China Check-In


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What impact is the economic slowdown having on China’s building and design market and on your office there?

We did experience a moderate slowdown for four months in the spring and early summer of 2012, and it did start to make us a little nervous. We didn’t have any projects completely stop. We did have projects whose schedules slowed down. That has really reversed itself. Before we had to do anything radical, things perked up. The slowdown evenly affected government work and private-sector work, and they have both started up again. We’ve secured several new jobs, and existing clients that had kind of been holding back have started to accelerate. Now, we’re back to being very, very busy. I’m not seeing storm clouds. I’m seeing a lot of opportunity.

[contextly_sidebar id=”fe424817fc98adc9750b0c46d3cd7129″]Do you work mostly with the private sector or with the government?

Now, it is 50-50. Originally, our work was primarily government companies. We were a little nervous about that because we didn’t want all our eggs in one basket. The government-run companies are generally huge with tremendous bureaucracies and a lot of approval processes. And, in government companies, there is a pattern where they move people around on a regular basis, so there are always new people reviewing projects. That can be very difficult if you’re designing and you sell your ideas and you get buy-in from someone and the next leader comes along and he wants to start over. That’s the downside. The upside is you know the government is not going to go broke.

We thought it was good to try to work for some private developers that we thought would be more nimble, and that we would be able to have a stronger, more enduring, long-term relationship with the same individuals during the course of a project.

Who at your company is handling this work?

I’ve moved three very senior people from the U.S. who had worked for me for a long time to China. I’m actually going to move another senior person from the states over there, a designer, to try to keep up the quality of what we are doing. They’re principal-level, top talent and very senior designers. All four of them also do business development as part of their jobs. These are all people who have worked for me for 10 years before they moved to China, and three of them are Chinese-born or educated and worked as architects in China. So, they understand both our firm’s culture and what I expect in terms of design as well as the culture of the Chinese people. That’s a very good balance for us.

Do you work with local Chinese firms?

We have to. We as a foreign firm are not allowed to stamp and sign the construction documents in China. Every project we do has a local Chinese firm that in the end is going to do the construction documents and sign and stamp the legal drawings. Sometimes we pick those partners; other times the developers chose them independently of us. What we do insist is that we have a contract after our design work is complete to review and oversee their work and to make sure it is consistent with our design content.

What new business markets is your company pursuing in China?

Two markets that I see starting to emerge that we’re very strong in are the educational market and senior housing market. There is a phenomenal need to deal with their aging population. The country has had a one-child policy for several decades, and there are not enough children to take care of this aging population and the government has recognized that.

There is now an emerging market like there is here to provide different types of senior housing. The most popular housing for the elderly we’re experiencing here in the United States is a continuing-care retirement community that allows people to age in place and receive increased levels of service as they age without having to move to another environment. We recently have been hired to do one of the first CCRC’s in China on an island about 30 minutes out of Shanghai that I hope will really set the tone for this kind of housing in China.

The other market that I see as very strong is the academic market. That has not really fully taken off in China but is about to, and that is another strong area of our expertise.

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Photos of Rob Steinberg by Chad Ziemendorf

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