Q&A with Matthew Sexton, Managing Director at SAY Studio
Having their SAY
- You began as a start-up, what were the first six months of your existence like? What were the biggest challenges/surprises you encountered during that period? Having previously worked for some of the largest design firms in the world, the first six months consisted of the realisation it takes a lot to make a business run smoothly, efficiently and effectively. We were back to basics and small things like IT issues became much more apparent. That said, creating a solid infrastructure is crucial to the operation of any business, and we have enjoyed implementing our unique ways of working. In terms of surprises, it was the market response. We had anticipated a slow growth, but found ourselves inundated with enquiries from the start. This was, and still is, testament to the strong relationships we had built over the years and an acknowledgment of the design talent we brought to the table. .
- Talk us through 2019 in terms of business for SAY Studio in the UAE and what do you forecast for 2020 and beyond? 2019 has been an interesting year for SAY Studio. We have established ourselves within the Corporate Interiors sector with some high-profile projects and have diversified into new sectors such as food and beverage and hospitality. Our team has more than doubled in size since the start of the year and we have just started the fit-out for our new Dubai office to accommodate that growth. Moving into our third year, overall 2019 has been a very positive year for us. 2020 for SAY Studio will see its biggest growth yet. Specifically, we expect our growth to be most prominent across the UAE, within the hospitality sector and especially across refurbishment and upgrade projects. In terms of new locations, we see opportunities across the GCC and Northern Africa, however closer to home Abu Dhabi's share of the construction pipeline is anticipated to grow in the next few years, as the government prioritises efforts to expand the emirate's economic base beyond oil. Abu Dhabi has its ambitions in the commercial infrastructure space, as the government aims to attract 7.9 million tourists annually by 2030 under the Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan, up from 4.4 million in 2016. What that translates to is a significant increase in room keys. In addition, the emirate is looking to expand its retail and office space to 4 million and 7.5 million square meters by 2030, respectively, up from 2.5 million and 1.5 million square meters in 2013, another key focus area for SAY Studio. Watch this space.
- How has SAY Studio adapted to the fluid construction market conditions? What are some of the key changes, if any, you’ve made in the past twelve months? Having launched SAY Studio in 2017 we’ve only really seen the market do a steady overall incline in terms of construction awards. The total value of the UAE's contract awards in 2017 amounted to USD 28.6 billion and in 2018 was USD 31.6 billion, according to the Mordor Intelligence Report. Currently, Dubai attracts a lot of positive attention, owing to the numerous ongoing infrastructure projects to accommodate the needs of big upcoming events, such as Expo 2020. The Expo 2020 has driven a substantial amount the region’s tourism. In that direction, the United Arab Emirates has kicked off large-scale leisure projects, such as new hotels, Dubai South and Dubailand. We have always believed in some fundamental principals; design quality, design value and user experience. The second of these has become more apparent than ever over the last twelve months, with projects becoming increasingly cost conscious. As a business, we stay agile which allows us to adapt to our clients needs, providing innovative solutions irrespective of the budgets. Key changes we’ve also made in order to adapt has been to diversify both in sector and geography.
- What client/developer requirements are you’re seeing today when it comes to projects? Is it much different to years past where client budgets were perhaps a bit higher? Truth be told, projects nearly always start with an ambition to achieve something special, weather it is budget driven or not. The main difference we have seen is the functional change of spaces. There is a lot more consolidation, refurbishment and repurposing. This is an exciting development within the market. If you look at London for example, some of the most iconic projects fall within these categories. Another trend impacting UAE construction is smart cities. This strategy will be implemented across the UAE with a major focus on Dubai. By 2021, the UAE government plans on making Dubai the world’s smartest city. Everything from smart transportation solutions to free, pan-city, high-speed Wi-Fi will be implemented to help enhance Dubai’s reputation and investment capabilities, this will impact construction trends without doubt.
- Apart from hospitality, which other sectors do you see the most potential in for business growth? What is driving the growth in those sectors? We have seen growth as a business in several sectors, most notably Workplace (Corporate Offices), F&B and Retail, however the driving factors vary significantly. It is no secret that the real estate market isn’t at its strongest and whilst this may lead one to believe the economy is suffering, in some ways it actually encourages economic investment. Businesses are inevitably attracted by the prospect of lower rental costs and are reinvesting in their corporate portfolios. This, coupled with the release of several grade A buildings across Dubai, has led to significant movement from clients moving from their existing premises to new, mixed-use developments. A lot more of these buildings have integrated F&B and retail, which provides a steady revenue stream and as such attracts more business to move or expand into these areas. The Innovation Hub in Internet City, The Onyx in Tecom and ICD Brookfield in DIFC are just a few of these new developments. .
- With projects that are refurbishments, what is the biggest challenge you’ve observed? How do you deal with that? This very much depends on the sectors; within hospitality there is a greater emphasis on value for money, so the challenges come through delivering a five star experience within a more modest budget. This requires an extensive knowledge of materials and how to best utilise existing elements and repurpose these to suit. Within the workplace sector, the challenges can come from the existing architectural structure and sometimes a lack of base-build information. We have addressed this by investing in the latest surveying technologies, allowing us to produce accurate drawings through the use of laser scanning. We have found that this can actually save money as we are able to identify preexisting issues and resolve them before we actually get to the construction phase.
