Colourful shadows in an angular world
Sun after rain
Sydney moon from the star
Stonehenge, chatswood, from above
Chatswood dawn - the maple syrup glow
“Conformity is the jailor of freedom and the enemy of growth”. John F Kennedy said this in 1961, at a time when the world was changing rapidly and facing great challenges, because he knew that the flame of creativity was needed to find the solutions, but peer pressure of the mob suffocates it like a fire blanket.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, we find ourselves in a similar time of flux. With massive problems and upheaval looming in every direction, it is time to make ourselves uncomfortable again! Today I will put the principle into practice by targeting our housing - the great Australian dream of the McMansion on a quarter acre block! By thinking outside the box, I have come to the conclusion that we should live in a box! Yes, today I will show you how the shipping container can be used to make our lives better in 3 spheres of life: economic, environmental and social.
Almost 10 years ago I started thinking about shipping container houses. I was at a 300 man workers camp speedily deployed in the middle of the desert, all made out of containers and complete with offices, accommodation, gym and of course a bar - drinking a beer watching a brilliant red NT sunset facilitated the creative process. Recycled shipping containers are an ideal building material because they are cheap (under 3 grand), strong, abundant and easy to stack and arrange as you see fit. This is not what I imagine though, and this is not what innovative architects around the world are building today.
Welcome to my dream container block apartment complex, designed with 9 2 bedroom apartments, every horizontal surface covered with gardens, and leftover doors and metal used for balconies! Windows, walls and rooves can be cut out, allowing light to flood in and containers to be joined together, making larger spaces on par with traditional apartments. All of a sudden you have something revolutionary: well designed dense homes that give people their own patch of dirt, cost half as much to construct as a normal home and are well suited to our 2 speed economy – they could be fitted out in depressed areas to provide jobs where labour is cheap, then transported for rapid assembly to places where labour and homes are scarce. From an economic point of view it makes sense and the liveability is all about the design.
Environmentally, the container block is also a game changer. Insulated containers with soil on their rooves, good window seals and intelligent placement with respect to the sun will make them much cheaper to heat and cool than a drafty wooden or brick house. Add 4 5 metre solar thermal power dishes to the roof and these could provide most of the electricity, heat, cooling and hot water needs for the whole block, even into the night or as clouds pass! Greywater and stormwater would be caught and reused. The most important environmental contribution though is the re-use of shipping containers as construction material instead of expending massive energy to both trash them and create new materials from scratch. The world is under enormous pressure from garbage, global warming, and resource depletion – the container block tries to reduce a person’s impact right down to the land they live on.
Now, blueprints of a super efficient solar powered apartment block are all well and good, but surely I didn’t invoke JFK just for this? This dream of mine has a social dimension. It is an intentional slap in face to everything wrong with our society and an excited and hopeful expression of what it could become. The mere idea of scattering a pile of brightly coloured recycled shipping containers amongst suburbia and living in them is one-two hit: one for the conformism that makes us feel like insecure teenagers scared to be different; two for the consumerism that makes us desire endless mountains of useless crap and huge houses to put them in, all the while making us work harder to pay massive mortgages and then feel emptier then ever. Also, some of the gardens would be for communal activities, like food growing, housing animals, socialising, entertaining, and places for kids to safely play (and get dirty) in view of their parents. This is designed to break barriers: between people and their food, between people and nature, between people and other people. Isolation, mental disease and intolerance are the scourges of our time and breaking down these barriers will help heal the wounds.
Ladies and gentlemen, if I have overcome your awkward feeling of resistance and replaced it with some small buzz of excitement and possibility about green container housing, then I would be happy. I would be happy because it demonstrates to you, that conventional wisdom and peer pressure is worth pushing through because there might be something worthwhile on the other side. I urge you all to remember this and seek it our in your everyday lives – the world depends on it.
Rediscovering the Individual
Speech by David Nixon to Chatswood Early Risers Toastmaters, June 12, 2012
Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a time of fear for the future. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was like a slap in the face for the western world. It ripped off the opulent clothes that we bought on credit, threw us in icy water, and is forcing us, kicking and screaming, to see the ugly reality of our excess and confront our diminished state. Australia’s mineral resources have made it a lucky country of sorts, but this wealth is fickle and we suffer the same long term disease as other Western countries. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, our productivity, the measure of how we transform work into wealth, has plateaued and fallen since 2004 after steadily rising for decades. Our personal debt has increased six-fold in the 18 years from 1990 to 2008, rising from 190 billion to 1.1 trillion dollars. Real progress is slowing and we are using debt to maintain the illusion of it.
For a solution we look to our governments, but their plans are far from inspiring. From the Liberals, wind back government services and our quality of life. From Labor, conjure money from thin air to keep the party going longer. From the Greens, withdraw from growth altogether and try to keep the world in stasis. Secretly, we know that printing money is not a long term option and aiming to keep the economy frozen at current levels seems fantastical when we can barely stop it tanking right now. So we resign ourselves to a slow slide back down the path of prosperity that was forged by our parents, grandparents and ancestors. No wonder that, for the first time in generations, people fear that their children’s lives will not be better their own.
