Robert Firth, HOK

Robert Firth is a Director of Practice Building at HOK, a global provider of architecture, planning, design and delivery solutions for the built environment. Here he tells Real Estate Publishers about the company’s current and future plans, and shares his thoughts on trends across the world.

Tell us a little bit about HOK?

“HOK is now one of the largest companies of its type in the world. We work on a range of projects, everything from large complicated projects to smaller projects, and concentrate, globally on five key markets, namely aviation and transportation, healthcare, science and technology, justice, and corporate work (mainly interior work for banks, media, brokers and solicitors).

“This year there are a few very large projects on the horizon; we’re currently bidding for work on Beijing Airport, which is one of the biggest schemes in the world. We’re also bidding on some major projects in Africa, the Middle East, India and Eastern Europe.

What are the trends for the coming years?

“It’s difficult to predict trends at the moment as Europe is experiencing severe economic problems. We’ve even noticed a slowdown in some of the Asian economies, even though they are well ahead of the Western world in terms of growth. My view is that there will be a lot more private money being used to finance development.

“What’s been used in the UK for a while is PFI (private finance initiative), which is now becoming popular in the US and will also become more prevalent in the rest of Europe and eventually Africa and Asia. So our expertise in PFI means that hopefully we’re well placed to help others understand how the benefits can help projects be built effectively through this model.

What’s happening in the UK?

“We don’t see much change in the UK market over the next year. We have three large projects in the UK at the moment, all of which are in London. Outside London there is very little going on, so most of our work is overseas, which is a shame, as we’d like to do more in the UK. I think things will change though and by late-2013, we’ll see more of an influx of money.

Is it becoming easier to secure finance?

“It’s still difficult to get investment from banks, I think it will get progressively easier, but how quickly this will happen, I don’t know. But if you’re a low risk practice as we are, in terms of longevity and stability, then you stand a chance of getting funding more easily. We pride ourselves on producing good architecture that works, and for most bankers, developers and governments that means low risk.

What innovations do you see ahead?

“We have been a big investor in ‘BIM’ (Building Information Modeling), which I think is going to change the way construction is done across the world, and will affect the way investors and clients approach buildings. We’re now able to give clients a three-dimensional, virtual building right from the start of the project which enables them to make key decisions early and avoid mistakes later on. I think that this will make contracts a lot simpler and clients will also be able to understand the building much better, much earlier.”

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