Property / Construction

From the ground up

by Martin Williams

Keith Griffiths (right)
David Roberts, CEO
Aedas Hong Kong
Photo: Wallace Chan

Hong Kong's largest architecture firm capitalises on major investments in railway projects

While senior managers of many companies might now have a nervous look in their eyes, Keith Griffiths, chairman, Aedas Hong Kong, is confident the firm will ride out the current economic crisis.

"We strive for balance between different sectors — commercial, residential and infrastructure — and balance across countries," he says. "With this strategic position, we are not exposed to fluctuations."

Mr Griffiths has found that in a downmarket, governments tend to invest in infrastructure. For instance, in 1997, there was a lot of railway construction. When the economy is good, there are more commercial developments for blue chip companies.

Importantly too, Aedas is fast gaining a strong foothold in China, which is less affected by the crisis than the West.

Over the past years, the company has been making a range of strategic moves, expanding from North America and Europe to Canada, working on plans for the Toronto Metro for instance.

Likewise, in the UK, Aedas is the architect for a major project with the London Underground. In both cases, Aedas' success was due to its experience with railways in Asia.

Asia, particularly Hong Kong, has been a key base for Aedas, which has grown rapidly to become the world's second largest architecture firm, with 2,500 staff in offices over four continents. The Hong Kong office now houses 600 talented staff.

"While we provide architectural services in all building types, we are best known for our infrastructure work and for providing very high quality training to our architects," says Mr Griffiths.

Architectural flair

When recruiting, Aedas looks for the brightest and most talented architecture graduates. This, however, does not always mean students with the best grades. "The key to recruitment success is understanding where a student is coming from, also the quality of their thinking process and their design ability," says Mr Griffiths.

Graduates may have all the necessary textbook knowledge but they still have much to learn. In particular they need to learn how to create the drawings to describe how buildings are put together. In Hong Kong, this includes the statutory aspects of architecture, which feature in a professional examination administered by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects.

Mr Griffiths says architects require a number of characteristics for success in addition to industry experience. "It's important to be a team player with an outgoing personality," he says. "You need passion for architecture, and good communication skills for interacting with clients and teams. A positive attitude and lateral thinking are indispensable because changes are inevitable. Also, architecture suits people who want to travel — you can pursue an international career if you so wish. There has to be a capacity to take initiative as well as responsibility. We are looking for leaders."

He emphasises that there are ample opportunities for career advancement to very high levels in a multinational like Aedas. For instance, some architects who started as graduates in 1998 are now the company's senior associates, and are approaching directorships.

Top-notch craftsmanship

Characterised by a design-led approach, Aedas is a creator of bespoke products. "We aim for fitness to purpose, and always a unique solution," Mr Griffiths remarks. For instance, the large white canopy covering the Sunny Bay MTR station makes it readily identifiable. "The roof, which is made of translucent white fabric, lets in daylight, so no energy is required for lighting during daytime. Also, the station's shape encourages a breeze that cools the platform," he expands. "This meticulous design contributes to a high level of sustainability and sophistication."

As far as craftsmanship is concerned, Aedas works closely with suppliers to explore approaches to innovative designs. "When designing the Mei Foo and Nam Chong stations, we worked on ceiling panels, devising cost effective and flexible systems. Since then, this design has been adopted for many stations, Mr Griffiths says.

After new architects have gained a good education with general experience, they can choose to specialise in different sectors, albeit these are not mutually exclusive. "It's often very personal what they choose to focus on," says Mr Griffiths. "Infrastructure can seem less glamorous on the outset, yet if you look at the building results, it's probably the most glamorous sector."

Plus, architects must understand processes. Though railway stations look deceptively simple, architects must understand every minor details including ticketing, gates, peak hour traffic, the numbers of escalators, and how to get big crowds out in cases of emergency.

With the government and MTR heavily investing in railways, Aedas is actively pursuing projects, while at the same time working on several, thereby creating a wealth of opportunities for its staff in Hong Kong.

Mr Griffiths has found designing infrastructure extremely exciting, as every project has its unique potential. "Although we use sophisticated software to show how buildings look in advance, there is nothing to beat going there and supervising a project being built from the ground up. Crafting buildings is huge fun," Mr Griffiths says.


Taken from Career Times 13 February 2009, p. B6
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