Serving more than 3,500 active clients in virtually every industry across the world, Gensler has shown itself to be a positive force for change in the architecture, design and planning arena. The firm puts tremendous effort into promoting greater sustainability in the built environment and is committed to promoting the best design for every building – environmentally, aesthetically and functionally. Moreover, over the past 18 months, Gensler has sharpened its climate action focus with fresh research and new design capabilities, and has updated its priorities to meet the firm’s goal of achieving a net zero carbon portfolio by 2030. We speak to Managing Director, Tim Martin, to find out more about Gensler’s philosophy of making the world a better place through the power of design, focusing on its ever-growing business in Saudi Arabia and the wider region.
Saudi Projects: How long has Gensler been operating in Saudi Arabia?
Tim Martin: The firm started back in 1965 and we’ve now got 50 offices globally, but we’ve been present, with a physical base, in the Middle East since 2007, although we completed projects in the Kingdom and the wider region before that. Our drive for opening up Dubai when we first started was the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC) project, which is now one of the world’s most advanced financial centres; we did the building and the master planning.We’re very much a practice area driven firm, and currently, here in the Middle East we’re working in quite a few of those practice areas – I would say primarily hospitality, workplace, mixed-use and retail are our biggest spheres of continued growth at the moment.
We’re incredibly committed to shaping the future of world cities
SP: And is this an increasingly important market for the company?
TM: Yes, it is. There’s a lot of investment, research and diversification, so it’s a very key part of our overall growth. We like to say we’re the leaders in shaping the iconic structures and skylines and defining the cities and communities, so it’s a very pivotal market for Gensler at present.
SP: Why do you think Gensler is such a good fit for the Kingdom, because it is a very different market isn’t it?
TM: It is a different market, but I think it goes back to the whole Gensler mission of making the world a better place through the power of design. We’re incredibly committed to shaping the future of world cities. A really important aspect, and I think this is where we really help in the Middle East, is climate change, and how we can design and ultimately build in a highly sustainable and reliant way.
At the moment we’re looking at the future of mobility in cities, along with technology and smart cities. I believe we have a very unique viewpoint, fuelled by our own research institute and around 50 researchers with really diverse backgrounds, everyone from architects to lawyers. It’s about how we lead the conversation. Again, our group globally is very diverse, and we think that’s particularly important in Saudi Arabia.
In terms of practice areas – we have 28 now – we’re focusing on specific expertise for those various fields of knowledge. And that helps us to understand what’s going on globally, but just as important, what’s happening locally as well. One of our 10 key mission statements is that you can’t be global unless you’re local.
Throughout our whole portfolio, we’re doing a lot of really exciting master plans and urban plans
SP: You mentioned building in a sustainable manner, and the desire for sustainability has really moved on in the last few years – it used to be more of a buzzword?
TM: People were just talking about it a lot in the past, but Gensler is already forging ahead into the new era of smart sustainability, using technology to solve design issues. We’ve also introduced a new practice area focused solely on sustainability and net zero energy. Looking globally, our 2020 portfolio is already designed to save over 17 million metric tonnes of CO2 from being emitted on an annual basis. Net zero energy buildings are a real pillar of our approach at the moment; we’re trying to leverage renewable energy sources and efficient design choices, so the next generation of buildings can achieve net-zero energy status. We’ve been doing this for some time. We’re part of the net zero global campaign, and ultimately every building we produce will be net zero and free of all the fossil fuels, and that will compensate for a structure’s annual energy consumption.
SP: What is Gensler working on in KSA at the present time?
TM: We’re working on multiple projects, not just in Riyadh but across the whole Kingdom. It’s very hard to talk about specifics, but we’re working on numerous giga-projects on the Red Sea as well as being active in the capital. Throughout our whole portfolio, we’re working on many exciting master plans and urban plans, all the way through to workplace projects. It’s not about size or scale for us; we’re very much a client-focused business and we do whatever projects our clients require.
One of the key projects and one I can talk about is the new 1364 development. This is in the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh with our friends at Unified Real Estate. It’s opening up next year and will be a unique lifestyle center. We are working closely with His Highness and the Unified team to try and reflect the unprecedented change that is taking place in Saudi society. I believe they call it an ‘oasis of luxury in a bustling part of the Diplomatic Quarter’ – so that’s something that’s really exciting for us. It’s great to see this thing being built. So, we’re working on large schemes, obviously in KAFD, and the majority of the giga-projects in some way, shape or form.
We came out of Covid stronger, with lots of new initiatives and goals and some great new technologies
SP: There does seem a healthy pipeline of projects?
TM: Yes, it’s a really bright future in the pipeline. And I think that comes back to Gensler leading the conversation. I have 10 or 12 of my global offices working alongside me in the Kingdom, and we’ve got 70+ people based in the UAE. We’re looking at how we can grow that throughout the region, too. Collaborating with so many global offices allows us to have a deep pool of expertise, and we promote this ‘borderless design firm’ approach. It’s not just about where the project is located, it’s about what’s the best expertise we can bring to the table that’s right for the client and right for the setting and social setting of the project.
