As the building industry booms, selecting the right developer or consultant is less about cash.
As the building industry continues to boom, selecting the right developer or consultant is less about cash and more about compatibility. Jeff Roberts sits down with developers and architects to find out what they look for during the selection process.
Whether it's a single family villa or a million-resident masterplan, all of the building projects springing up around the Middle East require collaboration between land developers, design consultants and building contractors. But, as hundreds of new projects are announced and just as many new developers arrive on the scene, the intricate process of putting together developers and consultants - and getting them to buy into the same vision - is becoming increasingly difficult.
Match-making in the Middle East's building industry has become particularly difficult because, on a lot of projects, the personalities of the players are just as important as profitability. And, as those intangible human issues worm their way into the business of building, developers and consultants alike need to identify early just what they're looking for in a potential partner.
Things to consider
Obviously, different organisations and different projects call for cooperation between players with different sets of skills. Well-known developers and consultants often have the benefit of being selective in their choice of partner but, despite their high profiles, loyalty plays just as important a role.
"We're fortunate," says Gordon Affleck, design principal, RMJM. "We can be a bit selective in what we choose to do. As a company, we've made a decision to deal with just two or three developers."
"It depends on the volume of business you have, but it's best to build strategic alliances," adds Pratip Datta, head of procurement for Dheeraj & East Coast (DEC) which has allied exclusively with Robodh Contracting for main contracting and Sharaf Foundations LLC for shoring and piling on its regional projects.
Once a certain degree of loyalty is established, generally speaking, industry players are interested in parlaying positive experiences into repeat business. "Our collaborations with developers are more like on-going discussions rather than one-off commissions," explains Affleck.
Based in Dubai for more than 30 years, Dewan Architects & Engineers has worked with the Nakheels, Emaars and Dubai Properties as well as a smattering of smaller developers looking to establish a name or develop a brand. Despite its lengthy history in the city and myriad client relationships, the idea of exclusivity is nothing new.
"We like to focus on a select number of clients and establish a relationship that results in additional work," explains Ammar Al Assam, director of business development, Dewan. "We work with a variety of large and small scale developers and that's the way we like it. We've had some fantastic experiences and we've had some mediocre experiences."
While broad-scale developers create policy to dictate the level of loyalty or exclusivity they enjoy with their consultants, developers like Leisurecorp, narrow their scope by focusing wholly on mixed-use properties combining residences and golf courses.
"We aim to partner with contractors who have experience in golf course developments," explains David Spencer, CEO (Golf), Leisurecorp. "If planned, designed and managed in the right way, with the right contractors, golf developments provide opportunities for substantial social, economic and environmental growth."
While developers usually incorporate some type of pre-qualification into their selection process, according to Affleck, he is looking for more. In fact, from RMJM's perspective, gone are the days of the single-building project and quick commission.
"We're looking to work with developers that have a slightly bigger reach and have an interest in creating an urban input rather than just a building input," explains Affleck. "We really try to design buildings to be climatically responsive, which means controlling the interaction of the building within its surrounding context - particularly in this environment."
On the other hand, while a consultant with a unique vision is a valuable commodity for developers, one with a proven track record for delivery and punctuality is indispensable.
"It's always good for them to have key accounts and service them well," explains Datta.
"We've dealt with a number of consultants that promise more than they can deliver and they end up compromising on quality of drawings and good business practices."
"We only approach reputable contractors with proven track records that are in position to lock down agreements," adds Spencer. "If you partner with the right contractors early enough the risk of price escalation can be controlled."
The message is simple and it seems to resonate throughout the development industry: don't compromise on the quality of work just because the volume - and potential for profit - is abundant.
Creating a new context
Focusing on an entire cityscape might speak for architects looking to create a new urban context, but it begs the question of whether or not developers are on board. With the tremendous popularity of Bahrain Bay, KSA's Knowledge Cities, Kuwait's City of Silk and Dubai's Waterfront, Maritime City, Port Rashid and Downtown Jebel Ali, the answer seems to be a resounding ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“yes'.
"From 2003 until now, I've seen a huge shift toward place-making rather than building-making," says Affleck.
"We insist on a workshop-style approach to the design process - where both sides see the process as a partnership in which relationships are built and aspirations are made - rather than ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“take your commission and come back in 12 weeks with a pretty picture'."
In terms of leisure development, the case remains similarly context-friendly. The first phase of Jumeirah Golf Estates (JGE) is the largest urban golf residential development in the world. While JGE offers all of the amenities required of a luxury residential development, using a strategy based on the landscape, the courses and residences are dictated by the features of the land, not by a masterplan.
"Core golf is the future for golf course development," explains Spencer. "People - golfers and non-golfers alike - choose to live on residential golf developments because of the beauty of the natural environment that surrounds them."
Local vs. international flavour
From projects named after tennis stars and golf legends to those designed by ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“starchitects', the question of whether big names beget big profits or whether local talent - i.e. a better understanding of local sensibilities - is the way forward.
The message coming from developers is blurred. "Both are important," says Nasser Aboulela, head of building design, Limitless. "We partner with signature designers who have a proven track record and similar values and design principles to ourselves."
Aboulela adds: "We also need the local experience and value that local designers can bring to the table. An internationally-renowned signature designer's expertise, coupled with the experience and know-how of a competent local designer will help us to deliver our projects."
