Transcript: Driving sustainability on large scale projects with Jason Prior
Mamta: Hi everyone, and welcome to The Future of Work in Construction Concast. I'm delighted to introduce our next guest - Jason Prior. To give you some background on Jason – he is a founding partner of Priors & Partners who helped to solve many of the urgent challenges facing communities in our towns and cities and to make sure the potential of every project is unlocked.
Jason is well known for producing city scale transformative master plans and strategies that result in successful new communities and renewal of existing towns and cities.
Jason was also instrumental in the successful design and delivery of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, leading the master plan from bid stage through to legacy. His work led to the transformation of Manchester City Centre and is currently leading transformative master plans for Euston, Birmingham Smithfield and Silvertown in the UK as well as a new campus for Google in Sunnyvale, California. When I read that Jason I was like whoa, this is incredible - absolutely amazing!
Jason thanks ever so much for joining me today for a chat - I really appreciate your time. So I mean, you know what I'd really love to know, and I'm sure everyone listening would really love to know is - what is your background and what led you to set up Prior & Partners and do this amazing work?
Jason: Okay well I've been around a long time, so it led towards this particular direction! I’m a landscape architect by trade but got into city scale master planning back in the 90s, of which the first project was really the rebuilding of city centre Manchester after the big IRA bomb that took out half the city centre and I know that those projects are about design but they're primarily about economics and people and culture and social infrastructure, so that's what I started to find the real driver of the work I was interested in. I'm hugely interested, especially with my landscape background, in natural systems, ecology, so issues of sustainability and green design have always been really important. I ended up working mainly in American companies based out of the UK - ended up running large parts of American firms from the UK – I have way too many air miles to my name!
I’ve spent a lot of time circling the globe, where to the point about four or five years ago, I’d frankly had enough of that. I was never designed for management but that's what I was doing so, I really wanted to get back to the projects and this company was supposed to be a route back to projects and a view about working in teams so a view about bringing the best together for any particular project establishing industry networks, which would allow us to work with the smallest practices, the biggest practices and to play to our skills with myself and my partner Graham Goymour who kind of established a sort of armature that would allow these projects to a: be delivered properly and b: to engage the right people in that process, and we've gone from the strength to strength and we seem to be doing alright.
Mamta: Yeah I mean that’s incredibly aspiring. I mean you’re right, it is a risk when you set up a business I'm assuming because of your years’ experience you had that network – you obviously had vast knowledge as well, but what was the most challenging thing about setting up this business a few years ago?
Jason: I think deciding to do it actually. You know, I looked at beekeeping and I looked at you know, just becoming a gardener or something but with a total lack of imagination. I went back to what I did and frankly what really happened was we were being asked by clients to give sort of individual consultancy advice on projects and then they asked us to do the project so we needed the team so all the things that affect young businesses, you know a: making the decision, b: what colour desk to buy you know, are we going Mac or PC and then you know, the thing that takes all the time is designing the business cards of course – which you of course never use!
Mamta: I know I haven’t used a business card in years now!
Jason: That’s the thing you spend most time debating! You know cash flow, projects, setting up systems, there were no systems and but yeah, fantastic people, fantastic advisers and just the most incredible team it seems to have gone remarkably simply.
Mamta: Where are you now in terms of employees?
Jason: About 40 people, and we probably need quite a few more at the moment but, as I said earlier, we work in big networks so we have, you know we might have another 50 to 100 people in other firms and other consultancies or as individuals working with us so we tend to sit at the centre of some sort of spiders web as it were doing our piece and quite often those will be the people who take the projects forward into design of buildings or infrastructure or delivery. We’re very much at the front end of defining what these projects might be.
Mamta: Very good and I guess a really important question was - was it Mac or PC because I really want to know!
Jason: Well I had a Mac and everyone else had PCs until this week when they finally persuaded me!
Mamta: Oh no! how are you finding the switch?
Jason: Well I haven’t turned it on yet!
Mamta: I find it really difficult to switch in between now! They might take a bit of practice but it's fair enough if the rest of team are using PCs!
Jason: Personally I sit here surrounded by iPads and if I can't poke the screen it’s probably not going to work is it!
Mamta: No, exactly. That’s amazing, absolutely incredible. What do you think the current challenges and opportunities are as industry moves forward to the next zero agenda do you feel?
Jason: I was just thinking before we started to speak so I've been on the phone since 7:30 this morning. I’ve spoken to Australia, Abu Dhabi, twice to Spain, once to Saudi and I’ve spent most of the morning talking to people in the UK and we have talked climate change on every single call and we’ve talked zero carbon, or actually doing better than zero carbon - creating carbon sinks on every single project I've talked about this morning and that goes from dockland projects to national parks to very large housing schemes, to data centres and farms. So there is the challenge.
