2 jun 08 | Crain's Chicago Business

Smith + Gill wins Dubai deal

By Andrew Schroedter

Prominent architect Adrian Smith has won a commission to design a $7-billion mixed-use development in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a lucrative assignment likely to fuel rapid growth at his two-year-old firm.

A developer based in the oil-rich emirate recently selected Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture to design the 11-building project, which will include five buildings more than 100 stories tall. The 25-million-square-foot project is scheduled to be completed in 2013, says Mr. Smith, who declines to identify the developer.

The assignment gives a huge boost to Mr. Smith's ambitious plan to expand his small firm, which he co-founded in 2006 after leaving Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP, where he was top design partner.

To help staff the project, Smith + Gill plans to roughly triple the size of the 70-employee firm by yearend, adding 30 workers for a new Dubai office slated to open next month and about 150 employees in Chicago. Managing the expansion likely will pose a challenge for the firm, which has four other Dubai projects in the works.

"We are being very careful how we grow and select people," says Gordon Gill, a co-founder of the firm and a former Skidmore associate partner, who says he's receiving about 150 resumes weekly, up from about 20. "We know that growth is accelerating, but we're handling it. We are fortunate about the circumstances we find ourselves in."

Adding to the difficulties, development projects move forward much faster in the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi, than in the United States.

"I think the biggest difference is the speed in which they bring the projects online," says James Goettsch, a partner in Chicago-based Goettsch Partners Inc., which is designing a 6.1-million-square-foot mixed-use development in Abu Dhabi for a joint venture that includes Chicago-based John Buck Co. "The challenge, at the end of the day, is to bring about a quality product at a rapid rate."

While with Skidmore, Mr. Smith designed Trump International Hotel & Tower, 401 N. Wabash Ave., but he is no stranger to Dubai. He also designed the Burj Dubai tower. At more than 160 stories, it is expected to be the world's tallest building when completed next year.

The latest Dubai project has 11 buildings -- including five towers ranging in height from 100 to 125 stories, some of which are linked by cables and sky bridges. The Dubai government has approved the project and construction is under way. Mr. Smith, who made eco-friendly design a theme of his new firm, says that pitch is particularly welcome in the United Arab Emirates because of its harsh climate and ample financial resources.

"In Chicago, cost is the primary aspect of what you get built," he says. "Sustainable development goes on here, but it's secondary to what we think is going to happen in Dubai and Abu Dhabi."