Stephen Atherton, Design Director at Sobha Group goes back a long way with the company’s founder and chairman, PNC Menon. Based at the time in Muscat overseeing his interior fit out company, Menon recruited the Englishman in 1991 to set up his first office in Dubai. An interior designer by profession, Atherton eventually left to set up his own design studio, but after the pair bumped into each other again in 2012 the entrepreneur persuaded him to return to the fold and help set up a new design outfit.
“When I joined in 2013 the original idea was to set up an interiors company,” says Atherton. “The chairman is very interiors driven, he tends to design things from the inside out. What I do now is work for him at corporate level looking at developing the brief and working with the design teams and the marketing teams, so I’m basically a trouble shooter across all aspects of design within the group.”
PNC Menon’s rags to riches story is well known. He arrived in Oman from Kerala, India in 1976 with pennies in his pocket but eventually succeeded in setting up an interior decoration company, growing it into one of the top contractors in Oman. In the 1990s he saw an opportunity to start up a property development business that today is the third largest in India. Not content with standing still, in 2013 he launched in the Dubai market with two major developments - Sobha Hartland and Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City – District One, a joint venture with Meydan.
A vertically integrated company, Sobha does more or less everything in house. It has its own architecture practice, its own structural and mechanical engineering departments, as well as a huge team of landscape, interior, furniture and graphic designers. Though it sells its units unfurnished, for some of its higher ticket villas the company designed much of the furniture and had it made in Italy. Sobha is currently in the process of setting up a new furniture division that will offer a complete end-to-end interior solution, Atherton reveals. The company expects to open a 1 million sq ft factory in Abu Dhabi’s Kizad freezone in the third quarter of 2019.
“We want to control most things in our world and there’s a very good reason for that,” Atherton says. “We can only pin our flag to the quality of our product if we control it from end to end. That’s why we are a vertically integrated organisation.”
The evolution of Sobha Group into a vertically integrated entity was born out of necessity, Atherton explains. “When the chairman set up the business in India in 1993/94 he wanted to build to international standards. But, for example, the quality of the concrete available wasn’t very good so he decided to set up a concrete company. He couldn’t get materials of the right quality so decided to make them himself. It was really born out of the need to deliver on the promise of quality.”
The quality and attention to detail that Sobha has become known for stems from the company’s origins as in the interior fit out business in Oman.
“We used to do palaces all over the world for people like the Sultan of Brunei, rulers in Turkmenistan, his highness Sultan Qaboos of Oman and the Dubai ruling family, so he’s at the top of the tree when it comes down to doing quality fit out,” Atherton says.
At the 8 million sq ft Sobha Hartland development, quality is assured by a team of 17 German master craftsmen who meticulously check every detail of every job done by the in house contracting teams.
“We maintain standards in the business through each and every process,” Atherton says. “For example Sobha Hartland is the first development to have a push fit plumbing system. It’s a Japanese system that doesn’t involve any compression fittings or welding, you just literally push the fittings together and it creates almost a homogenous seal on the pipe so we are going to be leak free. It’s expensive but as the chairman says, as property developers water can be our biggest enemy.”
A High-end Finish
Though Sobha Hartland is a huge project made up of apartments, townhouses and villas of different sizes and price tags, Atherton says the development manages to achieve an overarching design style.
“There’s no theming or pastiche architecture here,” he says. “It’s a very contemporary development by nature. You’ve got third party developers on site, like Gemini and others who are buying tracts of land but we issue very stringent design guidelines. So it does have a strong design identity to it.”
Quality is not a something Sobha compromises on. Whether it’s a studio apartment or a six bedroom mansion, the approach to the project is exactly the same, Atherton says.
“Our smallest and cheapest product has the same detailed checks and quality of installation going into it as our largest product. There are variances in terms of materials because of the size and ticket price, but that’s mainly in the finish. In terms of approach it’s one and the same. There’s only one way to build for us and that’s the best way you can.”
All units at Sobha Hartland are equipped with smart home technology. Buyers have the option of a basic home automation system that enables them to control lighting and air conditioning or they can go for a complete smart home technology system.
“We brought in a team of experts that worked with us for a year to scour the earth to find something that would do what we wanted it to,” says Atherton. “It’s effectively a brain that controls the audio visual, lighting, air conditioning and curtains and it all runs off your iPad or you’re iPhone,” says Atherton. It comes at a cost however. The full package for a two bedroom apartment will set owners back a cool AED 250,000.
One of the striking design features of the Sobha Hartland development is undoubtedly the amount of green space it provides residents. Around 30% of the development has been given back to green areas.
“I would challenge anybody to say that the landscaping here at Hartland can be touched,” says Atherton. “We have our own in house landscape architects and we work with external landscape architects who we bring in to brainstorm just to make sure we’re getting the best out of our land. We even have our own horticulturalist and an onsite plant nursery.”
He continues: “The spaces in between our buildings are as important as the places we build. I’ve had numerous meetings with our design team and our chairman and we show him landscape designs and he says, ‘not enough trees’. We want greenery, we want the lushness and we’re constantly looking at managing that from a water consumption perspective and how we recycle grey water. We are constantly balancing our responsibility as developers with the environment versus the commercial side.”
When it comes to sustainability Sobha tries to deliver above and beyond minimum requirements, but as Atherton says those efforts must be balanced with the commercial demands of a project.
“As a developer we look at what we must do and what we’re compelled to do by law,” he says. “Things like LED lighting as standard was something that I implemented with Mr Menon early on. Incandescent lights are of the past and not what we want to see moving forward, so we try very hard in terms of our engineering to be as green as we can so we’re probably ahead of the market.
“Are we LEED platinum? No. We’re looking at a signature development at the moment and we’re looking to go LEED platinum with that, but it doesn’t apply itself to every project. So sustainability is considered as much as possible but at the end of the day we’re a commercial entity and it’s got to make sense.”