Quality, Consequences and the Construction Industrial Complex (part 215).
I have just finished the excellent HBO series “Chernobyl ” and it was awesome!
The show did a great job of explaining the science and politics of the day. It also communicated, in a non-judgmental, terrifying way, how out of control things got plus, how this incident was unprecedented and could have been much, much worse than it eventually was.
I was struck by how this failure event cascaded and the parallels to current day design and construction of mission critical facilities.
Chernobyl was caused by 3 things:
1. Cost cutting in design, construction and training
2. A lack of Cx integration systems testing during construction phase
3. The inability to say no or challenge power
I see all the above on just about every project I work on.
In the game of property design and construction, firms and people are rewarded for legitimate and illegitimate cost cutting. However, when the facility is mission critical in any way, the client must have the requisite expertise in house or on hand to assess any changes.
Mission critical facilities must be designed to support the mission with high priority to;
• Single Points of Failure
• Life cycle costs
Clients and managers do not like to admit what they do not know. However, they are all 100% sure they will look good when they report that costs are down. Non-technical, weak clients are a massive risk to mission critical facilities design and construction.
Integration Systems Testing (IST)
The cascade failure that led to the Chernobyl explosion was started by a “cover your ass’, late test of 3 standby generators that supported the cooling pumps. Yes, according to HBO, the Chernobyl power station was bought on line and operated for over a year without full commissioning and IST to please people in power!
IST is the “verification of functional performance and interconnectivity of all systems within the whole building context”. IST is vital to ensure systems are integrated and working from a life safety and mission critical perspective. Yet, no building code or commissioning standards call for it. A few informed clients specify it but most do not.
If you are North American, British or European reading this, do not feel smug and think we are delivering working and tested buildings, we are not. The silo approach is rampant and IST has to be forced onto projects by informed clients. Empirically, I estimate IST is undertaken correctly on less than 5% of the projects I work on.
Speaking to Power
When people get jobs, particularly technical leadership positions via connections, favour and cronyism bad outcomes are almost guaranteed, it is only a matter of time. People in jobs they should not have tend to be entitled and compensate by being aggressive, they are not good with hearing the word no. Top down management and authoritarianism always ends badly with plenty of collateral damage along the way.
My theory is that one of the most significant, unspoken problems in the property design and construction industry is the dearth of leadership talent. My anecdotal evidence for this is that CEO’s of construction firms rarely get head hunted to be CEO’s in other industries. Yet many fortune 500 CEO’s change industry with each now appointment. Is it that construction CEO’s and COO’s do not make the cut in the fortune 500?
Despite my horror at how out of control the Chernobyl explosion and follow up was, I believe the future really is nuclear power.
There is an “inconvenient truth” we all have to acknowledge. The only way to decarbonize and reduce reliance on fossil fuels at scale is via the proven technology of nuclear power. The French have been onto this for years with ~ 75% of their power coming from Nuclear. Are you anti Nuclear? Then maybe, you are anti French?
The majority of carbon emissions are now generated by India and China. Even if all “Western” countries moved to 100% renewables, it would not make a significant difference to world wide emissions. IMHO, the only way to make a difference and decarbonize world economies is via Nuclear power with Elon Musk shooting the waste material into space using reusable rockets.
As an advocate for buildings that actually work, the takeaway for me is that real commissioning plus commissioning management with peer reviews could have made a difference at Chernobyl.
Be French, sleep well and try not to worry!
Related posts & links:
Edifice Complex Podcast