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Daring to be different

The construction boom on the mainland has created huge demand for architects and interior designers. A significant part is being met by firms from Hong Kong and overseas.

"The advent of the high-speed rail network has fuelled the vigorous development of real estate in China," says Ken Wai, Greater China managing director of international architects Aedas. "The scale of the projects is often huge compared with other countries."

According to Bryant Lu, vice-chairman of Ronald Lu & Partners (RLP), this building boom has seemed impervious to global economic ups and downs. "Even throughout the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, we didn't feel a major bump compared with, say, those firms working in Dubai."

Founded in Hong Kong, RLP now also has offices in four mainland cities. Its projects include two high-end residential developments and a shopping mall in Guangzhou, and a large mixed-use development in Shanghai.

So are the mainland streets paved with gold, and is there not a cloud in the sky for eager architectural practices? Well, not quite, according to Wai. "Working in China has its own particular challenges unique to the market and culture," he explains.

"On the mainland, a change of personnel often leads to a whole string of consequences, and changes to personnel or regulations are not likely to be pre-announced," says Lu, who thinks that taking the "this is China" perspective helps.

Wai believes close attention always needs to be paid to the small print. "With regard to contractual matters, a consultant needs to be aware of the legal and tax liabilities that face an international architect. One also needs to keep a vigilant eye on matters related to payment schedules, penalty clauses and jurisdiction for arbitration as well."

According to Lu, the role of an architect is also viewed differently. "Hong Kong clients look for a commitment to delivering the project from conception until the end, whereas mainland clients tend to hire us for the first, say, 60 per cent of the work, while we have to partner a local firm to finish off. Sometimes we can lose control of the quality."

These challenges are not insurmountable. "On the flip side, whereas working on the mainland can be very chaotic, it offers a lot more room for negotiation," Lu says. "When they say no, it is never really a dead end. We can find ways to resolve design, contractual and other issues."

Creatively, there are many positive aspects to working on the mainland. "Clients are always looking for new ideas and images to distinguish them from their competitors," Wai says. "Branding is a very important element in a vast and competitive market, and often architects are asked to invent iconic new symbols."

To take these opportunities, design firms need the right staff.

"Aedas is looking for talented designers with relevant experience in China," Wai says. "We are also looking for graduates who are skilled users of 3-D software for architectural modelling and who can use parametric formulas to develop special designs."

Lu believes the best architects and designers are motivated by "the three Ps": "People - your team and the colleagues, clients and consultants you come into contact with; the project itself; and, lastly, pay. Beyond the necessary professional skills and the normal interview criteria, we look for individuals who have these priorities in that particular order."

However, Wai and Lu say recruiting talented individuals isn't easy. "Getting work is not the most difficult part, it's getting the right people that is challenging," Lu says. "We're definitely in a talent war."

Wai says the rewards for these sought-after individuals can be amazing. "A diligent designer can develop a strong portfolio in a condensed period."

And Lu has two pieces of advice for architects and designers who want to embrace the mainland market. "Learn to read, write and speak Putonghua so that you can communicate directly with the client. Secondly, you need a good ability to listen. It's very easy for architects from Hong Kong to think we know better. But you need to be sensitive and respectful."

Creative Places

Work culture and environment are major factors when designing an office interior

The creativity architecture and design companies bring to their plans for the interiors of new workplaces can make these more creative places for end-users to work in.

"Creativity is a product of the cross-pollination of ideas and experience," according to Ken Wai, Greater China managing director of Aedas. "The work culture and environment are major considerations when designing an office interior."

Bryant Lu, vice-chairman of Ronald Lu & Partners, uses his firm's own office as an example of thinking behind his designer's work.

"Common meeting areas are critical for internal flow," he says, adding that e-mails and texts are the least efficient way to communicate. "We strategically break up all the senior staff and locate them in different areas to encourage more walking between offices. If you group all the senior management in one place, they tend to just hang out there and they don't have as much face time with their colleagues."

Lu says that wall surfaces for scribbling ideas on are becoming key to work processes and flexibility is another important consideration. "We have the flexibility to combine several meeting rooms into one very large space that allows us to host monthly office forums among other activities." He says the notion of flexibility should also extend to the provision of mobile office space for travelling staff.

Wai believes that the careful choice of furniture and colour schemes helps provide an appropriate identity for the workplace. "Other considerations include the daylight factor, thermal comfort, energy efficiency and indoor air quality."

While the growing emphasis on green issues makes the designer's job more complicated, close attention to factors such as air quality can bring tangible benefits to clients. "If you have better air circulation with better fresh air intake then your staff will have [fewer] sick days," Wai says.

For Lu, sensitivity is one of the most valuable traits in a designer. "They need to be able to step into the end user's shoes and find a way that will work for them," he says.

Wai says that the most important thing is to provide creative designs that can inspire and generate self-esteem.