Earlier this year, construction giant Atkins welcomed a familiar face back after four years away from the company. Lee Morris is spearheading the architecture practice in the Middle East and Africa, rejoining the firm he started out with in 2002. We caught up with Morris after he settled back into the company.
You’ve recently rejoined Atkins but have a long history with the company. Tell us a bit about that.
I started at Atkins in 2002 in the UK and was there for two years as head of design. I’m an architect by trade but I oversaw structures and MEP. I’d lived abroad a lot and as a family we wanted to move again. The size of Atkins internationally means occasionally you get the offer to go and work in an overseas office and I like to work in diverse, energetic places. I’d worked in Hong Kong for seven years and that’s pretty ‘full on’. Living in sleepy Birmingham, the UK’s second city, I didn’t really want to be doing G+8 buildings, I wanted to do something more challenging. So I came out here in 2004 and was basically design director overseeing my own projects for about five years.
I left the business in 2009 and went completely away from consultancy and became development director in Abu Dhabi for a government entity. Going from consultancy, which is a very expatriate environment into local government was a real eye opener that gave me a much broader perspective of how the UAE works and the cultural side. I was there for four years and then came back to Dubai and became development director of a smaller company overseeing projects and architects. Then I got a call from Atkins asking me to come back and head up the architectural side of things and to see if I could push things along so that’s what I did.
So what’s it like being back?
It’s the same but different. The last time I was running projects and now I’ve got a broader role in terms of looking after the management side of the whole studio and driving that. My aim is to raise the quality of what we produce and how we produce it. And also to bring the best people in I possibly can. I want that whatever we produce in the studio to be the best that we can do, to satisfy and exceed client’s expectations. It’s a challenging role. It’s such a sizable organisation that we deal with not just architecture but also the multi-discipline side of things as well and I’ve always loved that. So I’m really enjoying it.
You say you wanted to work on more ambitious projects. What types of projects specifically?
It’s something you don’t normally get in the UK. Unless you’re in London, super high-rises are few and far between. So coming to Dubai at the beginning of the building boom around 2003/4, with the number and size of the projects that were going on – Dubai was a place that at that time had the most tower cranes in the world.
Here it’s all about challenging projects and the speed of the projects, from a client making a decision and buying a piece of land to commissioning an architect and getting it built. It’s very important for an architect or a designer to realise the design rather than just do paper architecture. Dubai was and is and will be a place where your architectural dreams are realised.
Is Atkins particularly known for tall buildings?
We’re the go to guys for tall buildings and for large complex projects because of our breadth of expertise and what we offer as a discipline. For example, we did the Opera House in Downtown, which is probably one of the most complex buildings in the world. Inside it’s a normal amphitheatre bowl and then all the seats disappear and it becomes a flatbed. So in terms of what the building had to do in terms of flexibility and its acoustics it’s an extremely complex project and not many consultants can do that.
For high-rise buildings we’re very much the go to guys. We’ve obviously done the Burj Al Arab, which is still a shining example of architecture in the world. That was a little bit before my time at Atkins. The conception was in 93 and it completed in 99. That’s where Atkins established itself as doing something super special, because that is a super special building because of it’s shape and where it sits in the sea which involved our marine works and geotechnical works. At that time it was at the vanguard of construction, certainly in the Middle East.
What projects have you worked on in this region?
When I first came here my opening project was Executive Towers in Business Bay, which has a 650,000 sqm built up area, with 13 towers, retail and even townhouses. That was the launch project for Business Bay. So I went from a low level to working at 100 miles per hour in a very quick period of time, learning about high-rise buildings. It’s a very fast learning curve because clients want things very quickly. That’s my biggest project.
Weren’t you involved with a Donald Trump-linked project on Palm Jumeirah?
That didn’t get realised. We piled and built the raft foundation so we built everything under the ground ready to build a 65-storey tower. Trump was my client for three and a half years and it was a bit of a rollercoaster. I designed the Trump Tower for Nakheel and his naming rights were attached to that project. But in 2008/9 it fell off a cliff. Within four weeks it was stopped. But that was a phenomenal project for me to work on because of the numbers of people involved – 120 people in five different countries was challenging.
Have you seen signs that Dubai is maturing as a city?
Dubai continues to mature. The realisation is that it’s a very expensive place to live. And the majority of people are middle to low-income inhabitants meaning many of them have to commute for two hours from other emirates. Developers have now been pushed into producing much more middle-income types of buildings. So yes, you’ll still see the high-rises but we’re now seeing more G+8 middle income communities and also villas that are affordable. We’re seeing this in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and that will also roll out in the Saudi market too.
Atkins is targeting the Saudi market. What’s the attraction there?
Saudi Arabia is perceived generally as being the next big market. Obviously with the change in leadership there’s a massive drive with the 2030 plan which is incredibly ambitious. We’ve done huge masterplans in Saudi, for example the King Abdul Aziz Road development in Mecca which involves 250,000 rooms. It’s gigantic in terms of scale and we worked on that for six or seven years. The beauty is that when buildings start coming up we’re also in a position to design those as part of the masterplan. Going forward, masterplanning is the next big thing in Saudi because it involves more large-scale sites. Our partner, SNC Lavalin, is very well established in Saudi and there’s a perfect synergy between their oil and gas strength and what we do in terms of property. It opens doors for us.
How is the building trade changing in terms of innovation?
The building industry has always been 10 years behind the motor industry and 30 years behind aviation in terms of really big step innovation. We’re doing buildings now that were done 20-30 years ago. There’s not been a great change. But how we’re designing the buildings has changed. The innovation is more in the technology of producing drawings and the information used to build these building. The software and the tech in that regard has moved on but it’s not like a huge leap. The idea of 3D printing buildings is still an aspiration. There will be 3D printed elements attached to buildings but you’re not suddenly going to get a 3D building in one go. It may happen but not at the moment.