Plugging the efficiency gap

Christopher Sell talks to Rob Dickie from Whitby & Bird about the firm's targeting of a sustainable niche.

Rob Dickie, associate director, Whitby & Bird, tells Christopher Sell how the firm spotted a niche in the market, and why company 'culture' is contributing to its sustainable strength.

You were awarded 'Sustainable Design Consultant of the Year 2006' by Building magazine in the UK. How did Whitby & Bird position itself to win this?

It actually started a long time ago, as part of the Whitby & Bird culture. The company has been going for about 24 years now, and from the beginning it has been interested in 'lean' engineering. In the early days it didn't focus on sustainable engineering, but it was about producing structures that were lightweight and cost-effective. It kind of grew from that. As soon as the senior guys started to understand that this [sustainable design] was cropping up on the radar, it started to go into the company ethos. And all of the graduates coming into our UK offices were bred with a sustainable agenda in them. We want sustainability to be built into our engineers, so that when we go to a meeting with the structural MEP engineer, for example, he can talk column sizes but also how to design sustainably. So it is a cultural thing and is at the forefront of what we do. That is what showed up when we won the award.

So how does that culture fit into this region?

About a year and a half ago, when we set up our MEP section, we knew right then that there was a major hole in the market here in the design and maintenance of energy efficient structures.

Despite there being a 'hole', is the attitude here a receptive one, or was it a case of people sitting back to see how you fared?

No. I think it was pretty receptive. I have been designing sustainable structures for 15 years, and the last five in the UK have been fairly receptive. The 10 before that were ridiculous; they wanted business cases, for example. And I think, maybe because budgets were tighter in the UK, or there was a lot more penny watching than is done here in the UAE, it was a lot harder in the earlier days in the UK. But here, I think people are pretty receptive. Also I have noticed in Dubai, people are more technology friendly. They are happy to branch out with new ideas. But it is all about selling it correctly, and what is efficient and right for the client. And I guess that is where the skill of the particular designer comes in. If you are giving the client genuinely what it wants, it is easy for it to say 'yes'. If you are trying to sell a system that a client doesn't feel comfortable with, of course it is going to be difficult.

So is it recognised in the region that offering bespoke services is the key?

It only works if it is bespoke. If it is tailored for that building then it works; if it doesn't, there is no point doing it.

Is the sustainability agenda unique to Dubai?

No, we have just opened an office in Abu Dhabi - the Ferrari Experience is our big landmark project there. Doha is up and coming and we are looking at expanding our office in Mumbai. It is an interesting region and sustainability has to be at the forefront of everybody's agenda.

What about more established centres such as Bahrain or Saudi Arabia?

Not now, but in the future maybe. We are just focusing on building a good reputation in the UAE first and foremost, and then slowly going from there.

What makes you look at Qatar over somewhere like Bahrain?

One of the big drivers is we grow our business in line with our clients. We are very selective with the type of clients we work with. We don't just go out there and say 'we will do your building', because it is just too hard. Where our clients go, we generally go with them.

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