Mumbai: When Godrej Properties decided to build a mega residential township consisting of a clutch of 50-storey towers on a nine-acre plot at Mahalaxmi in Central Mumbai, it went shopping to the island state of Singapore for an architect.
“There is a rising trend among Indian real-estate developers to hire international architectural firms to design their properties,” says Charles Budhabhatti, who is with the Indian unit of DP Architects, the firm that was awarded the Godrej project.
“Customers fancy projects designed by international firms. From the developer’s point of view, it becomes a good marketing and sales proposition,” he adds.
As competition hots up and properties get bigger, developers are falling over one another to woo global architects to design their properties in a bid to stand out amid the clutter. Increasingly, developers are entrusting the design work for commercial projects and the master planning of mixed-use developments to overseas companies. Of course, the international touch comes at a higher cost.
US-based Hellmuth, Obata+ Kassabaum Inc. (HOK), the world’s largest architectural firm, has already worked with Indian builders and developers such as the Hiranandani Group, Unitech Ltd and the Brigade Group on more than 15 projects. It also did the master planning for the Dasve/Lavasa project, a private township built on a hill station spread over 8,000 acres in the Mose Valley along the banks of Warasgon Lake, east of Mumbai and near Pune.
“We bring a global perspective and diverse expertise to a project,” says Will Roess, programme manager of the HOK India task team. Developers also “need to incorporate the latest innovations in sustainability”. UK-based RMJM, one of the top architectural firms in the world, and US-based Callison have both designed properties for Delhi-based builder Unitech Ltd.
Singapore-based design firms such as Architects 61 Pte Ltd and RSP Architects Planners & Engineers (Pte) Ltd are also designing projects in India and both of them are getting serious about winning more projects here.
RSP has opened offices in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad to cater to the booming real-estate market in these cities. It designed the International Tech Park in Bangalore, the first of its kind in the Indian subcontinent. It has also designed Indian offices for information technology majors Microsoft, SAP and mobile handset maker Motorola.
“With money starting to flow into this sector, it has become necessary to bring global architectural practices and expertise that are not available here,” says Dinesh Dubey, deputy general manager (design development) at the Bangalore-based Brigade Group, which hired HOK and another US-based firm, Dileonardo, for its projects.
Niranjan Hiranandani, managing director of the Mumbai-based Hiranandani Group, says foreign firms are hired for a “very limited purpose”. He gets them to propose the concepts and design the master plans of the projects, while the actual design and execution is done by Indian firms.
“We are looking at the best technology that is available globally. They bring international exposure and different skills to a project that is lacking here,” Hiranandani says.
Mantri Realty, which recently announced that it would spend Rs4,300 crore spread over the next three-four years in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Goa, Sholapur and Kolhapur on various developments, has used overseas firms for its projects.
“Foreign firms give novel designs, architectural features, more efficiency of space, better amenities and effective planning,” says Sunil Mantri, chairman, Mantri Realty Ltd, which develops properties in Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Pune. DP Architects had designed one of Mantri’s properties in Pune called Casabella.
According to Brigade’s Dubey, there is a big difference in approach between Indian and foreign firms that undertake design jobs. He feels international firms are more empathetic to developers’ needs and aspirations.
“They find a solution which is required for a particular site, location, land and are more in tune with the land-use demand,” says Dubey. “They are also more open to ideas. Indian firms have a trial-and-error approach to design and planning. They also try to impose their ideas on the developer.”
Hiranandani says it costs more to hire a foreign designer. Many builders who spoke to Mint declined to state the fees charged by foreign firms, but said that the costs were competitive.
Several developers choose overseas architects only for their larger projects. “It is affordable to hire an international firm to do master planning if there is a big volume of work,” says Dubey. Brigade, for instance, opts for a foreign firm if the project is built on an area exceeding 25 acres. “In terms of deliverables—time overrun is never an issue with foreign firms—and quality of work, costs are justifiable from a developer’s perspective,” Dubey adds.
Reputed architect Hafeez Contractor agrees that global firms are “definitely good” when it comes to designing properties. But he is critical of some of the mismatch. “The initial designs and portfolios, the way they are done, don’t make any sense many a time. Finally, Indian architects have to be hired to make the drawings work,” says Contractor, who has designed landmark properties such as the corporate office building of Bayer India House, Hiranandani Gardens and Office Park, DLF Centre.
On whether the arrival of foreign firms will help the Indian architect fraternity, Contractor says: “It will help us in some ways. It will also harm us in some ways. Ultimately, the fittest will survive.”
Developers say bandying the names of international designers makes it easier to market the projects and attract a premium. “Quality is the main thing,” says DP Architects’ Budhabhatti. “International firms bring quality that Indian firms are not able to provide. If they are able to get the quality that is available abroad, they are bound to get better prices.”
While hiring foreign designers and planners has many pluses, there is a downside as well. “The disadvantage of hiring (foreign) firms is that they may not fully understand the complexities or nuances of conducting business in India, including tax laws and cultural considerations,” says HOK’s Roess.