth and many of the risks taken by banks have been too high, with no consideration of ‘what if’. The rewards were huge for the banks in the short term however; it is now clear that they didn’t understand the complexity of what they were doing. The fallout is huge and the construction industry is affected more than most.


You would think that it would be difficult to find much to comment on from a business perspective in a theme park. Nothing could be further from the truth. At Disneyland there are many lessons for all businesses.

Disney is by far the best in class. The service is as high as I have ever experienced and I would guess their customer satisfaction is the highest in the world. They employ 55,000 people in Orlando with the vast majority upholding the Disney values. Maintenance of the facility is of the highest standard despite being operational every day and having thousands of visitors. They also continue to surprise, and since my last visit several years ago there are new attractions with relevance to current culture.

Disney World is the size of a city yet it runs efficiently and effectively. It also generates revenue of over $6 billion per year.

USA 2009

I have also taken onboard many aspects of the American culture while I have been away and will be sharing my thoughts over the next few days on the various aspects which I found interesting.

America on the Environment

America has woken up to the environment however I would say they are between 5 and 10 years behind Europe. They are starting with recycling but have not moved to energy conservation and in particularly Florida there is a huge amount of air conditioning. Car sizes have reduced with fewer SUV’s and 4 wheel drive vehicles on the road.

We stayed in a hotel on the Gulf Coast which claimed to be the first NEEAT hotel in America. All I could see was recycling bins and cartons made from recycled material. However this is a positive start and importantly this is now of interest to the American people.

America and its Car Industry

The American car industry is in a huge mess. General Motors filing for bankruptcy is unbelievable. It would appear that it has made some dreadful decisions over the past 20 years and the issues it faces now are not new. It did not continue to innovate and has been content to continue to manufacture average products. It even invested in Hummer when everyone else was investing in R&D of the electric vehicle.

Toyota has continued to develop its product and now produces the most popular cars in America.

The Global Recession is linked to the downfall of the motor industry in the US. In Detroit there has been a huge drop in manufacturing jobs leaving people with lower incomes or unemployed. These are the communities which have been encouraged to take up sub prime mortgages.

America and Apple

We visited several malls on the trip and by far the busiest and liveliest was the Apple Store.

There were people using the man
y apple devices from music to computers to phones. Microsoft may have lost its way in innovation and understanding what society wants and needs. Steve Jobs and Apple have great intuition when understanding contemporary cultures.

The Apple revolution is building in the UK and I am sure it will become central to youth culture within the next few years.

America and Steve Jobs

Whilst Disney has managed to remain a leader when it comes to theme parks through its imagineering (imagination and engineering) other parts of the business have fallen behind Walt Disney was an innovator and won more Oscars than anyone else for his work on animated movies. Disney lost its way with movies after the death of Walt and failed to push the boundaries.

I read Steve Jobs biography and he has made a fortune and lost a fortune and then gone on to make another one.

Now Apple and Steve Jobs are such a huge success it is easily forgotten how different it could have been. He invested everything he had and was very nearly bankrupt developing Pixar. He took huge risks but made a huge success with movies such as Finding Nemo and Toy Story.

Disney was left with no choice but to buy Pixar with Jobs becoming a major shareholder in Disney.

I have now read the stories of both Walt Disney and Steve Jobs and there are many parallels. Both of them are entrepreneurs and both are innovators. They are visionaries and single minded. Most of all they have a talent at reading the emerging markets

Steve Jobs is the Walt Disney of our time.

Steve Jobs/Wikipedia and Walt Disney/Wikipedia

Friday, 22 May 2009

A Brave New World

We have now officially entered the brave new world of social networking. Our new _space Life site is now up and running and we are going through our tests as we build up the content. I believe that social networking is building more and more momentum with increasing numbers of the people that I meet inadvertently mentioning YouTube or images on Facebook.

We are really hoping to bring the site to life and my vision is that it becomes a centre for all of the stories for the communities which we work within.

I spent the last few days in the South looking at several new schools and academies as I am always keen to see what is being done by others. On my travels I can across a very interesting new private school which had open air corridors giving students a good blast of fresh air. With a likely change of Government we are keeping our eyes open as to how a new Government may want to reform the education system. There are models in Scandinavia where education is delivered by the private sector under a voucher system. This has to be a realistic possibility under a conservative Government.

The racing season has started and I attended my first meeting in York last week. One of my favourite things throughout the summer is horse racing. I love the atmosphere and meeting people however, I am not a huge gambler. There are many meeting throughout the year and we hope for a glorious summer. It has to be better than sitting at St James Park.

At the end of the week I am off to Florida to spend some time with Mickey Mouse and my 5 year old daughter. I will be wearing my Mickey Mouse ears and really getting into the spirit of things. A trip to Orlando is far from an architectural pilgrimage but still great fun.

There are unlikely to be any great revelations in my blog upon my return however, I have packed my usual collection of business biographies so who knows how this may influence _space over the months ahead.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Social Media in Space

Times have certainly changed. We have just launched our new website Spacegroup.co.uk which reflects the diversity of the group. We have also launched a further site Spacelife.co.uk which allows us to tell the stories of the people of the buildings we create.

Initially I was a bit of a cynic regarding social networking. I thought it would be another fad and certainly something I would never have the time to use myself. However I find this media creeping more and more into my day to day life.

YouTube is great for watching short clips and space have even started producing video releases rather than press releases for projects we have completed.

I am astonished at the number and type of people who now use Facebook as a way to share photos and keep in touch.

When there is something new happening I have to find out more and understand what it is all about. I was recommended a great book called Meatball Sundae which put new media into context. Spacelife is our step into this world to link up with the people who live in the communities we work within.

These sites are used by all ages, however, there is a whole generation growing up attached to laptops and I phones. I realised times had changed when I watched my 16 year old son sitting on our settee with his girlfriend talking to their friends on MSN.

In our family eBay has also become a bonding activity as well as a small cottage industry operated by my wife and the same 16 year old trading children’s clothes.

Somebody once said to me that there are two types of people when it comes to social networking. There are those who get it and those who don’t. I think I now fall into the former.