It would seem however, that the importance of using big names to garner big profits varies significantly across the development industry. Signature designers can bring signature projects, but when the client is looking for something understated or vernacular, employing a signature designer may not always be the most effective strategy.
According to Datta, "there are a few projects in the [DEC] pipeline that are like the Armanis and Fendis of the world", but he's quick to point out that the hallmark of DEC success is its reluctance to attempt anything too ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“iconic'.
"We want to do projects that are consumer friendly and get consumed quickly," he explains.
"We're not always looking for Atkins or Aedas to build our buildings, we often go with less well-known architects, who also tend to be more cost efficient. That's our business plan."
In another example of merging local knowledge with international expertise, Leisurecorp employed the services of some of golf's biggest names to design JGE with the partnership of Al Naboodah Laing O'Rourke LLC offering contracting guidance.
Whether it's a strategic decision or a conscious rejection of the iconic, signature designers don't always create the best product in the Middle East. Al Assam believes that this is because the client demographic has changed throughout the last 20 years and the collective understanding of what constitutes ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“good' architecture has diversified.
"Traditionally, the only land owners were the locals or the ruling family, so we did lots of palaces and mixed-use and hi-rise projects," he explains. "After the freehold laws came in seven or eight years ago, a lot of people moved into different sectors. Today, less than 30% of our clients are the same ones we had 20 years ago."
It's not what you know...
New upstart developers seem to be springing up everyday in the region. The handful of wealthy families that were developing land 10 years ago, has exploded into hundreds of different companies promising the ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“biggest', ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“best' and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“most iconic' projects.
But, despite recent legislation that legally binds a developer to a project for 10 years after delivery - namely the Escrow Law and Guarantee Accounts Law - consultants and consumers remain a bit wary of the new kid on the block who may not be around in 10 months, let alone 10 years.
"You've got to be careful," explains Affleck. "Fortunately, we've been here long enough to have developed a little bit of a sixth sense about who we should and shouldn't work with."
Larger consultants are also sidestepping dodgy developers by drawing on their experience and keeping themselves informed of the people behind the brand. More often than not, the industry is seeing seasoned professionals from major development companies branch out to start their own firms.
"There are developers here who have no clue what they're doing and there are some great developers," says Al Assam. "We've had unethical clients...but we know the people behind the developers."
Moreover, collaboration on past projects brings familiarity with the skills, aspirations and resources of new developers, which goes a long way in cementing those crucial relationships.
"It'd be wrong to say that we've closed our books to anyone other than large-scale developers, that's far from the case," explains Affleck. "I think we're really just being selective of the projects in which our aspirations fit with those of the developer."
At the end of the day, developers and consultants are more likely to work with those companies with similar business cultures.
Inevitably, compatibility of personalities plays a role and the sooner a level of comfort is established, the sooner both parties can get onto the business at hand. Ultimately, on both sides, smooth projects beget more work.
"Take Robodh Contracting for example....They didn't have experience as a main contractor but we were prepared to take the chance with them," explains Datta. "We're always looking for people who are new in the market and have potential."
"Business relationships are built through trust. It's not like buying a car," adds Affleck.
"You're getting into a relationship with these people for the next two, three or even four years...it's like a marriage. From the client's perspective, as well as the architect's, you're always going to be careful with who you climb into bed with for the next four years."
Because of the broad reach of eco-friendly standards in the region, a developer or consultant's willingness to adhere to environmental guidelines is no longer much of an issue. Frankly, nobody has a choice but to comply. In fact, the green wave that has hit the region has often resulted in ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“green-washing'.
"Recently, [green building standards] have become more of marketing thing," explains Al Assam. "A lot of people don't really understand what LEED certification entails. Sometimes people use it as a tool to help promote their building and differentiate it from all the others."
On the other hand, however, some of the most ambitious environmental initiatives in the region are being undertaken in the UAE. Both Masdar City and Gateway City are evidence of urban centres that are breaking the mould for eco-friendliness.
On a smaller - but no less significant - scale, the entire waterfront Phase B of JGE is aiming for LEED Platinum certification and all the courses in the development have been designed to extremely stringent EcoSignature standards. Likewise, Dewan is training all of its senior architects and project managers to become LEED APs and partnering with Perkins + Will, industry leaders in green buildings.
But, despite all of the publicity bestowed upon the region's green projects, confusion remains. "People need to understand the process. They need to understand that LEED is not something you get at the design stage, it's something that you get certified at the end of construction," explains Al Assam.
"So everyone from suppliers to contractors to architects to engineers has to be on the same wavelength. It's going to take time for the whole of the UAE to be at that level but at least it has started," he concludes.
A final word
In today's Middle East, we see a streamlined building market where millions are invested and major decisions are made before breakfast. Groundbreaking legislation is passed with a signature and little thought is given to construction feasibility for the projects. Enter the developers and consultants.
They navigate truncated timelines and financially flamboyant clients in an effort to actually build the projects so easily designed and launched. They do it all amid a legislative environment that shifts and morphs like the sands of the desert.
The fact of the matter is, before they construct buildings, they've got to build relationships that are mutually-lucrative. They've got to do it quickly and they've got to make them last until the project is delivered.
Factors like environmental record, volume of projects and unique vision all play a role in the selection process but industry players seem to cling most closely to a very basic, albeit unpredictable, human expectation: trust.