We know that we have all the technology, we have all the knowledge - I think our biggest challenge now is transitioning the supply chain, transitioning our government and local authority partners into, as it were, having a deep understanding of what everyone is trying to do. But it's only deliverable if all the parts work together so the way to achieve these high performance town, cities, places, buildings is that all the different streams have to work seamlessly together and you have to be very clever about how they talk together so data becomes important, distance technologies become really important, and then you also have to build with absolute excellence. These systems require excellence in delivery, be it the networks, be it how leaky your buildings are or not leaky, it's a big deal so it's really a mind shift, it's a cultural shift, it's a business supply shift but ultimately it's about a policy shift to ensure that there's a level playing field across all areas so the industry is forced to move and move in lock step.
Mamta: Absolutely. It seems like such a big task to get all those things, all those pieces working in order to combine and actually move towards that agenda. Do you feel like it's progressing well and how many years do you think before it’ll be effective?
Jason: I think it's inconsistent. I think most of the big players are now there. They can tell you how much recycled steel they've got in their steel systems. They're starting to explore very very large projects with very very large timber structure buildings in.
We’ve still got too much old-school response, which is you know, this is all we can afford or this is what we know or this is what legislation asks us to do at the moment and I think the reality is, as boring as it sounds, it comes down to this level playing field on the rules because large parts of the industry will always do the minimum in terms of hitting the numbers. I think the cultural change that needs to take place right across the industry is that we’re all on this one planet together and every single move adds up to something and the targets we're now setting ourselves and the urgencies that we heard about on Earth Day again last week, and that we'll hear again at the COP in Glasgow is that to hit the numbers we have to hit everything has to work – those are extraordinary targets - considering the amount of embedded infrastructure, homes, places we already have - everything new that we do and everything we now fix and then re-purpose has got to really hit the numbers.
Mamta: Yeah absolutely, that makes complete sense and I mean you've worked on some huge projects, the Olympics for example in 2012.
I mean, how has the industry moved forward since then and what have you seen in terms of progress, because obviously you’ve got so much experience, how has it changed for us – or for you?
Jason: I do think it's changing. I think we're lucky enough to be involved in large projects with large developers, large councils, large cities – whatever - so I think they're starting to get it.
I think one thing that people have really started to learn is that we're in a cycle now where things are gonna move pretty fast and therefore you have to put agility and future choice into the systems. You know, a lot of problems we have is that there's no redundancy in a lot of these systems - you can't add more, you can't improve, then what you really need to be doing with a lot of these systems is allowing for them to operate at higher and higher levels of performance in the future as other systems come online, so it's creating redundancy and the systems that we put in but I think the skills are all there.
I think projects like when you go right back to the early days and the Olympic planning which started in 2003, there were very high ambitions set but those are the ambitions of nearly 20 years ago - so how does a place like that continue to adapt? Well it adapts because the buildings that are going up are of today's standards and in five year’s time we’ll be putting them up to the standards of that place but the stuff that's buried in the ground, the heat recycling equipment, the energy systems etc, you know, they will always be what they are – at least for the sensible future and on any great projects, not just picking on the Olympics is how do you make certain that those sorts of systems are fit for purpose for a lot of things that are going to be plugged onto them in the future?
So infrastructure becomes supercritical - what we plug and play on top of that and what we renovate and restore on top of that, is what I think really keeps pushing a lot of the agenda forward.
Mamta: Absolutely and that all makes sense. It's interesting as well in terms of, when we first spoke on the call you mentioned that you’re growing your team and that actually people are hard to find. How would you encourage younger people to get into this industry and do you feel that there's a lack of people now with skills who want to get involved?
Jason: I think part of the story the industry has to tell is, (I think we've rather binary views of this industry) - you're either sitting in an office designing things or managing a few things or you're outside building and getting dirty and actually the reality is these are very sophisticated jobs from construction and implementation - you're using machinery, tools and kit now, you’re spending half your time in the office and half the time out there making stuff - but you are shaping the planet, you’re shaping the places where people live, you’re shaping how communities are successful or otherwise, you're leading the charge on how we secure the future and the future resilience of these communities. So I think to talk about this industry, and it’s a very broad industry in terms of actually, just a wealth of opportunities and the skill sets required and really, you know, this industry delivers on the fundamentals of what makes human society work! - start with fresh water and power and work your way back from that – none of it works without that and those things sound fairly crude and simple but the reality is the way they're going to be delivered in the future and the way that they interact with natural systems. We're doing projects at the moment where clients are saying no pipes - no pipes for surface water - everything on the surface because we want the ecology - we'd rather spend money on the ecology than on pipes. So, how do you do that? So drainage now becomes about ecology, drainage becomes about natural systems, it becomes about clay, it becomes about just beautiful things and that I think is a very different message to which we may have talked about five years ago, ten years ago, in terms of people joining in.
