Face to face: Daousser Chennoufi, Draw Link Group

Draw Link Group’s Daousser Chennoufi explains what it takes to turn a residential tower into a hotel in a matter of months

INTERVIEWS, Projects, Draw Link Group, GCC region, Middle east

Suppose you own a building. Now imagine that you’ve taken the decision to redevelop that building. What options are available to you?

You could raze it to the ground and start afresh. Space limitations aside, this strategy will allow you exercise complete creative control over design and construction. Of course, it will also necessitate the involvement of demolition experts, planning authorities, architects, contractors, subcontractors – not to mention a great deal of time and effort.

An alternative approach is to follow the retrofit route. Making use of a building’s existing structure accelerates the redevelopment process and, by and large, reduces the amount of financial investment required. Working within these confines, however, is likely to limit creative control.

But it doesn’t have to. At least, not in the opinion of Daousser Chennoufi, Draw Link Group’s chairman and key architect. He says that if approached in an appropriate manner, retrofitting won’t result in a compromised product. On the contrary, he and his colleagues have turned the transformation of buildings into their specialty.

Draw Link has been active in the Gulf for over a decade. Moreover, the UAE-headquartered company boasts offices in multiple regions, from Russia to China. Its Middle East operations are overseen from the firm’s Dubai branch.

“Design and fit-out comprise the majority of Draw Link’s activities in the Middle East,” Chennoufi tells Construction Week. “We work primarily on hospitality projects: hotels, restaurants, bars, etc. In 2008, we began to grow our business beyond the UAE. Our expansion strategy was driven firstly by markets, and secondly within the context of how it would improve our Dubai operations.”

Chennoufi goes on to explain that each of Draw Link’s branches have been developed to offer complementary skillsets.

“We have designed our offices to interact and to serve one another,” he says. “Our Shanghai division, for example, adds value in terms of the supply of materials. It allows us to remain up to date and competitive when it comes to fit-out pricing. The same is true of our expertise. In Dubai, we operate primarily as an interior design and fit-out firm. In other regions, we might offer architecture and interior design services without the fit-out element. It really depends on the region in question.

“After a few years, we took the decision to work predominantly within the field of hospitality. Hospitality developments appeal to me because they are visited by every demographic. Male and female, young and old, local and international – it’s a very exposed product.

“When it comes to hotels, the trick is always to be innovative – to create new lifestyle options for customers. Dubai in particular represents a huge hospitality market. Our challenge is to stand out from the crowd; to come up with new ideas from project to project,” he adds.

With this in mind, Chennoufi and his team are able to offer design and fit-out services for pretty much any type of hospitality project in the Gulf, new-builds included. Earlier this year, for instance, the firm completed fit-out work on InterContinental Dubai Marina, which it conducted from scratch in collaboration with developer, Select Group.

Draw Link has also built a strong reputation within the retrofit segment, proving itself adept at creating bespoke hospitality venues from structures designed with other purposes in mind. Indeed, Chennoufi claims that he and his colleagues have become the masters of disguise, cultivating the ability to eliminate any unwanted traces of a building’s past.

In 2013, this reputation was put to the test by a particularly high-profile client in the form of Ajman-headquartered R Holding. Draw Link was contracted to transform one of the firm’s residential buildings in Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) into Hawthorn Suites Dubai, a four-star complex of hotel rooms and apartments.

Draw Link’s fit-out contract for Hawthorn Suites Dubai was $9.5m (AED35m). During the course of the project, the firm had to alter the building’s finishes in accordance with four-star hotel standards, replace the existing bathrooms, and provide furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E). Kitchens were integrated into the hotel apartments, and Chennoufi’s team also installed a spa, a gymnasium, and a reception lobby.

“Our canvas was an existing residential building with medium-quality finishes,” Chennoufi recalls. “The property’s owner had the vision to convert it into a four-star hotel. A combination of refurbishment, renovation, and layout changes were required. We were able to work within the existing room layout, but we had to create a new hotel lobby, spa, gymnasium, and restaurants – all of the extras that were not present within the original residential building.

“We started work on Hawthorn Suites Dubai in August 2013. Our main challenge was time. The project had to be finished before the end of the year. Despite this limited timeframe, we succeeded in completing fit-out work at the development in December,” he reveals.

Following the timely completion of this building, Draw Link was enlisted by R Holding for a second time to work on Ibis Styles Dubai Jumeira, the first Ibis Styles hotel in Dubai. With a fit-out contract value of $8.7m (AED32m) and a redevelopment period of seven months, the project was similar in size to Hawthorn Suites Dubai. However, Chennoufi’s team had to work from a completely different canvas.

“We began working on this 203-room hotel in January 2015,” he explains. “It was originally designed as an office building, but it had never been used. It was just core and shell. Our main challenge, therefore, was to hide this ‘office’ feeling; to instil a feeling of ‘hospitality’. Unlike hotel rooms, offices usually comprise large, open spaces. Our main objective, therefore, was to identify the optimal layout redesign within the existing core of the building, and this was not easy.

“For instance, our concept at Ibis Styles Dubai Jumeira included a pool, a spa, and a gym. It is not simple to create a pool within an office building. Even so, the end product is very good indeed.”

So, what’s the secret to a successful fit-out operation? How does one go about masking the unwanted elements of a structure’s history?

“We do all we can to remove any sign of the building’s past,” answers Chennoufi. “A successful hotel must convey a strong feeling of hospitality; not residential or commercial. This is not easy, precisely because we are talking about a ‘feeling’.”

Despite the ethereal nature of this challenge, Draw Link’s chairman is absolutely confident that once he and his team have worked their magic, visitors cannot discern the non-hospitality roots of their projects.

“I guarantee that this thought will not cross anybody’s mind,” he asserts. “When our hospitality projects are opened to the public, I check the comments on Booking.com and TripAdvisor.com every day. Nobody has ever said that the developments feel like office or residential buildings, and in my opinion, this is proof of our success.”

But would Chennoufi advocate retrofitting over rebuilding? Despite his talent for concealing buildings’ former functions, he says that this decision must be taken on a case-by-case basis.

“When considering whether to rebuild or to retrofit, there is one major factor: time. Demolishing an existing building to make way for a new one will take time, and this will affect your operational revenue. You must ask yourself whether it is better to win one year of operations or to start again.”

Whatever the answer to this question, Chennoufi and his team at Draw Link have demonstrated that they have the requisite skills to transform and to create.

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