Why David Prentice should never have run away to the circus
Thirty-eight years ago, a young David Prentice launched a characterful yet considered career with RDT Pacific. It was 1985 and his long-term plan was to become a director, but he acknowledged “he needed to walk before he could run” and earn the respect of his peers. Throughout his journey he has remained keenly attuned to the changing New Zealand built environment, deepening his understanding academically and on the job, while remaining focused on the road ahead.
In 2004, David (Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Ruanui), became a Director of RDT Pacific, is currently Board Chair and continues to work with a number of key clients to deliver RDT Pacific’s services. He is a Registered Quantity Surveyor, holds a Master of Property Studies from Lincoln University and is a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Quantity Surveyors.
Like any long-term relationship, David has seen the best and the worst of New Zealand’s bespoke built environment and watched the market cycle through many phases.
He says, “these moments can often be lessons in humility that teach preparedness”.
When asked what advice he would give his 20-year-old self, he laughs and says, “run away to the circus and become a lion tamer”.
We’re relieved he didn’t, and in this interview, David shares some highlights, lessons learned from a cyclical, yet unpredictable market, and talks about the challenges of the present and future built environment, and the things that will always hold true.
What have been your standout projects?
It’s difficult to single out projects, but Te Papa was a great experience, as were some of the projects I was involved in that were related to the Sydney Olympics. My work in the justice and defence sectors has been rewarding as has some of the health care work I’ve done, along with numerous commercial property developments.
Quirky jobs have included a project laying a fibre optic cable between Newcastle and Brisbane, organising a kitset cell block to be shipped to Pitcairn Island and repairing a mechanical penguin for an exhibit at Te Papa where we sought help from Weta Workshop, who were just starting out at the time.
What are some of the defining moments or learnings you’ve experienced over this time?
Very early on in my career I was fortunate to be part of a cadet swap programme with two Main Contractors which helped deepen my understanding of the construction process.
Working on Te Papa Tongarewa – the Museum of New Zealand project, which included being based in Wellington for three years during construction, was a once-in-a-career opportunity. As well as the mana of the facility as the holder of many taonga, there were a number of reasons the project was unique, including its 200-year-plus design life, the response to the site location on a key fault-line and in a marine environment, and the approach to documenting the project in way that ensured all information was coordinated and easily located (something we haven’t really learned from in the last thirty years). At the time, RDT was pioneering the introduction of the Value Management process in New Zealand which had a profound influence in delivering the project within budget and importantly, fulfilling the requirements of the brief (an unfortunately unusual achievement for a publicly-funded civic project).
The three years I spent in Sydney as a Director of Wilde and Woollard Pacific, a company RDT Pacific bought a 50 percent stake in, was equally informative. This was an exciting time as the city was preparing for the 2000 Olympic Games with many building projects underway.
I have also worked (and am still working) with senior professionals who have different approaches and whose opinions I value.
These experiences, combined with roles extending from the strategic planning phase to development of business cases and their implementation, have shaped my view that for investment programmes to be successful, they need to be set up well, informed by sound arguments and supported by effective governance and management frameworks. Almost counterintuitive to the desire to start quickly, the more time you spend getting things right at the front end of a process the more successful the outcome. Sometimes you need to go slow before you can go fast.
Other defining moments have been the market corrections that have occurred during my career which remind you of the cyclical nature of our industry and that markets don’t always go up – experience is what you get right after you needed it.
How do you see the built environment responding to current challenges?
We’re at a stage in the market cycle where it is difficult to get projects to stack up financially. Some developments have been placed on hold or cancelled and those that are proceeding will need sound fundamentals in place to make sure they are completed successfully. This is where a robust business case based on clear benefits, supported by a structured approach to dealing with risk (such as a Quantitative Risk Assessment) proves invaluable.
Sustainability now permeates everything we do and will do. Designing and building facilities that minimise the impact on the environment is now engrained in our approach to projects as well as how we plan and run our business.
In considering investment in fixed assets, sustainability encompasses more than environmental initiatives and needs to consider the life of the asset and how it supports the owner or user over its lifecycle.
Of course, the most sustainable facility is the one you don’t build, followed closely by the adaptive re-use of an existing building. Given the current economic environment and the need to reduce the creation of more carbon, there will be focus placed on using what we have already created before deploying capital and resources toward new builds.
Planning and delivering projects is becoming more complex with multiple parties involved. Compared to projects twenty or so years ago, there are many more participants involved ranging from the client team to consultant disciplines to specialist sub-contractors and suppliers, not to mention increased regulatory and legislative compliance. The challenge is getting everyone to work in a cohesive and collaborative way, something I think RDT Pacific does particularly well.
Technology is proving a great enabler in creating smarter buildings to improve the way we go about our daily lives. Because of the fragmented nature of the industry, property and construction hasn’t been a fast-mover but we can see artificial intelligence as a potential disrupter. At a more granular level, the use of BIM is starting, albeit slowly, to create efficiencies in the way project information is brought together, held and used to manage the completed asset.
The last few years have been very fluid and unsettling. There has been a lot of disruption, fragmentation and complexity. We’re fortunate to have very good people at RDT Pacific and whilst the current market conditions are a little lumpy, we see this time as an opportunity help our clients think about what they really need and the best way of getting it.
I have learnt that whilst the operating environment is always changing there are some things that hold true – pay attention to the detail, be proactive and balance the urgent with what is most important. A lot of success is discipline and consistency, including boring things like keeping good records (and simply turning up!) but also recognising the importance of learning and understanding new things.
This year, 2023 is a significant one for RDT Pacific. We’re celebrating 80 years of being in business.
Our anniversary is an opportunity to tell our story and to celebrate the people and the iconic projects that have helped shape who we are today.