Long established as a tourism hub for the Middle East, the UAE has now set its sights on becoming a global healthcare destination. So it was only a matter of time until someone launched a design firm that merged the disciplines of hospitality and healthcare.
From its Dubai headquarters, H+A will serve clients across the GCC, offering a hands-on approach from its founding partners. Stas Louca, managing director, will head the healthcare division of the business alongside design director, David Lessard, who will oversee the hospitality department.
What’s your take on the healthcare sector in the UAE?
The UAE government has a goal to become a global healthcare destination and personally I think our best bet is to become a hub for specialised and elective medical treatments. Take the new Abu Dhabi Proton Centre as an example, a specialist cancer treatment and the only one of its kind in the Middle East. This clinic will attract patients from the MENA region and wider as the next closest machine is in Europe with roughly 12 in the US.
Another type of healthcare that ties into hospitality well is plastic surgery. This is an incredibly competitive area of medicine and the talent and luxury accommodation is already here. Dubai should have a competitive advantage.
The UAE has only just started looking at combining hospitality with healthcare so there is a great opportunity to further define the country as a destination for advanced healthcare practice coupled with high end hospitality-style service which keeps it on track for continued growth.
Like hotels, some healthcare facilities are now over ten years old. The average timeframe for a healthcare institution in need of refurbishment, due to changes in technological advances, is between ten and 12 years. Hotels have a lifespan of about six to ten years and hospitals are quite similar. Customer, no longer considered “patient”, needs change over time as does the operation and output of a hospital. An example of this is that Outpatient Departments are currently one of the biggest areas of growth in a hospital due to private healthcare insurance covering this type of treatment more readily.
How have client requirements evolved in recent years?
Global trends towards customer experience have changed. Competition and private healthcare has changed the landscape. The combining of hospitality with healthcare is a relatively new concept for the region.
Rather than the patient being secondary to the treatments or procedures, they are now the focal point of services provided. Traditionally, patients have been sent around to different stations for each test, appointment or treatment. Today, clients are becoming more aware of the fact that customers are the ones choosing their venue for treatment, so creating a space which reduces stress through complicated way finding and moving from one end of the hospital to the other, enables hospitals to increase volumes of return visitors. We will always design with the customer experience in mind. Thinking about the overall environment, landscape and delivery of service.
The shift in evolution is the customer’s needs.
What are some of the challenges you face working on these projects?
The challenge for architects is achieving long term ROI for clients. We need to convince clients how doing more/investing more now will serve them better in the long run. The operational costs of a hospital overrun initial capital costs, for example. What you spend to build a hospital is the same as running it for 10 years. So, investing more in certain things at the beginning can save money in the long term.
An example of this is sustainable building. Using materials with a low maintenance cycle makes for less cleaning, lower energy bills and less labour needed. Life cycle costing is the real value and challenge – as it’s still new. In this market, a lot of investors come in and go and don’t stick around to see those returns so it’s a challenge to get them to make initial investments which yield longer-term ROI.
What are the opportunities and challenges for your firm in the UAE and wider GCC region going forward?
Big business opportunities lie in the ability to bring the hospitality experience into the healthcare environment. My forecast in future healthcare and medical trends is based on technology. The introduction of the following is what we see opportunity in:
What gives you the edge over the competition?
The UAE is a highly competitive market, but we are not competing with big firms, we are proud to be a highly specialised boutique firm. The difference in large and small practices is partners are more hands on and more accessible to clients at every stage and every hour of the day.
Our competitive advantage is sector experience and a personalised service. We, being the partners are always here on the ground and don’t need to be flown in from other markets for meetings which means we’re accessible and answering our phones 24 hours a day. There are some clients who are looking to hire big firms with big names and that’s just what they’re looking for and we know they’ll never be our clients because we are offering something very different.
We also offer a very specialised service. There are not many firms offering only healthcare and hospitality design. This makes us true experts in our fields. If you were going in for heart surgery, would you rather have a heart surgeon who has 200 cardio surgeries on his books or someone who has done it only 20 times? Those who understand the difference in our service are the clients we’re looking to take on.
There will always be competition and others who do what you do so you have to create another type of value proposition, which we see as person to person service. We also have the same tools and software as all the large firms. We use VR as a design tool, BIM and fully parametric systems as a standard.
Our strategy to growing the business is winning the right projects and working with the right clients. This means choosing projects well, seeking clients who value expertise and a high level of design and meticulous attention to detail. Identifying clients who have similar values and synergy.
What goals have you set for the first year of the firm?
We are looking to grow 25-30% in the next year and no more. Boutique firms need to stick to a controllable scale because it impacts the ability of partners to remain as functioning elements of the design process. If you grow too fast or too much, time gets spent managing the business rather than doing the business. We are looking to maintain the boutique elements and build the brand on good projects. We would rather do five exceptional projects than fifteen average projects. We would ideally only like to reach the size of a 25-member team, after that it gets difficult to manage the quality coming out of the office.
Are you looking at expanding into markets outside the GCC?
We would be keen to look at Africa with a similar healthcare and hospitality strategy. Africa has great potential and a need for advanced healthcare facilities. Other developing markets which look interesting to us are Pakistan and Egypt.
Within the GCC, Saudi Arabia has massive potential. The healthcare and tourism strategies in the lead up to 2030 are fantastic and we can’t afford not to be part of that.
Can the UAE compete in the healthcare space, architecturally, on a global scale?
What’s great about the UAE is its openness to try new things. This is very different to other western markets where there has been an established way of doing things for so long. The UAE has the potential to move forward without constraints from the past. It can accelerate because it’s so new and the rules have not yet been written – there’s not an attitude of “this is how we’ve always done it.” They’re willing to try and strive towards the next best thing.
Where does H+A’s design inspiration come from?
Inspiration comes from everything – life and interpretations of things around you – seeing and feeling for yourself. Architecture is aesthetically driven. In both healthcare and hospitality sectors, the end user is the most important factor. Design has to address the entire experience – from the door handle to the overall space and even the smell. Attention to detail – architecture is experience by use and all five senses need to be engaged by the design.
How important are the relationships between all parties involved in a project?
It is critical. Any business where you’re dealing with multiple parties, communication is key as is collaboration, as there are lots of moving parts in a building. It is a complex and evolving process. You may start somewhere and end up elsewhere when it comes to the entire process of construction. You need good collaborators to get the results you set out for.
We pre-identify our partners and approve these relationships before signing on with clients. It’s like a football team where the longer they’ve played together the better they work as a team. It is beneficial to work with the same contractors. By the third project together you are working more seamlessly. Clients trust you to bring the team together.
What can be done to improve architectural practice in the Middle East?
The industry is fragmented. There are no common platforms or set standards. It would be helpful for all practices if there was more collaboration like using BIM and other technologies as standard. Also, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have different building codes. For obvious reasons, it would be helpful for this to be consistent.
What are the key growth markets across the region?
Saudi Arabia just because of the volume of work needed in the country. This would open doors to other markets for us in the region like Pakistan and Egypt. KSA has over 1,000 projects in the pipeline and the government will be privatising healthcare which offers a huge opportunity for us.