Published January 11, 2013

Architectural firms gear up for foreign projects

Home-grown companies are gaining recognition for their overseas jobs, reports ONG CHOR HAO

EVEN as more home-grown architecture firms gain recognition overseas for their iconic projects, they need to navigate the challenges of growing a business on foreign turf.

Among these firms' noteworthy projects are Ong&Ong Group's Eco Park Musolla in Setia Alam in Selangor, Malaysia and Vietcombank Tower in Ho Chi Minh City; DP Architects' Emaar Square in Istanbul, [email protected] City in Jakarta and the Nanjing Software Park in China; and RSP Architects Planners & Engineers' The Vista in Ho Chih Minh City and La Foret in Beijing.

Chan Hui Min, associate director at DP Architects, said that Singapore's reputation as a "model city with excellent urban planning" ensures that local firms are highly regarded overseas.

DP Architects secured its first overseas contract in 1973, and now runs 11 offices outside Singapore.

For RSP managing director Lee Kut Cheung, timing is of the essence - as exemplified by the firm's successful foray into India.

The company, which opened its first office there in 1996, completed the first phase of the International Tech Park in Bangalore in 1998, capitalising on the city's potential. It now has six offices in the country and is seen as a major player locally, Mr Lee said.

Expanding overseas may be the end goal, but much groundwork needs to be done before venturing abroad.

For one thing, quality staff have to be posted overseas, architecture firm executives said.

Ong Tze Boon, group executive chairman at Ong&Ong, said that its architects have to first work at the Singapore office for a few years to prove their worth. "Then when the market comes, we look around for the best man to send," he said.

Equally important is talent retention.

RSP's Mr Lee viewed talent as the foremost challenge. "It's very difficult to get Singaporean professionals to relocate to overseas offices, and to get good professionals over there can often prove to be rather difficult," he said.

RSP has a presence in countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, Britain, Ghana, China and the United Arab Emirates, on top of its India operations.

"Secondly, (there) is the cost. For the same money, you can get a good local and you can't even get an average Singaporean to relocate," Mr Lee added.

RSP's overseas offices, with about 660 staff, comprise mostly locals. "In the longer term, only that makes sense," he said. "Because the locals will be committed to stay with you, and there is a common interest to grow their own career, as well as growing your practice."

Once they have established a presence abroad, firms must grapple with differences in legislation and culture. Said DP Architects' Ms Chan: "Being used to the efficient Singapore system, it is important to appreciate the constraints and differences in other countries to operate there effectively."

For example, the team that worked on the Dubai Mall had to cope with extreme weather conditions and be mindful of religious sensitivities, she recalled.

Ong&Ong's Mr Ong highlighted the need to deliver what the local market wants. In essence, what works in Singapore may not work overseas.

Even after overcoming these hurdles, firms are faced with an important question: What needs to be done to sustain its operations?

Mr Ong believed that this may require a rethink of what constitutes an architecture firm. The quality of its designs is just 40 per cent of what it takes to succeed overseas, he reckoned, while the remaining 60 per cent is having a viable business model.

"The world has changed," he said. "And I think architecture alone in isolation, or interior design alone, mechanical engineering alone, structural engineering alone in isolation is over."

What customers want is an integrated package, he said, much like how they demand a sound system built from the ground up to comprise the different components. With this in mind, the firm has repositioned itself as a design house, offering a suite of management, engineering and product design services.