Fine Fellow

Steven Nilles, partner in charge of Goettsch Partners’ new Abu Dhabi office, tells Oliver Ephgrave about the company’s regional expansion and his recent elevation to the AIA College of Fellows

W hen an architect rents space in a building they created, it’s a pretty good indication that they’re proud of their work. Given that Goettsch Partners has leased an office in Tower One of Sowwah Square, it’s safe to assume that the Chicago-headquartered firm is more than happy with its mega-scheme for Mubadala.

Sitting in the fully-glazed corner of the seveth floor office, partner in charge Steven Nilles is clearly thrilled about the new location.

“Not many architects can say they work in their own building. We knew there was an intangible benefit to being here,” he beams.

“People really enjoy coming here and we like people visiting. So much goes into delivering a project like this; it was a labour of love.”

Niles elaborates on his background and how he became an architect. “I grew up in Barbara North Dakota and ever since childhood I was fascinated with art and design and construction.

“At high school I had the opportunity to visit an architecture office. As soon as I walked in I saw that you get to draw and design. So I went to the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, for my architectural degree.
He continues: “After that it was just non-stop. I moved to Chicago and got picked up by Helmut Jahn. I did commercial work in every major city in the US. When things slowed there we were active in Europe.”

After 16 years with Helmut Jahn, with a focus on international work, Nilles yearned for work closer to home. The formation of Goettsch Partners came out of this desire, as Nilles explains.

“We had an opportunity to join forces with Jim Goettsch who had been the number two guy at Helmut Jahn for many years. Goettsch partners was set up. We now have 85 people in Chicago; a lot of those guys have been there for 25 to 30 years.”

Around four years ago, Nilles moved to Abu Dhabi to deliver the Sowwah Square project, following in the footsteps of associate Matthew Berglund. Nilles continues: “Matthew was the first guy to come over full time. Then we were asked to do the construction documents and the construction administration.We had a longer term plan, so we decided to commit. We were one of the first tenants to sign a lease.”

For architects with projects in the region, it is integral to have an office on the ground, according to Nilles. “You have got to live here to experience it, to sweat it, and really understand the value of shade and the scarcity of water. When you look at ecological design, it has a different meaning here.

“Matthew and I started this job from day one and we are still here. We want to make sure that no stone is left unturned. If you are not here, there is a chance that something in the drawings gets lost in translation.”
Currently the office contains four full-time employees. Nilles adds: “There’s space for 12. We have a five-year lease commitment and we’re going to expand as the market dictates.

“Things have slowed down here in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere but we still see opportunity; our firm is somewhat unique as we do big jobs but we’re managed like a small business. We give very personal attention to every one of our projects. There is a limit to how we will expand globally.

“We’ve now got offices in Chicago, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai; in reality we will never exceed, nor will we want to, beyond 120 people.”

This personal attention is reflected in the Sowwah Square scheme, according to Nilles. He adds: “You know how hot it is out there today. If you were to sit in a typical Abu Dhabi office in an all-glass corner you are going to bake. We have discharge air going through this cavity before it goes out of the building. The glass is as cool as a cucumber.

“A lot of thought went into these column-free corners. Every other office you see out there has a column near the corner – what do you do with the space behind it?”

He adds that there is a lack of quality office space in Abu Dhabi. “In terms of our assessment of the market here, there is very little of what we consider Class A Plus, international standard office space. This is in terms of floor plate size, column-free lease spaces, Category A finishes, and environmental improvements.

“We took everything that we know, from projects all over the world, and applied it in this marketplace. There are things here that we couldn’t afford in a speculative development – even the highest level of quality in the US. It’s been a great opportunity for us to take advantage of this marketplace.”

Nilles believes that companies should take a closer look at the design of their offices. “It affects absenteeism and productivity. You just keep going in a good office with good daylighting.”

Another facet of Sowwah Square is its green credentials. Nilles adds that the scheme is certified LEED Gold. There is no Estidama rating as the project began before the establishment of the system. “If this project was started again with the Estidama programme, there may be things that we do differently,” he remarks.

“The Estidama programme is more fine tuned to the Middle East market – they did a good job on that. The water use has been given more emphasis and rightly so.”

When it comes to Goettsch Partners’ projects in the wider region, Nilles reveals that the company is working on a commercial development for Al Halal Bank, on the same island as Sowwah Square, due to be delivered in September 2013.

Nilles adds: “We’re also doing a couple of large hospitality projects in Saudi including a 1,000-key Hilton in Riyadh. It was selected as Hilton’s design of the year – they are very excited about it and we are too.
“We’re pursuing other work in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Doha. This is a great place for us to be. In Saudi we have been teaming up with Omrania & Associates, an architectural and engineering firm in Riyadh.”

From Nilles’ perspective, the Middle East market has improved. He continues: “The financial situation has stabilised and the worst is behind us. Even in markets that don’t have a net growth, for commercial office space there is consolidation going, with mergers and acquisitions. There is always a need for the best of the best in terms of products. It’s good to see that happening.”

However, he notes that the Chinese market has recently overtaken the Middle East as a revenue generator for the company. “Five years ago, 50% of our revenues were coming out of the Middle East. Now 50% are coming out of China.”

Nilles’ ever-expanding portfolio, spanning 30 years, has not gone unnoticed; earlier this year he was elevated to the American Institute of Architect’s elite College of Fellows .

He remarks: “I was pleasantly surprised to be nominated – there is a select group within the AIA. It analyses your whole career’s body of work and it was nice to be a part of that group.

“I have taken a different track than most architects. Other partners in the firm would be classified as pure design directors. I’m a throwback to the way that architects used to be – doing design, technical and construction. I don’t have a particular specialty but it was very encouraging that they assessed my overall body of work.”

With a smile on his face, Nilles thinks back over the process. “It was a humbling experience – it forced you to go back and collect letters of reference from people you worked with 20 years ago and revisit the portfolio you were involved in.

“We are always moving a mile a minute. I don’t really stay on top of what I’ve done – I’m very focused on the current situation and moving forward. It was a good lesson to look back, and also realise how many people have helped you as a design professional.

“I don’t think architects spend enough time looking back at what they’ve done. It makes us realise that we’ve done a lot of pretty good stuff.”

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