City Shaper: Neil Barr

Better buildings designed to make people’s lives better can reshape and create benefits across the whole of society, WSP Property and Buildings Director Neil Barr believes.

He is gratified that more people in the industry are approaching building design from a “human factors and cultural outcomes” perspective.

“The motion of a space, how a building makes you feel, is an area that has more prominence.”

“Taking on challenges that wouldn’t be considered as traditional “design” problems like how you design out loneliness in cities,” he says.

“Urbanisation can make people feel very lonely. So how does a single apartment integrate with the rest of the city? You start to take a precinct level view and then a community level, not just a building level view.”

Neil has a great sense of pride from seeing a project he is involved in come to fruition while delivering excellent outcomes.

The asset might look lovely and function really well, but it's the outcomes you get that have the real purpose," he says. "Now human factors, environmental factors and cultural outcomes are becoming as, or more important.

His role at WSP focuses on these outcomes. Some of the firm’s key markets are Government Ministries and Agencies across the Housing, Health, Education, and Corrections services. These are a good fit for a firm which at its core “exists to create what matters for future generations”.

WSP also works with private sector clients who “share a similar purpose”.

Neil says the work is challenging, but hugely rewarding. Kāinga Ora, as an example, aims to construct new social housing nationwide while addressing decades of underspending on its existing housing portfolio. “A difficult role for any agency, but one with massive upside for all of Aotearoa.”

“Bringing dignity back for families that have, in some cases for several generations, been forgotten.” Additionally, for most middle-income New Zealanders, “it is an unseen problem” because social housing has traditionally been clustered. “And a bit of a view that it’s ‘their fault’ to be honest, as opposed to the social construct and environment that has been created. So with good design thinking and good levels of investment we can create a different environment that helps people reach their potential.”

Neil notes he grew up in similar housing in Scotland, seeing first-hand poverty and associated social problems. “I’m quite comfortable in that environment,” he says. “But, we tend to ignore it as a society. It’s ‘their’ problem. It’s not ‘our’ problem.”

Neil and his daughters

Neil says the investment is worthwhile with European evidence of how improving the social housing stock and urban generation pays dividends in positive social and individual outcomes.

“So, working with Kāinga Ora, their aspiration is tremendous – you can’t fault what they are trying to do: Trying to break the cycle of generational, institutional poverty.”

Another aspirational project with Corrections is looking for ways to make prisons more conducive to rehabilitation. Neil notes the high recidivism rates among people who end up in the penal system – around 70 per cent will re-offend after their release. “No-one in society benefits from that.”

He says incorporating well thought through elements – such as plantings, access to natural light and incorporating sound human factors and urban design processes – may help reduce that rate. “Its about understanding the psychology of re-offending and incorporating passive design elements that create a different environment.”

That sort of thinking is being implemented. It will take another decade to see if any of it has had an impact, but if other progressive countries are anything to go by, there will be significant positives.

Transport-oriented design is a “biggie”, with WSP involved with the City Rail Link in Auckland and KiwiRail’s iReX redevelopment of the Interislander’s Waitohi, Picton and Kaiwharawhara, Wellington ferry terminals. “CRL will transform the way Auckland functions for decades to come. The potential for good urban design around newly created nodes will play out, as it has done in every city where such a scheme exists.”

Early fascination

Originally from Scotland, Neil says his father’s career in the oil and gas sector ignited his initial interest in construction.

I was always fascinated with his stories and what he was up to. He would be off in all manner of weird and wonderful places," Neil says. "It always sounded almost romantic. There was that adventure, the different countries.

Occasionally, if his dad had a project in the UK, Neil would go along with him. Few health and safety regulations at the time meant he was able to be part of the action.

“You could go and sit on the crane driver’s knee at five years old and pull the levers. It was great fun.”

The enduring impression was the sense of teamwork on the sites and “a real passion for what you were creating”.

Starting his career in construction contracting in the UK, Neil took opportunities which led him to multiple countries, including New Zealand.

“It’s such a wonderful country. There’s a real energy and the culture here, which doesn’t exist in many other places.”

Other countries might seem “attractive and exotic”, but he says they can be much more difficult places to live a balanced life.

He has no regrets in his career, but he sometimes wonders about an opportunity he didn’t take. In 2002 he was offered a project director role, rehabilitating the infrastructure in the Democratic Republic of Congo following the civil wars which ravaged the country in the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

As a young man, he was excited about the offer. But a check on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website cooled his enthusiasm. There were two countries marked as no-go zones – Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo where hostage taking and murders were still frequent.

It could have been awesome. I could have made a huge difference in those communities. But I could also be dead.

Neil has grabbed every other opportunity, including time in Norway and Australia before his current role back in New Zealand with WSP.

Over the years, he has built an appreciation for looking deeper at the purpose of projects.

He says people coming into the industry should always ask about the ‘why’ of a project.

“And keep asking until you get the right answer. It generally takes five times – the ‘Five Whys’.”

That enables people to undertake their role with more focus and purpose, “rather than just blindly following orders”.