Mamta: Absolutely, it’s interesting that on Apple TV there's a show called Home and they showcase people who've built sustainable homes throughout the world and they'll talk about things like in Bali they make lots of homes out of bamboo and how they’re bringing in bamboo now over to the West to build stuff as well.
It's absolutely fascinating so I'm assuming that you do learn from other cultures and countries on how to solve these problems?
Jason: Yeah and I think that is one of the challenges for the industry is being open to that and ensuring that, so a couple hours ago we were having a discussion on a project which had some very large buildings in it about how far we can span - what does a 30 metre span look like if you're not using steel, and the kind of acceptance for instance, in that case, that if we were in North America on the west coast we wouldn't even think twice about that but to do it here - Okay, that's a big challenge, and now I think it's closing those sort of technological gaps that are really important. I’d say it was one of the great things about working for a big multinational with offices all over the World is that, you know, one of our strengths was that you could move technologies around the World within the firm as it were, but again, even then getting people to understand those, appreciate those and enable those was always a challenge.
Mamta: Absolutely it's fascinating, I mean, you've had a lot of big clients, a lot of big projects - one of them was Google HQ – incredible! How did you get onto that project and win that and what were the key priorities when designing it as well?
Jason: Yes, it’s not so much their HQ – as a sort of very large complex of buildings, facilities. In Silicon Valley, within few miles of each other you've got Apple, Facebook, Google all sat together, they’ve all got very obviously different cultures but Google have been fantastic to work with - they have an extraordinary culture about design, about sustainability, about the well-being of their people so just starting with that as a brief, to take on several hundred acres of world class working space and in that you have to consider the culture of work which of course had a big shake up in the last year or so, but also I suppose a firm has a culture around challenge and exploration and investigation and innovation - bring that to the development world - sit that alongside a desire to deliver a very large number of homes, new towns, new communities in effect against these very strong sustainability principles has been absolutely fascinating - so how did we get that? I’m not quite sure! We were introduced to the project to advise and ultimately, as the relationship grew, we took over helping them make it work but working across the World I suppose a lesson we’ve learnt is you only do these things in close collaboration with a: a much bigger team and b: local teams.
I’ve neither the time nor the bandwidth intellectually to learn the American planning system, so it is the most extraordinary team at Google, their development partners LendLease are a fantastic range of consultants and we’re very very pleased to be in the middle of it all trying to give some shape to it.
Mamta: I mean it's incredible it really is, and to you know, a relatively young business as well to be able to do these amazing projects is fantastic.
Jason: I think what is interesting to see now is this kind of disruptor role, so here is an outfit that we know traditionally for one set of skills getting into in effect the development business, because they need to for their own sake but taking a very different view of it and it's extraordinary to see the impact of that, you know, and bringing a, I suppose a different value system to it, you know, I would say one of the big challenges facing the industry p is that the profit margin at risk in the world of construction is so marginal that the amount of money that's left for most large companies to invest in the techniques, technologies, toolkit, training required to take this industry, I think if you look at all those graphs of improvements in productivity over the years I think construction is the worst by a dramatically long way. Look what I think some like fishing and construction are like, very very poor and what that speaks to I think is a sort of built-in handicap within the industry to actually catch up with a lot of what's going on, but then you see the disruptors coming from the outside with a different view of how you do things and you can see where the change will come from.
Mamta: Absolutely and you know, like you said the World has changed over the last year and as well as being a disruptor, it’s now really important to consider diversity and inclusion even more in our World and in our projects, so tell me more about that - what have you been doing around diversity and inclusion in your projects?
Jason: Our starting point I suppose is the structure of the practice which is with a sort of a cultural philosophy that says thou shalt collaborate wherever possible with a: the best people and b: the people who are most appropriate and bring the most to the projects we're working with. So I think actually this morning they announced that we'd won a big project out of Thamesmead for the Peabody Trust and LendLease again and it's very interesting to see that they were very very clear that diversity would play a significant part in their selection of their team. If we look at that community it's a large West African population, a very diverse cultural population, so it’s people who can both demonstrate that they can engage with that diversity - are of that diversity I would say that you want in your team and I think it goes to my earlier point you know never work in another country without people from that place and that goes for everything we talk about. The challenges if we sort of rode back from that is that if you look at the amount of diversity inside the architectural business or the engineering business, it's limited, so this goes, I think, right back to grassroots which is the kids leaving school need to know that these careers are open to them. They need to be getting into the colleges, the training programs and then they need to be finding the right career paths and that goes again right back to basics of do they see themselves in these industries, so they see these industries has been diverse and welcoming, do they have peers, relatives, advisors who can take them there.
