Bangalore: As foreign architecture firms set up more offices in India, they are also bringing back Indian architects who left the country many years back for better opportunities abroad.
After designing for Indian real estate developers for the past few years, some marquee names in the world of architecture—such as Burt Hill, Bregman+Hamann Architects and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill Llp., or SOM—have now started expanding their front offices across India to be more accessible and do more work.
Jayesh Hariyani, director of Burt Hill, India
The trend is accelerating in recent months as both commercial and residential construction slumps in countries such as the US, where a slowing economy is taking a heavy toll on new projects. This has left many firms, including some white-shoe ones, scrambling to find work for their roster of architects, with West Asia and Asia offering new hope.
Fuelling demand has been the rush of construction in India, with big builders falling over each other to tout the design and architectural help they are getting from firms based outside the country. A perceived shortage of domestic talent has also helped foreign firms find projects within India in the past couple of years.
“There will be more of such firms building offices here as they penetrate deeper into the Indian real estate pie because there is a substantial demand for the expertise and technology which come with them,” says Pankaj Renjhen, managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle Meghraj, a property consultancy and research firm.
Consider Anil Rawat, an architect who left India for West Asia some 24 years ago, leaving an associate director job at Sachdev Eggleston, an architectural firm in Delhi.
Nine years ago, Rawat joined the Toronto-based Bregman+Hamann, better-known as B+H. And, in 2007, he returned to India when the company started its India operations, setting up its first office in Gurgaon. “I wanted to come back to India, and this was the right opportunity and time. People like me left because opportunities were many outside the country and there was a huge leap in salaries if we worked abroad,” says Rawat, who now heads the operations for B+H India.
A computer-generated image of the proposed JSW headquarters in Mumbai that Burt Hill is executing
The firm has set up its first office in India in a joint venture with Planner Group, a Gurgaon architecture firm, and is currently handling three projects for Arrow Infrastructure, the real estate and infrastructure company under Hero Honda Motors Ltd. (Rawat’s firm has also recently worked on an office project in Gurgaon for HT Media Ltd, the publisher of Mint).
Twelve of the 55 architects and designers at the Ahmedabad office of Washington-based architecture firm Burt Hill are of Indian origin and have been working in the US for the past several years.
Nitin Narang, a project architect and manager with Burt Hill in India, opted to return from the US when it opened its India office in Ahmedabad last year, even though he had quit the firm a couple of years prior to that.
“We have hired Indian architects from other architecture firms in the US as well, and a few were transferred from Burt Hill’s offices in the US,” says Jayesh Hariyani, director of Burt Hill (India).
Back home: Bregman+Hamann’s Anil Rawat returns after 24 years
“For some architects, it was an opportunity to come back home and work here, and a few wanted to give it a shot, work for two years in India and then decide if they want to continue,” Hariyani adds.
Burt Hill has 13 offices across the US and West Asia, and the Indian arm is primarily looking at getting into tier II and III cities such as Pune and Hyderabad, along with Kolkata and Chennai, which, Hariyani says, are the “places where bulk of the future real estate investments and land acquisition in India will happen”.
Until relatively recently, architects from international firms would fly into India, meet developers at regular intervals during the execution of a project and go back. But, complaints from local developers of non-availability during a project’s execution and, of course, a spurt in real estate activity in India has prompted a few of them to set up operations closer to their clients.
Prakash Gurbaxani, founder and CEO of venture capital-funded firm QVC, says the business of real estate is all about execution and a local office demonstrates that it is not a one-shot association between a developer and an architect. “Even smaller developers can now hire international architecture firms because they are competitively priced and don’t cost much more than top local architects,” says Gurbaxani, whose firm is in talks with B+H for a township project in Gurgaon.
“A permanent office in India would imply that we are more committed and serious and are looking at a long-term association rather than short-term projects,” says Mark Igou, a director with the New York-based SOM, which has designed the Freedom Tower of the World Trade Center and the ongoing Burj Dubai project. The company is designing a commercial project with a slum rehabilitation component in a Mumbai suburb for real estate firm Unitech Ltd.
An influx of architects has also meant more competition for trained architects within India.
“Global firms will have to hire local staff to bridge the gap between developers and designers from abroad,” notes Renjhen of LaSalle Meghraj. “It is these local architects who would incorporate detailing in a project, like a puja room or even servants’ quarters.”
The transition of foreign architects to India isn’t always easy either.
Many Indian builders, including well-established ones, often show scant regard for safety standards—such as fire and earthquake protection—and have been known to ask even well-known architects to try and cut corners, especially when it comes to maximizing rental space, often by minimizing public amenities.
In the US, architects charge anything between 5% and 20% of the total construction cost of a project as fee, depending on its scale. In India, architects usually charge about 5% of a project’s construction cost. With some foreign architects charging “international” fee in India, even local architects have started charging more.
Architect Hafeez Contractor is candid about it. “The good part is, we can now charge fees as per international standards... There is more competition now and we have to sharpen our skills to do better work.”
But, Contractor is vocal about many mediocre “foreign” architects who are now coming in and lowering their fee to get work. “Mid-size builders approach these architects,” he says. “In fact, we have lost work to such firms as developers are keen to hire them at a lower price. But, we have also had developers coming back to us after burning their fingers in projects when those architects haven’t been able to deliver.”
Contractor has some 400 employees in his Bank Street office in south Mumbai.
Builders say there are basic differences between foreign architects and our own.
“Indian architects work harder but lack the contemporary perspective which a global firm would bring in. Foreign architects have better design sense and are more efficient in meeting deadlines,” says J.C. Sharma, executive director of Sobha Developers Ltd, which has worked with Contractor in many of its projects, and has also appointed South Africa-based Neil Jeffrey to design some of its projects.
Meanwhile, it isn’t just big Western firms that are eyeing India. A handful of individual architects with small practices have also been returning to India. Architects such as Pankaj Vir Gupta and Christine Mueller, an award-winning couple who had studied architecture and worked together for several years in the US, eventually setting up their practice, vir.mueller architects, in Boston in 2003, have since moved their practice to New Delhi, working on homes, hotels and even community toilet projects in India, even as they continue to work on projects in the US from here.
“For many foreign firms who are setting up offices here, architecture is not a creative profession but a great business opportunity because there is a lot of work in India,” says Gupta, who believes that such firms are mostly involved in the first stage of a project-concept design, after which local architects do the important bits of design development and detailing.
In a twist to the back-to-India story, vir.mueller has now brought in young US architects for both short and long stints, capitalizing on the flattening of demand for trained architects there due to the economic downturn.