- There’s a growing focus on WELL Building Standards in the UAE. How does implementing these standards affect the design community and the design process for new spaces? What are the key areas that designers have to pay attention to? WELL is an interesting subject and something that is becoming increasingly popular. The main difference between the implementation of WELL and LEED, for example, is that it’s a lot more people centric. This means that the consultant and client need to work closely together throughout the entire process and beyond. There are elements that fall within the consultant’s scope, such as acoustics and daylight, but there are also many operational commitments from the client side, such as the provision of healthy foods and discounted gym memberships. The impact of this goes far beyond the project’s life as it encourages everyone to consider making healthier choices, not just at work but in their personal lives also.
- Clients seem to be increasingly looking to build projects that are smart and sustainable, what impact is that having on the interior design of structures? We have been delivering sustainably conscious projects for almost a decade now and it is amazing to see the level of commitment from our clients when it comes to sustainable responsibility. What we are seeing more of is sustainable architecture, which is fantastic. It makes the job of the interior designer that much easier when working within a well-designed, sustainable building. Aside from this, we have seen a big push towards WELL over the last 12-18 months. In fact, we have designed over 25,000m2 of WELL offices in the last year alone. One of my favorite things about the UAE is how quickly it embraces new and innovative ideas. We can go from newly informed, to global champions in a matter of months. This is exactly what has happened with the WELL design principals.
- Talk us through your approach to architecture/design on projects. How is SAY Studio ensuring that the knowledge from industry veterans is being transmitted to the younger generations? Design is not an exclusive vocation; it is the accumulation everything. Young designers will be inspired by the work that precedes them and in turn veteran designers will be inspired by the unbridled creativity of youth. Our approach to architecture and design is to embrace our history and become students of all things interesting. Curiosity is an immensely powerful tool, so we encourage everyone that works with us to embrace this whilst approaching every situation with an open mind. If you look at SAY Studio’s team members you will find ages from 21 through almost 45 as well as diversity through nationality. We find this helps with experience and learning.
- What technology is having the most impact on the way interiors are being designed today and what do you expect will be the new ‘big thing’ in the future? There’s a lot of talk around generative design, AI etc. helping designers design complex/more efficient building spaces. We have invested heavily in technology as we believe it is a tool to communicate. This may be between designers in realising ever more complex ideas, but also as a tool to communicate with clients. BIM, in whatever form it is being used, has changed our industry for the better. Having said this, at SAY Studio we still see the value in the old fashioned sketch by hand, and we encourage all our designers to start every project with a pencil and paper. Lest we forget, technology is just the tool used to communicate what’s in the minds of the creator.
- What are three of the biggest challenges you see/anticipate in the market in 2020? How do you plan to deal with those challenges?
The construction sector in the UAE is expected to grow between 6 and 10 per cent in 2020, according to data from a recent KPMG survey. So, the market is looking far more positive than negative we think. There are the usual concerns about being able to deliver projects on time and within budget and with so many EXPO projects with looming deadlines I think this will be ratting a fair few execs. However, the use of innovative technology in the UAE to make construction both safer and more efficient is a real plus for 2020. Digital modular fabrication will likely be the technology to be implemented and have the greatest impact on the industry in the next 10 years. Intelligent construction equipment and robots are also products I expect to see at the EXPO, and predict to have a significant impact.
- Outside of the UAE, which GCC/Middle East markets interest you the most as far as expansion potential is concerned? What interests you about those markets and what’s your strategy to grow into those markets? We have collaborated on some really interesting projects in KSA which is going through an exciting period of growth. This is a key focus for us over the course of the next few years as is the case for many design consultants. That said, most of the Middle East and North Africa is also very much on our radar and having delivered projects there in the past, we are very keen to build upon this experience. We are already looking at several exciting opportunities, many of which creep into the mega-project category which is testament to the ambition and investment happening across the MENA region. Countries with strongest pull for us, due to previous or pipeline work, are Nigeria, Ethiopia and slightly further afield still is Kazakhstan.
- Any signature projects that you’re working on/having delivered in 2019 that you’d like to highlight? What’s special about them? In 2019 we designed the new flagship office for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. This 17,000m2 commercial office will align the clients agile working philosophy with their global standards. As the project is also being designed to WELL standards, it will pave the way for wellbeing in the workplace for years to come. The project is due for completion in Q2 2020.
- Closing statements/anything important to add? I have had the privilege of watching Dubai evolve over the last decade and as far as creative hubs go, I doubt one could find a better place to practice the profession of architecture and design than here. Whilst there is an emphasis on costs of late, we shouldn’t forget that this is a natural phase that all major cities go through. It is important that we all remember, creativity is not defined by the limits of a budget, but through innovation found within any circumstance.