Great walls of China
The surge in mainland development is a golden opportunity for culturally sensitive Hong Kong building professionals
One of the knock-on effects of China's rapidly increasingly urbanisation rate - about 30 million people are moving from the countryside to cities every year - is that the country currently has the largest construction market in the world. This has produced a plethora of opportunities for professionals from Hong Kong to contribute to the development of infrastructure on the mainland.
Bryant Lu, vice-chairman of Ronald Lu and Partners, says that his company is rapidly developing railway-related projects in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Hangzhou. "Urbanisation on the mainland has made travel by road more inconvenient. Many cities have problems with travel congestion, so a railway-based transport system will be the plan for the future," he says.
Lu's mainland projects will be similar to MTR station development projects in Hong Kong, where office and residential buildings, hotel shopping malls and recreational areas are built near railway stations.
"We are looking for architects who understand how to create urban living space. They need to be all-rounded, with experience in handling [such projects]. Our firm puts a lot of emphasis on green design, so they need to be savvy in that aspect as well," he says.
To carry out projects in China, it is a must for architects to understand the different working styles between Hong Kong and the mainland. "Architects need to be humble and attentive when working with mainland clients. How Hong Kong people and mainlanders communicate is different, and I have had many experiences where I was unable to deliver what the client wanted, even though I understood every single word he said. Architects must be humble and ask questions to prevent breakdowns in communication," Lu says.
In project design, Lu adds, architects must understand mainland living requirements. "Take residential buildings for example. Building flats in a northern city is very different to building them in a southern one. In the south, people enjoy more open space and have more windows. In the north, where temperatures can go as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius, you cannot have the building facing north or too many windows," he says.
Another challenge for architects working on the mainland is that every province and city has its own architectural regulations. Architects therefore need to collaborate with local people to cope with the various requirements. "It is true that architects from Hong Kong have higher skill levels, but they won't be able to handle projects on the mainland if they don't have an open mind towards local culture," Lu says.
As mainland land prices continue rising, Lu expects more demand from developers for state-of-the-art projects. "Hong Kong can provide the expertise to develop high-quality projects. I think demand will keep on growing," he says.
Ken Wai, a member of the board at Aedas International, says 60 to 80 per cent of the company's projects are taking place on the mainland. "I see the mainland as a playground for Hong Kong architects. The scope of design projects is unimaginable. Architects have opportunities not just to design standalone buildings, but also entire new cities and communities," he says.
"For instance, within the Shanghai Hongqiao mega-transport-hub district, we are currently involved in six major commercial developments for local and international developers, each of which has its own distinctive and unique features and characteristics."
Wai says that at Aedas, they believe that great design can only be delivered by people who truly understand the social and cultural needs of the communities for which they are designing. Professionals with international experience who appreciate local cultures will therefore have an advantage in handling mainland projects.
"What is happening on the mainland now has not happened anywhere before. To manage a team for mainland projects, people need to be open to new ideas and solutions. They need to have good time-management skills, and be willing to socialise," Wai says.
For Hong Kong architects to work on mainland projects, they need to be familiar with urban planning and transport-orientated, high-density, mixed-use developments. "Project designers need extensive experience in various building types, and to understand the local building codes. Above all else, creativity and creative thinking are essential. From our experience, architects who are inspired, passionate about design and want to excel are the ones who are successful," Wai says.
Aedas does not limit itself to first-tier cities and has projects all over the mainland. "We are very active in second- and third-tier cities, where new districts need to be developed outside the existing, densely packed city centres. These cities are in need of housing and cultural and sports venues," Wai says.
"In Chengdu, we have the 333 Shunjiang Road Mixed-use Project, where the luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel will be located. In Wuxi and Dalian, there are Center 66 and Olympia 66, respectively. The former is a large development with two office towers and the city's largest shopping mall, while the latter is a contemporary mall. In Shijiazhuang we also have the Ximei Hotel, to name just a few of our projects."
For its projects in more developed cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, Aedas is working on mixed-use developments on a massive scale. "The Da Wang Jing Plot 2 Mixed-use Development in Beijing's Chao Yang district consists of four grade-A, high-rise office buildings, a residential apartment tower and a multi-purpose commercial exhibition complex. Meanwhile, the Mapletree Minhang Mixed-use Project in Shanghai comprises Mapletree Business City and a retail complex," Wai says.
With so many projects going on, Aedas currently has around 500 professionals working on China projects - and the number will keep rising. "In Shanghai, our largest office on the mainland, we are expanding and plan to add 220 staff by the end of this year. We welcome design leaders such as directors, senior associates and associates to join the team to expand our global design platform. In Chengdu, we are also looking for designers to work on projects in the western region, where development is now in full force," Wai says.
Wai's advice for mainland-bound Hong Kong architects is to be aware of the differences in terms of culture, environmental aspirations, and social and economic demands.
Macau, with its casino developments, is another hot spot for architects. Lu, however, says that his company has no interest in such projects. "One core value of our company is to create community-focused projects and we don't think casino projects are in line with that value. We do, though, have experience developing residential buildings in Macau," he says.
He adds that as Macau's architecture industry is quite limited, outside help is often required. This means that there are also many opportunities for Hong Kong architects to work in the enclave.