Friday, 28 May 2010

Perfect partners- FX design Magazine
6 May, 2010

By Aidan Walker

Whether it’s a five-star eco-hotel in London or a development in Mombasa, LATIS serves up responsible design for clients who understand sustainability

Tracking down LATIS is an interesting experience. I’ve been in touch with the good people at Philips lighting about its contribution to the Grand Designs Live seminar programme, and just by the way am told that the practice has just completed London’s first five-star eco hotel. Oh yes, I say, so why haven’t I heard anything about that then?

Could be that these young men are too busy designing and building to crank up the full-blown publicity they obviously deserve. Could be a number of reasons – one of them being that coverage in architecture and design magazines improves your reputation with your peers, but is unlikely to bring in the big corporate clients. Could be (most likely) that I’m just not looking in the right places. But I do find the practice’s offices, in a little side street just off Marylebone High Street – and having found it, can hardly believe it. Three men, four desks (one of the directors is out), and a meeting room barely big enough to accommodate the A0 printer and a table of the sort you find in cafes that encourage the knocking together of knees. Is this the place? Are these the guys who have just finished a five-star hotel?

Indeed they are. Their Hotel Rafayel is part of the Falcon Wharf development, originally designed by Burland TM Architects for George Wimpey in Battersea (London’s new Left Bank, we’re told, and the home of the new US Embassy). It bristles with state-of-the-art eco-technology, from the construction materials through to harvested rainwater to Philips LED lighting and a ‘no plastic bottles’ policy.

Not a conventional bulb in the place, they boast. It also gives Philips a chance to flex its muscles with seductive innovations such as the ‘Jet lag recovery’ lighting, which stimulates the body’s production of melatonin to help you swerve round that peculiarly debilitating condition (if you can get hold of melatonin tablets and take them at least 24 hours before you get on the plane, you can try it out for yourself).

There are a few moves which may smack a little of greenwash/eco-hype, but you can’t argue with this: typically, claims LATIS managing director Robert Luck and design director Krishan Pattni, the hotel’s energy consumption will be 70 per cent less than an equivalent ‘standard’ 5,100 sq m development.

And from here the conversation leads into areas which demonstrate this unusual team’s remarkable grasp of the all-round complexity of architectural design in our modern, troubled world. Because they see –and this is a simple equation – that if you spend a few extra thousands on high-spec, high-tech eco-installations, it’s money convincingly saved from the operating costs, making it overall a much cheaper proposition than that equivalent ‘standard’ hotel.

Point is, many hotel developers don’t operate hotels, they just build them and then hand them on to the operating companies. So the full circle of benefit never comes back to the people who spent the cash building it in the first place. Which, understandably, doesn’t motivate the developer to put money into the initially more expensive eco-options.

Iqbal Latif, LATIS’s client for Hotel Rafayel, thankfully both for himself and his designers, doesn’t work like that. He’s in it for the long haul, which is why he has been able to make a comparatively higher initial investment. It’s also true that in LATIS he has found a practice for which the word ‘holistic’ has real significance, seeing the processes of planning, design, procurement and delivery as equal partners. It understands the developer mindset, and is even comfortable enough with it to be able to contribute to the arcane negotiations and trade-offs that lead to the acquisition of inner-city sites and the permission to build on them.

Luck, Pattni and their co-director James Curtis, despite their youth, can talk the business talk and walk it too. ‘We put as much time and resource into our management strategies as lead consultants as we do in creating successful architecture,’ says Luck.

They’re not the only ones, of course. It’s nothing new for architects and the property industry to work together in imaginative and innovative ways for the sake of getting a project that they believe in built. In fact, it’s fast becoming a general requirement that the creatives buckle down with the suits and apply themselves to complex commercial realities.

But listening to Luck and Pattni do their double act, fast-talking pair that they are, it’s hard not to get caught in their enthusiasm. Barely out of the AA, where the trio met, they had the luck of the devil in acquiring clients that most architects are still dreaming about in their 50s. But they have had to deliver for those clients – people like Latif, however pompous his rhetoric about ‘London’s new Rive Gauche’ may sound, are no fools, and likewise don’t suffer them gladly. What becomes even more interesting as the conversation wheels on – I’ve put down my pen by now, I just can’t keep up – is that they are very serious about their work in the third world as well, with three major residential and leisure developments in Kenya, a masterplanning job for Khartoum, and a pair of towers in Karachi for a mix of hotel, office, retail and residential uses.

Alarm bells begin to ring. Are these persuasive people putting a few smart LEDs into a London hotel and then ravaging cheap African land for the benefit of obscenely rich Western clients, while the hapless natives remain dispossessed? Not a bit of it.

Yes, the Golden Beach hotel in Diani Beach near Mombasa, Kenya’s most sought-after (rich) tourist resort, is unlikely to have many indigent Africans among its clientele, but putting money into the area is putting employment into it, in a culture where 40 per cent of the labour force are without work at all and another unmeasurable percentage are ‘underemployed’ (like many UK architects).

The point is to make sure the building process, the acquisition and use of materials and the demand on the country’s resources are conducted sustainably – which, as you will know if you’ve been to countries like this, or even if you glanced at this column a couple of months ago which introduced the work of my mates Geoff and Erwin – has an entirely different meaning than it does in wealthy northern Europe.

The Ngong Racecourse development, outside Nairobi, ‘will bring innovative design solutions to combine local resources with the most current sustainable technologies’, says the LATIS website. What does it mean? Well, it may not mean solar-powered LED lamps to replace kerosene ones in African villages, but that is the kind of project LATIS is talking about with Philips (nothing fixed yet).

It’s easy to track down charities such as SolarAid or the Global Cool Foundation, awash with statistics about the harmful effects of kerosene (fire as well as fumes) that consumes up to 19 per cent of an average poor African household’s income. What’s not so easy is to connect with global technology giants such as Philips and Siemens, and get working with them on affordable solar-powered lamps, using LEDs and late-model photovoltaic technologies.

It’s the ‘responsible’ developments by designers such as LATIS, for responsible clients who understand sustainability in ways unfamiliar to us Europeans, that give rise to cautious optimism. All power to them.

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