MD Blog : An update from the Far East / by Craig Heap

Our Managing Director, Callum Houston, was in contemplative mood whilst travelling back from China and jotted down some thoughts :

The frequency and ever shortening gaps between my trips to the Far East over the course of 2017 is hopefully a testament to the time and effort invested in our Chinese odyssey over the past seven years or more.

From the early days of working remotely, and travelling when required, until late 2015 when we took the ambitious step of opening an office in Guangzhou, the path has never been easy. 

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However, in this recent visit I couldn’t help but notice that in the last 2 years we have gone from 5 staff, working in a less than ideal environment, to 16 staff in our own purposely designed modern office space. Slightly worrying is the fact that every desk space now appears to be occupied and with increasing pressure on Projects and Bids, a demand for more seats and staff will not be far away.

From the outset we recognised that to be taken seriously and position ourselves in the market place we would need to grow to about 50 staff within 5 years. We always planned for growth, and have capacity to do so, but it still remains both exciting and daunting in equal measures.

With every passing visit I can’t help but be enthused by the positivity and strength of the team we have established in our Guangzhou Office. A truly international team composed of talented individuals from Mexico, Poland, South Africa and Turkey, not to mention a few Chinese and Scots thrown in for good measure. 

It must be said, international and young. I don’t think of myself as old (nearer 40 than 50) but clearly I have reached a watershed moment in my time with Holmes Miller. Always happy to partake in a beer at the end of a hard day, I was rocked when our most recent Intern took great glee in the discovery that he was not even born when I started as a fresh faced architectural assistant back in 1994.

As a practice we strive to establish a friendly, relaxed and open culture so it is great to see that this has been maintained in the 9000 mile separation between Glasgow and Guangzhou. Hopefully this trend will be continued in our new London Office opening in late 2017.

Anyway, the main purpose of this most recent visit was to support the team in our submission and presentation for a new Education led project in Zhuhai.

Zhuhai is one of China’s first special economic zones in the southwest of the Pearl River estuary in Guangdong Province, with Hong Kong to the east and Macao to the south.

As one of the UK’s largest education architects, having designed and delivered new facilities for more than 45,000 pupils, I was delighted that we were getting the opportunity to take our experiences in this sector to China.

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When I was handed a brief for a 900 place Kindergarden School (27,000m2) and a 1800 place Primary School (36,000m2), not to mention a community centre and bus exchange thrown in for good measure, you can't help but draw breath at the scale. I don’t suppose I should be surprised any more as, with a population of 1.3 billion people, the one constant is the scale of projects in China. However, coming from an environment that focuses all of our time on meeting prescriptive Building Bulletins, EFA and SFT guidelines, I can’t help but doing a quick number crunch in my head to work out the area per pupil.

I am not trying to raise political debate about the merits or otherwise of the different approaches to educational delivery.  In many ways they are very similar. What I am more interested in, is the subtle differences and opportunities to learn from this process.

I think the most striking insight was at Kindergarden stage (ages 3-6 )where there appears a more regimented teaching agenda. There is still a strong emphasis on flexibility and providing linkage between interior and external spaces, but in the main, the space is broken down into cellular classrooms with adjacent sleeping areas,  each for 30 children. Strikingly the brief also includes specialist STEM teaching area, highlighting the importance placed on these key curriculum areas from a very early age.

Placing differences to one side, when it comes down to it, it is still our role as designers to optimise building user experience and create the best environment that is conducive to learn and teach in.

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Having just completed the presentation to an expectant client group, one of four shortlisted practices from the original nine who had submitted bids the previous day (including a 1:300 physical model and 12 CGI’s) I depart with optimism (blind or otherwise) that we may see our education portfolio expand to include the delivery of a sensitively designed ‘Goliath’.

Homeward bound now, but not before the usual panic to see whether I could extend my trip by a couple of days to help with another client presentation, this time for a 100 metre tall Office Development.  Couldn’t sort out the logistics this time, but I travel in the knowledge that I’ve got at least one more trip in me between now and the end of the year.  At least I’ll get the chance to see, China does Christmas!

Callum Houston
Holmes Miller
Managing Director