Back for good

Aukett Fitzroy Robinson has returned to the UAE with a quest to breathe new life into tired buildings. Oliver Ephgrave meets CEO Nicholas Thompson and Middle East director Stephen Embley.

UK-headquartered firm Aukett Fitzroy Robinson (AFR) may not be a household name but it is certainly a firm on the up. The firm recently won International Practice of the Year at the AJ100, run by The Architects’ Journal, based on increased earnings and staff numbers overseas. Moreover, the practice played a part in the early development of the UAE and recently returned to the Emirates with focused plans of growth in the region.

Sitting in the plush lobby of the Fairmont Hotel Abu Dhabi, CEO Nicholas Thompson believes the AJ award demonstrates the firm’s well-placed commitment to select overseas markets.”I think it recognises that we have stuck with our international marketplace when it’s easy not to.

“People are looking at Dubai merely as a staging post and shrinking their operations. Our business plan for this region is based on growing not shrinking, which is much more exciting. Anybody can shrink but you tend not to tell anyone about that.”

Thompson reveals the company first ventured to the Middle East in 1975, with several buildings completed in the late seventies and early eighties, including Abu Dhabi’s famous National Day Grandstand which now adjoins Capital Gate. AFR departed at the time of the first Gulf conflict, yet re-established in 2007 with a licensed office in Abu Dhabi.

Since its return to the Emirates, AFR has completed projects for Aldar on the Park Inn and Radisson Blu, Yas Island. It is also providing interior services for a yet-to-be-developed tower in Central Market Abu Dubai, designed by Foster + Partners. Recently it picked up work on the Al Hamra Fort Hotel & Beach Resort in Ras Al Khaimah.

The company has long-term goals for Dubai and the UAE, and is planning to establish a strong Middle East hub. Thompson continues: “We operate a hub strategy. One is London, the other is Moscow and the UAE is our third hub. At the moment this is the smallest, but we’re looking to rebuild that position here, probably more in Dubai than Abu Dhabi. Although we are registered in Abu Dhabi we are looking at Dubai probably being commercially more active long term.”

Middle East director Stephen Embley pipes up to underline the strength of the Dubai market. “Dubai is a mature market – it’s been through a crash but post-downturn people are looking at quick responses and reusing the assets they have.

“There has been a big infrastructure spend while other locations are still behind. We feel it is a mature market and one for the future – that’s why we’re willing to invest in staying here to make it a success.”

Thompson adds: “There are obviously other countries in the region that are quite buoyant, Qatar being one, but we aren’t focusing on them. We’re primarily concerned with the emirates, including the smaller ones such as Ras Al Kaihmah. We feel comfortable in this area.

“I think it’s a very good place to be and a lot of companies will come here when they realise that actually it’s quite stable and there is a good market for most types of companies.

“The UAE is geographically more important than either London or Moscow. West of London is the Atlantic Ocean and there is not a lot going on there. From Moscow everything goes south and outward. If you’re here you can work across North Africa, Western Europe, Russia and out to the east.”

AFR’s Abu Dhabi office currently employs 10 members of staff, with plans to expand to 25-30 members split between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Thompson believes that certain areas of Dubai are ripe for redevelopment – a company specialism honed from decades of experience in Europe.

He asserts: “We’ve noticed that certain areas in Dubai are looking a bit tired and we are asking what can you do with them. Yes, you can just repaint a building, but you can also change its use. Maybe switch a tired residential block to a modern hotel – not necessarily a five star but a more tourist-type hotel.”

Thompson continues: “To us, that is sustainable architecture – reusing a frame of a building that is already there to avoid disruption.

“For a marginal cost you are bringing a building back to life. We believe that Dubai – having more buildings that would benefit from that change – is a market that we should focus on.”

Embley pinpoints Deira as a potential location for redevelopment, adding: “It’s a wonderful area with the shops and a rich urban fabric. Maybe in some areas of Abu Dhabi that has been lost. In Deira you can rebuild the fringes as a catalyst for future developments. You can use traditional building methods of shading and scale but also bring in international best practice, addressing things like fire escapes and codings.”

A good example of this approach, according to Embley, is AFR’s current renovation of the Al Hamra Fort Hotel & Beach Resort in Ras Al Khaimah. The revamp will spruce up the public areas, grounds, pools and certain bedrooms, with demolition due to start later this month.

He continues: “The building could have been completed knocked down and rebuilt but this renovation will give it another 10-15 years of life and bring the hotel up to the latest standards in terms of means of escape and kitchens.

“The first phase is the main hotel. Next year, they will start with the villa rooms – they are doing it in two phases so they can keep the hotel operational.”

An intelligent, phased approached is critical in commercial projects, says Thompson. “In many cases the revenue has to keep going while the redevelopment work is happening. We understand about the phasing of projects, and the order in which each element should be done. It’s about understanding how the business works as well as the architecture.

“It’s incredibly important for a client – if they suddenly have to close their hotel then that has a major impact on the business, not just in terms of the revenue but also people’s expectations.”

AFR is an advocate of using local materials wherever possible, and the Al Hamra Fort project is no exception. Embley continues: “We’re using materials from RAK Ceramics. I could throw a cricket ball at the factory from the hotel. It’s important not to transport materials halfway across the world unless you have to. Over here, clients are very keen on developing their local markets. It makes economic and social sense.”

When asked whether quality is ever an issue when sourcing locally, Embley replies: “No, we haven’t had any problems. We can get hold of most of the interior materials, especially in Dubai, and you can the same fabrics you would get anywhere in the world.

“Cladding suppliers might be more established in Germany or Italy, but there are still companies here that do good cladding. If it’s a specialist requirement you will have to get it imported. Our clients such as Aldar are really into local supply chains. We have the same mindset.”

Both Thompson and Embley stress the need for community-focused buildings. “There’s still a place for icons as they put a place on the map, but you can’t have a whole city of them. That wouldn’t work,” opines Embley. Thompson adds: “I think it’s also about social acceptability. We’re in a period of austerity now. There are political issues in a lot of countries and there has to be something given back to the community.

“Every city wants an iconic building – that’s what gets the photographs. It’s not something we do – there are many architects in the world that do that. We look after the commercial fabric of the city and work with the community that owns the buildings. We want to be a part of the community and part of history.”

With two classic Corniche office buildings appearing on the AED1000 bank note, the company has already cemented its place in UAE history. It remains to be seen whether Aukett Fitzroy Robinson’s new wave of schemes will have the same impact.

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