Part 1 - Asian takeover, what does it mean for the Built Environment?

There is often a feeling in “the West” that the Asia market is seen as weaker, less advanced and the media often convey a Good vs Bad diatribe leaving many with a falsely clouded view. In a world which is seemingly becoming reduced of free speech, I feel it is down to all of us to promote the positive & the opportunities. My interactions in Asia are often some of my favourite from both a personal and business perspective, and the opportunity which Asia presents the rest of the world is not to be ignored. 


“In 2020, Asia’s GDP will overtake the GDP of the rest of the world combined” – a quote taken from the World Economic Forum highlights the undeniable expansion the East has been going through over the past few decades. It is no longer a discussion about the new superpower, that superpower is here and with much of this part of the world still going through tremendous urbanisation and growth, more is yet to come. In fact by 2030, Asia-Pacific will be responsible for 90% of the new middle class (estimated at 2.4 billion people) entering the global economy.


For my connections in the wider Built Environment, if you’re not working in the Asia market then you are already behind the curve! Here are some of the trends we’re seeing in our sector and the opportunities which are arising:


Technology & Sustainability is king

The biggest superpower in Asia, China, has demonstrated a real push on improving Technology across the country and investing massive sums into developments such as Technology & Innovation Parks. Smart Cities, a term which has been banded around for years, is at the forefront of many planning processes across Asia and as the more affluent countries continue to be self-sufficient, their improvements in Technology will supersede that of the West. The unmatched growth of regions like Shenzhen in Southern China show the pace at which it is occurring, and grow with the future in mind. Modern healthcare lends itself to the rise in R&D facilities, growing labs and pharmaceuticals buildings – something which is seen as the future but is actually very much the present.


Sustainability is perhaps the no.1 cause for concern in the Built Environment and those who have a sustainably led strategy are seeing wins above their competitors. Places like India with a burgeoning middle class are demanding a more sustainable future in their overcrowded cities and China is the no.1 investor in a sustainable future, pumping close to $400 billion in domestic green technologies since 2017, more than twice that of the EU (as well as an additional $250 billion on global projects). 


We’re seeing more firms opening up new offices in these growth areas, where clients are still seeking the expertise of the Western A&E firms. If you’re not watching the projects coming out of Asia already then set your alerts for some fantastic schemes in the coming years!


The rise of the European approach

Back in the early 90’s, it appeared that the only firms who wanted a piece of Asia were from North America. Leading architecture firms found their feet, mainly in Shanghai, before expanding slowly into the developing regions of Hong Kong, Singapore and further afield in Vietnam & Thailand. This trend continued for the next 20 years where in one way or another, the same practices were seen in the competition bids and some outstanding projects delivered. However, and this could mean make or break for practices, in the past few years we have seen the “Starchitect” European designers doing phenomenally well in Asia. Firms such as Heatherwick, MVRDV and BIG are now designing projects which used to be seen as bread & butter for our North American friends. This trend can be answered because of a number of different factors:


  1. The real estate left in Tier 1 cities is of such prime value now, clients & developers are polarised by more cost effective LDI’s or the pricier Starchitects who can & often will do something different. Regions like Hong Kong, Shenzhen & Beijing were CBD space is minimal, are searching for European Designers who approach built projects in a different way rather than a traditional international practice
  2. The cost of real estate & land in Tier 3/4/5 cities lends itself to cheaper fees from LDI’s to design & deliver. . . large international design firms just can’t compete on price
  3. Clients want something different! With the European approach tending to lean towards sustainability and a design first mentality, developers and local governments are actively wanting something different


Functional buildings are necessary

The new consumer profile in Asia has led to individuals having more cash and therefore having more power in their decision making. This new profile means the average man or woman is becoming more discerning, they want the future and they want it now. In a region which has expanded so quickly, it is the role of Architects & Designers to not only design the best but design for functionality. No longer are we seeing the 80 storey towers made famous in architecture magazines, but seeing more money pushed into Higher Education, Healthcare and commercial environments with the community and general public in mind. The job market is in a transformational stage, both digitally as well as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, displacing jobs in manufacturing, storage and transport and replacing with technology, healthcare and the rise of the gig economy.


Asian developers want designs which will be built and used, not just designed to look nice. Transport Oriented Development (TOD) is a key part of the projects in these developing countries, where the country is becoming more accessible for all. Architecture & Engineering projects are being designed with the end in mind, as evidently the projects are there to actually be built. What does the consumer want and how can we best design projects to serve them. . . this should be the question asked.


In the second part of this Article I will offer some of the recruitment & talent changes which have occurred over the last few years in the Asia market. This, after all, has been where our mentality of Our Projects Are People has been at the forefront.