Pyramid scheme

Egypt is displaying a growing appetite for good design.

The Nile, Cairo
The Nile, Cairo

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With its large indigenous population, stable economy and growing appetite for good design, Egypt presents an interesting proposition for design professionals.

“There is a lot of potential in the Egyptian market,” noted Chuck Wood, managing director, Rockwell Group Europe. “It has remained a robust economy over the past couple of years while the rest of the world has been in recession.”

If anything, the global economic slowdown has had a positive impact on the country, suggested Ahmed Kandil, managing director, Middle East and Australia, Bene. “Individuals have found that investing in Egyptian property is a much safer bet than many other forms of investment.

“As such, demand for, and the price of, property has increased. On a larger scale, foreign investment has increased as investors have found Egypt to be one of the safest places in the Middle East to invest in. Bene has done well in Egypt during the crisis and we still see great potential,” Kandil continued.

Egypt is a country full of contrasts, where extreme wealth flirts with extreme poverty, and an incomparably rich history is paired with an infrastructure that varies widely in terms of quality and sophistication.

“Egypt is a complex country, young and unsophisticated in many respects, but also a country with a strong and influential design and architectural history. Culturally it is also highly diverse. Many Egyptians are well educated and well travelled. All of these factors come into play when working as designers in Egypt, and this is one reason why we find it such a fascinating place to be working in,” Wood said.

Rockwell Group is currently working on two projects in Egypt, both in Cairo. One is a five-star luxury hotel and golf resort, and the other is a night club. Tourism development remains a key priority for the country, particularly on its Red Sea coast. Dubai’s Jumeirah Group recently signed an agreement with Palm Hills Developments (PHD) to manage the 250-room Jumeirah Gamsha Bay Resort, a new five-star resort on the Red Sea.

The residential, commercial and retail sectors are also experiencing significant growth, Kandil noted. “High-quality residential compounds and towers are being built and major developers such as Emaar, MAF and Talat Mostafa have started developing large-scale compounds, which present massive opportunity for designers.

“The current government is also focusing on developing commercial and business-related buildings. They have opened the market up to foreign investment and are inviting international companies to use Egypt as a regional hub. As such, they are developing the Smart Village and the New Cairo business district in the east of Cairo. To meet demand, there are also plenty of shopping malls on the way, which need interior designers with expertise in the design of shops, cafés, restaurants etc.”

With so much construction activity underway, developers are realising that design can be a fundamental differentiator for their projects. “Design is what’s going to distinguish their projects from all the other developments. Because there is so much competition, with a lot of developers investing in various projects, you really have to have that differentiating factor now,” said Hisham Youssef, senior associate at Gensler.

Youssef cited Egypt’s large population as the key to its growth potential. “There is a large indigenous population, which creates two things. On the one hand, it creates very high demand. You have the people there, as opposed to places like the UAE where you don’t have that local population. It also means that you have a large, educated labour pool, so you don’t have to import labour,” Youssef explained.

Gensler has ten year’s experience working in Egypt, having designed offices for companies such as Orascom, EFG Hermes and HC Securities, among others. “When we first did the head office interiors for Orascom, around the year 2000, there weren’t really any proper commercial office buildings – maybe two or three.

“Concepts that we take for granted in the US or Europe, such as open space planning, glass offices and a large floor plate where everybody can see each other and communicate openly, just didn’t exist in Cairo,” said Youssef.

“Over the last ten years, there’s been increasing interest in doing things properly, as opposed to doing things the way they’ve always been done. And that’s coming from the executives of some of the big companies, like Orascom and EFG Hermes. They are realising that they have to become more competitive and more efficient. And if you’re building a new building, there is a certain efficiency in designing it a certain way.”

As a very large, increasingly design-orientated and rapidly-evolving market, there is little question that Egypt offers plenty of opportunity. However, it is still a market fraught with challenges. An old-school bureaucratic mentality is still prevalent, as is corruption, so Kandil recommends that international design companies capitalise on the expertise of local companies which can “handle documentation and of are familiar with the regulations set by various different authorities, such as the tax department and municipalities”.

Also, although Egypt is a relatively young market, it is still highly competitive, Kandil noted. “There are lots of qualified Egyptian interior designers who received their education and training either in the US or in Europe, or in one of Egypt’s many art and interior design colleges. In addition, there are a number of international firms being appointed on projects in Egypt, so the competition is high,” he maintained.

This definitely affects one’s ability to negotiate higher fees, Wood pointed out. Another significant challenge is sourcing good quality materials and goods, he added.

“Because of high import duties for goods coming from outside the country, it can be prohibitively expensive to source goods from abroad as freely as one might when working elsewhere in the Middle East. On the other hand, while there are many very fine craftspeople and suppliers in Egypt, that side of the market is not as developed as it needs to be, so sourcing locally can also be a challenge.”

The actual implementation of designs can also often be severely lacking in finesse, Youssef noted. “Local consultants and the construction industry have not had exposure to proper methodologies or proper ways of drawing or detailing or building. So you try to implement certain details and you can’t always guarantee that they are going to come out the way that
you want them to.

“I think things are improving but you have to take baby steps. I try to push certain details in some projects and then realise that I have to scale back because I know it can be done in New York or in Dubai or in Frankfurt, but in Cairo you have to start from a different base point and go one step at a time. You can’t make that big jump,” he explained.

In spite of this, Egypt is an exciting market with a design industry that is only just coming of age. And while the design currently being rolled out might be somewhat generic, there will be interesting times ahead as Egypt begins to develop an authentic vernacular of its own.

“Right now, everybody wants to do things that are international in style,” Youssef noted. “It is a time of experimentation. Right now there is more of a generic, international design style being rolled out, because the first thing that you do when you open up to the world is you try to incorporate things that convey that you are international, global and modern. Once you feel comfortable, then you start developing your own style.”

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