“It not only benefits the project and the client; you are developing as a person.”

Equally, if you are more informed about the 'why', as you go through your own process, you might think of ideas that might be better.

He also encourages his team members to “value who you are as a person and as a skilled professional” and not put up with people or organisations trying to knock them down.

Industry driver

Neil says the Property Council provides excellent thought leadership, industry intelligence and advocacy.

“They are the primary driver of our industry. To partner with, learn from, to help steer such an organisation is a real privilege.”

The Council is a necessary independent voice for the industry, he says.

“Leonie and the team do a lot of work in the advocacy space, which can be difficult for individual members to raise.”

Some topics may be contentious or require more thought and perspective, he says. The Property Council helps the industry approach issues “in a meaningful and constructive way”.

The WSP Property & Buildings Leadership Team

It gets a fair bit of respect from key decision makers, which allows them to have a positive influence and not just for Property Council members. Hopefully for all of New Zealand.

He hopes the sector keeps collaborating for the “bigger picture”, noting the Council is a great way to facilitate that goal.

Neil says that industry opportunities include better use of data and data sovereignty to add value to projects.

“People have been talking about it for a wee while. Interpreting the data you collect is the key to understanding what you could do differently to get a better outcome for your shareholders, your Minister, or whoever.”

Modular construction is another “revolutionary” opportunity for New Zealand.

“Overseas, the modular approach to facilities, design and infrastructure is quite advanced. We are still playing around with it, with a number of environmental, health and safety, quality and cost benefits.”

There are huge productivity benefits from having standardised construction approaches.

“They’re built in an assembly line like you are building a car. So there is better quality because it is all in a controlled environment. You have limited your health and safety exposure as much as possible, and it’s cheaper.”

Modular doesn’t necessarily mean ‘identical’. Neil notes that WSP is involved in a Middle East town-building project with “Lego-like” components that mix and match to provide a variety of functions and forms.

Schools, mosques, museums, art galleries, hotels, and houses – a proper town, with different, pre-constructed constituent parts. It's how they are integrated that gives the different shapes, styles and formats.

New Zealand’s forestry sector also provides a “unique position” to decarbonise construction through mass timber products.

“You have examples of mass timber here and there, but you don’t have streets of it, and that’s the kind of vision for structural timber. Particularly with the renewable resource right here.”

The WSP team pride itself on a culture of inclusivity and fun
Health and safety paramount

Neil says only one thing can keep him awake at night – the health and well-being of other people.

“That’s not just people that work for me, but we hear about an accident on a site, a relative or someone we know in the industry – it really hurts.”

“I’m constantly asking if I’m doing enough to educate and lead my people on keeping them safe?”

The culture around health and safety has evolved significantly for the better since he began his career in construction, “but there is always more to do.”

With Covid, Neil expects increased management of it as an endemic disease. That includes greater awareness around ventilation and providing spaces that allow people to live and work together safely.

You can try to control everything or adapt to accommodate this thing. That adaptation piece is so critical right now, and I think most people get it.

Likewise, there are already changes to how people work – many people who formerly worked in an office five days a week are now spending at least one working from home.

“It’s a change to the power dynamic, and it has changed a whole lot for city shaping.”

Decarbonisation “of the supply chain and the asset” is one of the biggest challenges ahead for the property sector. Part of that is ensuring clients understand the process and the costs, he says.

Rising interest rates, a “tough” labour market and supply chain issues are current headwinds.

“I really hope there is not a cash-flow issue like there was post-GFC,” he says. “I don’t think it’s that serious, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some parts of our sector came under a bit of pressure.”

Higher interest rates require business models to be adjusted accordingly.

I hope everyone's prepared and not overcommitting.

However, in the macro market, there is “still growth” with various projects continuing to provide stimulus. The City Rail Link, for example, will open new opportunities for Auckland’s property market to “do something different”.

There is still growth “outside the metro centres”.

He can also see that the Government’s plans to improve its facilities and infrastructure across its portfolios are making a difference. WSP is doing a lot of work refurbishing older, lower-decile schools around the country.

“None of these are super flash. They are refurbs so that now the roof doesn’t leak, it’s insulated, and it’s got some IT capability.”

Following one such project, WSP’s Head of Architecture, Bruce Curtain, told Neil about the response from one pupil who said, “Wow, this is amazing, thank you so much.”

Bruce felt really chuffed, but then he followed it up with, 'We don't deserve this'. And Bruce just melted. Every eight-year-old child deserves a classroom like this as a minimum. Otherwise, what are we doing?

About the City Shapers Series

The City Shapers Series is a collection of interviews with some of Property Council’s most prominent members. The series is about showcasing the people in property – the city shapers who lead extraordinary teams, develop exemplary projects and demonstrate the very best of the New Zealand property industry.

We aim to highlight the property industry’s role as an important contributor to New Zealand’s economy and our members as ‘city shapers’, building communities for Kiwis to live, work, play and shop.

Author: Felicity Wolfe

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