5 sep 11  | World Architecture News

Why the big firms are reaching out to find new work

‘Cautious’, ‘economic uncertainty’ and ‘luck’ were the buzzwords this week when WAN asked some of the world’s largest architecture, design and engineering practices to sum up their experiences of 2011 and cast an eye forward into 2013.

A large proportion of design studios are keen to keep their cards close to their chests, but in the interest of our readers we approached a number of high profile firms to find out how life really is at the top. The results are somewhat conflicting.

Predictably China was held up by each practice as the saving grace for the architecture industry. A continued, rapid source of growth, China has kept blueprints on the table and designers at their desks as work in other regions – namely Europe, the Middle East and most recently the US – fell behind. Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill in particular have found their niche in this burgeoning nation, with Robert Forest, a Partner at the firm, remarking that ‘there seems to be an increase in landmark, iconic projects’.

Hot on China’s heels however is India. Political differences aside, the two nations are both absorbed in developing their business acumen and architectural trophies in a rumbling contest that is sure to be fuelled by Vikas Bajaj’s stirring article for the New York Times this weekend, published under the title ‘India Measures Itself Against a China That Doesn’t Notice’.

Our investigation this week has only served to cement this fact, with Perkins Eastman, Aedas, HOK London and BDP all reporting steady growth in India; BDP’s CEO, Peter Drummond, singling out New Delhi as ‘the heart of the world’s largest democratic rapidly growing country’.

Surprises came in the form of Russia and Brazil as areas predicted to enjoy a burst of industrial growth over the coming year, and a number of firms opening new design studios in regions such as Bangkok, Seoul and the Netherlands.

As demand in previously dependable regions has declined, so certain architecture and engineering firms have begun to recognise prospects forming elsewhere. Philip Dilley, Chairman of Arup offers sage advice to any developers perusing WAN this week, asserting: “There is a great opportunity right now for sovereign funds, governments and major corporate and institutional investors sitting on large cash piles to take advantage of low interest rates and a very competitive construction market.”

Scott Wyatt, Managing Partner at NBBJ has also noticed a change in the attitude of potential clients, with focus shifting from aesthetic prowess to the effectiveness of building design (about time too!). He admits: “Our clients are more often viewing design as a strategic business tool, with expectations for building performance and heightened human productivity. Design that focuses on the human experience continues to gain importance with our clients. And the expectation is for measureable results in: productivity, innovation, collaboration, workplace flexibility, health and recruiting performance.”

This lull in industrial vigour has also enabled practices to take a wider look at their global position and calculate where the next Beijing or Dubai may spring from. BDP in particular has taken advantage of this situation, nurturing new studios in ‘critical locations where we expect major opportunities to exist’. These include the Netherlands, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi, and Shanghai.

The waning numbers of clients in troubled markets (the UK in particular) has stimulated design firms to source additional means by which to differentiate themselves and secure those major deals. Taking full advantage of this opportunity is HOK London, which is currently developing its use of BIM technology in order to attract new clients and ‘reassure’ existing ones. Rob Firth, the firm’s Director of Building Practice explains: “BIM allows us unprecedented insight into how a building will work in reality before construction has even started and enables us to test the efficiencies of our designs quickly and easily…HOK is already seeing the tangible benefits that it brings to our clients.” It seems that even in these cut-throat times, the client still comes first.

Robert Forest's full comments:
We at AS+GG are finding that business in 2011 is better than in 2010 and picking up. We are seeing more inquires and the trend is increasing. This is welcome news and we are hoping this continues at a steady measured pace, ensuring sound design, construction, and economic decisions by our clients. Looking ahead, AS+GG is expecting opportunities in 2012 to increase slightly but not significantly. We hold more hope for 2013.

We have seen a shift globally from 2010 master-planning and feasibility inquires to actual building projects. Saudi Arabia, China and Asia in general are providing the most work for us and there seems to be an increase in landmark, iconic projects. I believe this is due to the fact that globally there is a better feeling of stability in the global economy, giving our clients increased confidence that long-term construction projects will succeed. Smart developers are also now trying to get into the market before it completely rebounds and takes off so that their product is available when the economy recovers. Timing is everything, and constructing in the depressed ‘trough’ of the economy to capitalize on the ‘crest of recovery’ is a sound business decision.

That being said, we are finding the U.S. market is lagging behind and very depressed for us. We foresee this continuing for the next couple of years. On the other hand, we generally foresee an increase in opportunities for projects with high sustainable goals.

We expect the new construction opportunities in China and India to continue to increase, and will pursue them at a cautious deliberate pace. In the U.S., I believe that retrofitting projects will be a significant market, which is why we are actively engaged in pursuing high-profile retrofitting/energy efficiency projects for the future.