Canadian architecture firm B+H architects (pronounced "B plus H") came to China in 1991 when it won a competition to build Xiamen’s airport. It has been booking design contracts ever since. Karen Cvornyek arrived at B+H as a partner in 2002 and took up the post of president of its Asian operation in 2009. She spoke to CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW about staying ahead of the competition in the world’s biggest building market.
Q: You spent several years in Japan doing architecture during the 1980s construction boom. How does that experience compare with China? Any points of similarity?
A: That’s a tough one. I would say the Japanese approach to developing urban centers was very different. There’s not much similar between the two, to tell you the truth. I think in the 1980s Japan was in a very different place compared to where China is now. For example, when B+H came to China there wasn’t a lot of building technology available like there was in Japan in the 1980s.
Q: There’s been a lot of noise about how China is in the midst of a real estate bubble, both residential and commercial. What is B+H’s take?
A: Certainly, we are looking a lot at what is being said and planning for the future. Since we’ve been here for 20 years, we have quite a wide client base. We work for private developers, the government, international developers and Fortune 500 companies. Obviously the global recession took out a lot of the private companies who were coming here to build. But they are starting to come back. We have been as busy as ever in all three sectors. We work a lot in the second-tier cities, and while there may be overcapacity in Shanghai or Beijing, that’s not the problem in the second and third tiers. There’s a lot of work to be done in their central business districts and in improving the quality of housing.
Q: What was your most challenging recent project?
A: Working with Microsoft was a lot of fun. We did the master planning, architecture, interiors and landscape for their new Shanghai campus. It was a challenge because it’s a facility that needs to be built in phases as the company requires more space, but it needs to be fully functioning on day one. Sustainability was integral to that project. We used natural light to illuminate every desk and every workspace. All of the systems in the building are centralized with special cooling systems to address the high energy demands of technology they have.
Q: Other architecture firms have said that there’s not much grassroots demand for sustainable design from Chinese clients. Do you agree?
A: Unfortunately I have to concur, but it is partly due to the way the market is set up. A lot of the developers are not building to own and operate. Sustainable design reduces operating costs, but if the developer isn’t looking at operating the building, they don’t want to add to their upfront costs. Developers who are going to own and operate their own facilities are looking at these systems very seriously. I believe in the future all buildings will be designed in a sustainable manner. Today you wouldn’t even consider designing a building that wasn’t accessible to the disabled. I believe the same will be true of sustainable architecture.
Q: For the last 20 years, foreign architecture firms have been required to partner with and train local architects in order to make China less dependent on foreign expertise. But you and other foreign architects are still winning contracts. Can you explain this?
A: In this business you are only as good as your last project. I’m not worried about someone copying a project we did three years ago – it’s obsolete. They can have it. We’ve moved on. I think the reason the foreign firms are still here is we keep evolving and changing the terms of debate. As soon as you get complacent and think you can design the same way you did five years ago, you will be out of business, in China or anywhere else.