I do not feel hopeless and helpless about the future. I have hope because I know the massive impact that individual people can have, and I do not feel helpless because solutions based on the individual are in our direct control. Today I will share two real life stories, one about an employer, and one about employees, and then explain how these lead to my optimism.
Stepping back one generation in my own family, my dad had such a poor childhood that I, perhaps cruelly, played the imaginary violin whenever he talked about it. He was born in 1947, and lived on a small farm near Inverell NSW. Dripping on toast (basically fat on bread) was a common meal, lighting was by kerosene lamp, and the same small amount of bath water was used in turn by parents and all 5 kids. He left school at grade 10, doing well at manual arts and maths but he was by no means an academic person. He did a TV and radio repair apprenticeship and by age 19 had already bought into business and gone broke. After handing in all his worldly possessions to clear the debt, he joined the crew of a yacht and sailed South East Asia maintaining their engines and radar for several years.
In 1977, he settled in Gladstone and started his own two-way radio business from a spare bedroom. The business grew slowly without any investors or venture capital, and with many periods of near destruction where my mum’s high school teaching salary was the only thing keeping basic food on the table. He put in massive hours and had the ever-present stress of being responsible for the staff payroll and recurring bills. Nevertheless, he was very successful, employing over 70 people today.
I think the keys to his success were a real passion for his work and the value it gave to his customers, and a ruthlessly applied positive attitude summed up by the phrase: “there’s no such thing as can’t”. The message here is that one individual without any privileged background can make a massive impact, truly creating something of value and wealth and employment where there was none before.
Starting a business is not for everyone, but the same principles apply to life as an employee. I work for Honeywell, which is an American technology company that employs 130 thousand people and has annual revenue of 33 billion dollars. Having said that, you would be surprised at the day-to-day struggles of getting a software product out the door. My boss says people are hard, everything else is easy, and I have observed the massive difference between a motivated person, in an area of work they are competent in and taking responsibility for it, compared to someone that is neither of these. At various times in my career I have been both of these people. I remember a time soon after I started when I was literally nodding off to sleep at my keyboard after lunch because I was so unmotivated. The project I was working on was making incredibly slow progress because I didn’t understand what the point of it was, I was a overwhelmed by everything I didn’t know and I generally didn’t have the best work ethic. In contrast to then, I can now see the value in what I’m building and get a sense of pride out of doing the best I can and taking responsibility for its success, and it feels great! Lately I don’t even need coffee to stay awake in the afternoon!
The other thing I’ve noticed is that all sorts of people regularly come up with great ideas that would make our work easier, the products better, and the company more money, but most of them are never realised because they or their managers are waiting around for someone else to make it happen. The amazing, fantastic truth is that if you personally put your hand up to be the one to make such an idea a reality, people will generally get on board after some initial turbulence and it happens. Recently, 2 junior programmers released an automatic testing system that will save man years of wasted effort fixing bugs on customer sites. These 2 did in just a few weeks, off their own bat, what people had been grumbling and dreaming about for 6 years! Although this will get you promoted in a good company, I think they did it for the intrinsic value of what they were creating. The point of this story is that even working for a massive mature company, an individual can find fulfilment in valuable work and can have a massive positive impact on the business when they begin to realise their potential outside the narrow box of their job description.
So how does this talk about the importance of an individual relate to our woes as a society? Quite simply, our society is facing a decline in real wealth, which is is the sum of the wealth created by all the businesses within it, and the wealth of a business is determined by the individuals within it. Governments can do things to help or hinder, but they cannot create wealth – by definition they can only tax and redistribute it. We need individuals to create more value to let business make profit so the government can tax it to provide the services we need.
The centuries of growing wealth and prosperity in the Western World began with the Renaissance, when the power of the individual we unlocked – we need to rediscover that. The individual is the yeast that makes the bread rise. What I want you all to remember today is that you are in control of how much yeast you add to the bread. I want you to remember the story of my dad who came from nothing to employ 70 people, the newbies at my workplace who revolutionised the way things were done just because they asked the question “why not”, and found no answer that made any sense. I want you all to find work you are passionate about because you are creating something real that people want, then multiply that passion and pride and the awesomeness of what you create by 50 by remembering that there is no such thing as can’t. If your workplace is too backward to let you grow, I want you to set up in competition, knowing that 1 of you really, truly, can be worth 50 of them. I want you to pour the whole box of yeast into the bread and blow the door off the oven. If only a handful of people in Australia unlock their potential as an individual, then the GFC will be a forgotten footnote of history.
Woolloomooloo angles, with oysters and champagne on the side
Bowl of clouds for breakfast
Sydney Sunset Starbucks
Channeling Howare Roark and Dominique Francon in Brisbane GPO
Dark rainy lights
Just the basics at Lennox Head