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Several years ago, Toronto-based B+H Architects was working on a handful of residential developments, many of them high-end villas subdivisions in gated communities on the outskirts of booming Shanghai. Then, out of the blue, China’s central government announced that there should be more apartment-sized housing for ordinary citizens. Overnight, B+H’s developer clients stampeded back for new designs.
Founded in Toronto in 1953, B+H has become a global architecture firm with eight offices around the world, including Vancouver, Delhi, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh, Singapore, Sharjah, Singapore and Dubai. In May it was honoured by the 2011 HSBC International Business Awards, presented in conjunction with BUSINESS without BORDERS for excellence in doing business in the Asia Pacific region.
B + H Architects CEO, Bill Nankivell
Of the fast-moving Chinese market, B+H president of China operations, Karen Cvornyek says: “You wake up in the morning here and the game has totally changed. The first rule you have to learn is that things move much faster. They show up, they want us to assemble a team and start tomorrow or they’ll go to another office.”
Setting up its shingle in Shanghai in 1992, B+H was one of the first foreign architectural firms in mainland China. Having won an international competition to design the Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport, the company decided to stay on. When Cvornyek took charge of the office in 2003, the company had 12 employees in China. Now they have 110.
Although Canada is not known for being on the forefront of international design, B+H has become a go-to architect in China for its contemporary, functional styles and client-centred approach; its worked on thousands of designs and studies and been involved in “hundreds and hundreds” of buildings. Cvornyek says the biggest challenge is just keeping up. In Canada, studies, public consultations and financing add years to development projects. In China, a 300,000-square-metre shopping centre—in Canada, only the West Edmonton Mall would be larger—is scheduled to take only three years from B+H’s initial design to completion.
“That project is hard to compare to Canada because in Canada I just can’t imagine something of this scale being built,” says Cvornyek. Success has meant being extremely flexible, developing shortcuts in their design process and paying close attention to what materials are used. Anything product that’s available in the world is available in China, but because there’s so much, a strong local knowledge is necessary to sort the garbage from the quality material.
B+H’s projects in China have mirrored the central government’s priorities. In the 1990s, it was infrastructure. In the early 2000s, it was residential housing. Now the government is trying to create a domestic market by nurturing a more consumer-oriented society. So B+H is designing entertainment and shopping centres. An emphasis on developing tier two and three cities has sent B+H to places like Taiyan, a coal mining city of 3.4 million, where its new hotel/convention/office centre will be the largest development in the area.
Because of the importance of ongoing relationships with Chinese partners, Cvornyek says having a presence on the ground in China is crucial. Patience is as importance as speed. “You can’t expect to make all your profit in the first year,” she says. “You have to find the right partners and really get to know them. And you have to be here. Things happen in hours, not weeks and you have to respond to things on a daily basis.”