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India's exacting clients can be 'ruthless' warn UK architects

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As architects’ eye a goldmine of opportunities in India, practices already working on the sub continent describe the ‘unbelievable’ scrutiny of clients who demand quality and ‘will pay for it too’, writes Greg Pitcher

All industry eyes have been on India since prime minister David Cameron took British architects to the country in February to promote their services for billions of pounds of potential work.

With growth rates of about 6 per cent widely forecast for 2013/14, India is an increasingly attractive market for practices seeking to escape the European economic malaise. But hugely ambitious clients and fiercely competitive local prices make it a minefield for newcomers.

Make is working on two residential schemes in Mumbai for Piramal Realty – and the design process has been quite an eye opener.

‘The scrutiny that goes into floor plans is unbelievable,’ Make architect Paul Scott told AJ.

‘Every square inch is analysed for its effectiveness and value, and a group of potential residents gives its views.

‘Indian people are very, very confident consumers who want to make sure they get the best value for their money. You need to be very aware of the time spent on floor plans.’

He added that Make had learnt to explain things that would be taken for granted in the UK.

‘Clients consider things on first principles, so we need to start from a blank sheet of paper and explain why we are discounting certain options.’

Scott said it was critical as a new practice in the country to find the right project to tackle first.

‘We identified four or five years ago that India could be a good place to do architecture,’ he told AJ. ‘The economy was continuing to grow; it had a legacy of amazing buildings; and there was the convenience of a common language and regulations based on UK statute.

‘But we did our homework to find the right project for us – and it took three years before we did.’

While many of the clients Make approached were looking merely for a ‘flash of inspiration’ and it started working for Piramal because of a shared approach that the architect should see a project through.

Lewis and Hickey has been working in India since the start of the downturn five years ago. Director Nick Riley told AJ a high degree of caution and understanding was necessary when setting up in India.

‘The people we are working for are very ambitious and aspirational but also very commercially aware,’ he said.

‘They drive a hard bargain and we have to work very hard to make our fees balance our UK input and our Indian overheads. There is an element of challenge – but we have managed it successfully.’

Riley said it was important to be confident when dealing with Indian clients.

He added: ‘Managing remotely would not work in India, you need face-to-face contact and people on the ground.’

Atkins is to open a design centre in Delhi in April to cement its presence in India. Design director Shaun Killa told AJ the built environment sector in the country had in some ways benefited from the global downturn.

‘We started to recognise four years ago that lots of investors were going back home to India and investing there because the Middle East and other parts of the world were losing liquidity and confidence,’ he said.

‘There is a huge middle class in India and many people are still moving towards that whether there is a recession or not.’

Killa said it was very difficult to compete with local practices on cost, so it was vital to bring experience and added value to a scheme.

‘In the residential market in Delhi, much of the work is done by local architects and it is tough to compete on fees,’ he said.

‘In hospitality and retail, however, clients are very much looking at the high end, and to international architects with a reputation of designing these types of buildings.’

He said aspirational Indian clients were keen to engage experienced British architects for high spec projects. But he added that it was vital to partner with practices close to potential projects.

‘You can travel between cities by plane but you need to partner with a firm in the city you are bidding for work in as the rules and regulations of buildings and procurement are very localised,’ he said.

Killa added that a wealth of infrastructure work was taking place, with associated projects at transport hubs. ‘There are also the beginnings of a private healthcare market.’

Engineering consultant Buro Happold has offices in Mumbai and Delhi – but is struggling to attract the quantity of international talent it wants.

Managing director for Asia Pacific and India Steve Brown told AJ: ‘We want people from international markets to come to India but there is a perception about India and maybe people don’t want to live here.

‘It can be busy, dirty and frustrating but it can also be very rewarding. The people are friendly but they don’t suffer fools.

‘Clients are very clever and enjoy the finesse the UK architecture sector is renowned for. They will pay for it, too – but if you do not deliver it’s all over. They will be ruthless.’









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