SP: Looking back, what are you most proud of?
TM: We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had the opportunity to work with the biggest names, as well as some start-up companies in many different industries. By combining our design knowledge with the rich history and philosophies of the Middle East, we’ve been lucky enough to create some of the region’s best works. The DIFC I think has to stand out there; it’s a multi-award winning project and set the stage for a lot of design across the region. The Avenues in Kuwait was another very significant project, and I think changed the landscape of those particular countries and developments. But what we’re most proud of is how we continue to grow and evolve our practice areas, our people and our knowledge. We’re concentrating at the moment on creating some new technologies that will focus on enhancing the wellbeing of communities – obviously concern for the environment is key to everything we do.Probably the biggest thing we are proud of is having so many repeat clients. They have that trust in Gensler and the incredible team we have here, and we keep delivering these world-class projects. Going back to our ethos, we have the global knowledge but we are genuinely local and understand the nuances of the region and society.
SP: I guess you win projects through word-of-mouth, too?
TM: A lot of our projects are recommendations from existing clients, and that’s a testament to what the team has done here for many years now. It’s good to be busy, but it’s even better when a client comes through a recommendation. It’s a reconfirmation that what we’re doing is the right path forward. We’re here to challenge our clients, not just to take a brief and design it. We want to make it the best for the client, the economy, for return investments and the environment.
SP: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected Gensler, and how has it changed the company philosophy, if at all?
TM: It was a fascinating time in a business sense, as it was for the rest of the world. The whole firm went from working in the office to working at home overnight. To be honest, it worked incredibly well. We’re a very connected group anyway, globally, and I think in this part of the world we’re used to jumping on calls with other parts of the firm. But we took time to digest everything and, from day two, look at what the post-Covid world would look like. Going back to climate change, we then started to look at how the Middle East has started to be remarkably proactive in developing smart cities. How the technology was taking an increasingly important role within everything we’re doing in the region. We’re always a company that adapts and learns, and Covid gave us that pause, that moment to focus the firm on the direction that we are taking and reaffirming that direction, and how we can enhance what we are doing. We’ve found some great new ways to collaborate with clients – having meetings on the screen instead of face-to-face, for instance, gave us the ability to get decisions made quite quickly. Putting things on the screen made it a more collaborative process, and we saw that people who are usually a little quieter face-to-face had more robust viewpoints on an interactive forum.And with six thousand Gensler people around the world being able to draw from our pool even deeper was a great experience. We came out of Covid stronger, with lots of new initiatives and goals and some great new technologies that we’re beginning to implement now.
We’re working in seven or eight countries around the Middle East at the moment and we’re seeing a very strong market demand
SP: So there have been some positives to come out of Covid for Gensler?
TM: It hit everyone, but yes, overall it goes back to what a great firm Gensler is, to be honest; how we can adapt, grow and learn.
SP: What is the company doing well at the moment, and where is there an opportunity for growth?
TM: We’ve seen a lot of our practice areas evolve and transform into proprietary computational design tools. I think it’s all about the process and process innovation, and how we look at that moving into the future. Another part of that, going back to the Gensler research institute, is our data-driven insight, which helps to predict what’s coming up and what the trends are. This has allowed us to stay one step ahead, providing counsel to our clients and extending our analysis. Our teams focus on designing sustainability, and by using fewer resources that do less or no more damage to the environment, it’s really progressing the whole concept into the future. Our goal is to have net zero design in everything we do by 2030. I think the construction and engineering sectors here are set for a great recovery. The government stimulus will help that and it’s an exciting place to be. Gensler has grown consistently since it started and we continue to increase that global footprint. Furthermore, we’re working in seven or eight countries around the Middle East at the moment and seeing a very strong market demand. Gensler is incredibly committed to the Middle East; we see it as a very long term and key part of our business, and in the region, we only see positive growth. We’re extraordinarily fortunate to be part of the Middle East right now. I think it’s a really important time to be here, with the region continuing to rise on the global scene. We’re growing our team and expanding our practice areas, which is basically enabling us to be future-ready. And we’re excited to continue to partner with our friends and clients, and I think there’s going to be continued growth and success for everyone for quite some years to come.
SP: Finally, going for net zero, is the region a good place to be at the moment compared to other places in the world?
TM: The Middle East has a real chance to make some significant gestures and significant changes, and a lot of the projects we are working on are in the early concept stage. It’s not necessarily the regeneration of an existing city; that will be more complex to do. But a lot of the projects that are coming out of the ground, if you are in early enough, sustainability becomes part of that project ethos. So, yes, I think the Middle East is truly committed to growing and I think it is a good place to be for that reason.