Q&A WITH PAUL PRIEST
Based in Dubai, Paul is Head of MENA Studios at Benoy, the award winning international Architecture, Masterplanning, Interior and Graphic Design Studio.
Q: How long have you been in the UAE and how has the local architecture industry evolved since then?
A: I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2007 to deliver Ferrari World, since then, the industry has evolved significantly. Following the credit crunch, focus has moved from creating icons to creating destinations.
Q: The decline in oil prices is an everyday topic with many worrying that the market is headed for another downturn however construction seems to keep going, new projects get launched and the streets are full. What is your take on the UAE’s position in the region in light of cheap oil? Will the market be able to continue to offer opportunities to architects?
A: As we all know, much of the revenue of the Middle East is generated from oil and the drop in oil prices to a third of what they were 18 months ago has resulted in depleted capital reserves and hit funding of government backed developers. However, these developers are primarily master developers, and developer and building-tier development is still moving ahead at a pace on the back of strong early investment and infrastructure. Economies are cyclical, and the UAE is no exception, however with fixed events such as Expo 2020 in Dubai we have points in time in which we can feel confident about and work towards.
As a precaution, projects are now becoming more mixed-use to ensure critical mass and an increased level of cost certainty through self-supporting configurations. Also, as a counterpoint to build -operate -transfer developments used by major developers, export finance offers an alternative method of funding major developments that bring in non-oil dependent cash and additional stability to the market. Generally we are seeing growth in both frontier and emerging markets, with particular focus on investment funds, commercial and banking sectors as well as global hotel operators. Our understanding of markets has supported our global clients investing globally, which has been useful avenue of development as well as our links with the UK Government. We are also at the forefront of government trade and investment delegations having been involved in missions to Iran and Jordan.
The majority of prime land in the Middle East is waterfront, and we have been lucky that we have developed what we believe to be the best example of a mixed-use waterfront destination in the Middle East, The Beach in Dubai. More recently we are proud that Phase 2 of City Walk, our urban response to placemaking has opened with a particular emphasis on leisure, entertainment and experiential offers. We have projects in masterplanning, hospitality, mixed-use, commercial, education, residential, aviation, high-rise, retail, heritage, graphic design and interior design.
We have diversified our portfolio and client base, and now have work across the Emirates and in all GCC member states. Heritage, culture, repositioning and refurbishment are becoming an increasingly more important part of our workload and these sectors are a very welcome addition to our portfolio here and necessary for the preservation of the history and culture of the region.
Q: Benoy is known for creating innovative destinations, including Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi and The Beach in Dubai – is this the key to success in a market that has a reputation of launching new projects almost on a daily basis?
A: Delivered work is incredibly important in proving our ability in both design and execution in the region. However, strong personal relationships and trust are key to winning work and successful project delivery, so in a world of mergers and consolidation of disciplines, Benoy’s Boutique approach to practice offers a more tailored and personal approach.
The most important factor in success is people, everyone who works at Benoy has been selected for their attitude and personality, as skills can be learnt. From one project in Abu Dhabi we have grown to secure projects in all GCC member states, as well as in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Morocco and Sudan. We have a 60% growth in number of projects year-on-year, with 41% of enquiries converted. Our team has grown by 278% over the past 2 years, and we have opened a Dubai office, with a Bahrain office to follow shortly. Our team is made up of 17 nationalities, speaking 16 different languages and has an equal male female split. We work low overtime hours, have minimal sick days and staff turnover and a flat studio structure. I believe this environment facilitates creative thinking and produces the best solutions for our clients. Good design is paramount, our ability to deliver destinations is why clients come to us, and they are looking for something unique, something different. Innovation in design is what we do best.
When it comes to delivery, we have a tight, agile studio structure with focus on fluidity to enable deadline focussed working. Strong teamworking, utilisation of technology with an emphasis on training and skills is essential to ensure the best practice when considering workflow. Our studio has fine-tuned a workflow that includes BIM through to rendering and animation in-house, reducing reliance on third parties and increasing control of deadlines. This helps us manage increasingly visual clients and to get from inception to an investable product in the quickest possible time. Continuity of high-quality client facing staff and offering counsel in every sense of the word is paramount. To broaden our offer we have diversified our services into film, print media, model making and launch of products to market.
Q: What are some of the other countries in MENA you’d like to do more work in?
A: We are always looking to grow if the quality of the project is right. There are some real opportunities for growth in the region, however I would like to work more in North Africa, Iran and Jordan, and have this on the agenda for 2017.
Bahrain is an ambitious country that has huge potential. With the grand prix offering tourist appeal as well as its natural beauty, there is potential to develop complimentary offers and expand its international profile as a tourist destination. There is also a shift towards the diversification of its economy into tourism, industrial projects, social housing, infrastructure and of course the new airport which Benoy was involved in. In addition, we are at a very exciting stage with our biggest project, Bahrain Marina.
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