We had an extraordinary thing on the Thamesmead (project) we had a young architectural practice on our team led by a guy called Jayden Ali and Jaden reminded me that back in the early 2000s he’d spent an internship with our firm on the Olympics and that was one of the things that took him down the road of architecture from whilst he was at school. It just shows that sometimes things take time but it's never too late to start and I think we collectively as firms, as professionals, as contractors and builders, developers, be it across all the fronts of culture, disability, diversity, you have to open the doors to bring people in to let them know that there's a place to be going, you know.
Mamta: Absolutely and think about those disruptors as well I think that's needed for education – definitely in terms of the careers and the advice that kids get nowadays as well I think that really needs to be improved because they're not aware of what the options are and even through university or choosing their degree, they're not aware of what is available out there for them, so I think that disruption needs to happen at all levels doesn't it as well to kind of get that more diversity into the workforce.
Jason: The industry needs to take every opportunity it gets to go into schools to talk to people to go into colleges, and I think we just need to talk more about what we do because if we come all the way back to the earlier point about sustainability and climate change this industry will deliver masses of amounts of that - if this industry doesn't do it with the right people – it ain't gonna happen.
Mamta: Absolutely and I know people listening might want to know what type of skills do you look for? What does Prior and Partners value in terms of skills and education to join a firm like yours?
Jason: I think, and we’ve been talking about this recently, what do we value? We value curiosity. I think we value curiosity, we require people to be collaborative and team workers - that doesn't mean you don't hold an opinion, that doesn't mean you don't argue til the sun comes up again about your point, but there is a culture about team working that is essential on these big complex projects.
Of course we like to have specialists in the team but we think, particularly in these industries we need people who can join the dots up, who can see the opportunity that comes from as I was saying earlier, I think a lot of the drivers of these sustainable high performance places that we all create is about seeing the interrelationships between you know, if you're if you're doing a data centre which requires a lot of power there's something called hot air coming out of there in huge volumes at some point so what are you doing with that, you know, you just blast that out into the atmosphere that's no good to anyone but if you're capturing that and using it for heating systems or you're pumping into greenhouses or whatever, you know, there are interrelationships or you’re pre-heating water systems. There is such opportunity in terms of those people who can see the interrelationships, so we look for curiosity, we look for collaboration, we look for a passion as much as anything about what this is, and yes, if you’ve got those and we're off, you know.
Mamta: Would you also consider people from different industries? Some people might feel like they’re stuck in one industry, they can't move over, so do you embrace different industries and experience of different industries?
Jason: So we've had people out of local government, we've had people from different corners of the industry we're in. It’s fair to say that most of our people are trained in urban design, master planning, architecture, landscape strategy, but also in planning and planning policy. And within that training, there's a wealth of specialisms from certain policy areas to sustainability, energy systems, and all of that sort of stuff, but we have a core business which is largely around professional training but those adjacencies - those adjacent skill sets are the ones that more and more are arriving within the practice because that enables you to engage with other people and if they're not within the practice they are closely held with colleagues and friends. So, for instance, a lot of the challenge we have is around developing a narrative for a project; crudely, what's the story? What are we telling people? and critically what is the narrative we're asking people to engage with?So if I want a person who's really good at (coming up with the) narrative, do I hold that internally or do I go to the best person positioned to help us with that in one corner of the World or the other at the time that when it gets to those sort of adjacencies we tend to go outside the practice.
Mamta: That’s so good and so nice to hear that you do that and that you are open to different opportunities, which is fantastic. Before I let you crack on with your day, I'd like to ask you one last question if that's okay? If you had an uncomfortable question to ask you industry, what would it be?
Jason: Well I think I would go back to this issue of diversity. How long is it taking to make these changes? and we're all well, you know, we're all part of that – I’m not holding us up as being anything special so we've all got a massive role – it’s an uncomfortable question for me, for the wider industry, so one thing would be accelerating that process because we as an industry, when the chips are on the table, we deliver on behalf of society! There are pay masters, there our users, our customers, our whatever, the informants of what we do and if you're not representing that society then you're not going to get it right are you, so it’s that diversity of culture, presence, thought I think is really critical, and then I think the next challenge is really in this whole delivery against our sustainability and low carbon strategies is, we keep saying to people, there is another project which is a prototype for something, you know, another experiment, we’d be on that, we know how to do this stuff, we've got to mainstream all of these technologies, all of these approaches and collectively realise that there is no value in taking any form of shortcut, let's just get on with it.
Mamta: Yes indeed and it's being proactive and active in terms of getting these changes done - and not just thinking about it - not just sitting on your hands and doing it, right?
Jason: Yeah, we should have started 10 years ago, so now we're running late!
Mamta: Yes definitely! Jason it was such a pleasure and honour to speak to you, if I had met someone like you at school or university, I think I would have been inspired to follow this career track because the work that you've done is life-changing - you're changing the world for the better and I really appreciate your time today.
Jason: That’s very generous of you. Thanks very much – good to meet you