Australian Architects in China: Niche Expectations

Architectural firms with niche expertise are having success in China as competition heats up for architectural and design projects, writes Sophie Loras.

When Australian architect Joburt Betadam first arrived in Shanghai from Melbourne in 2002, he came in on the premise of selling his niche expertise in green build and sustainable design to the Chinese.

In 2006, environmental issues became a top priority of the Chinese government’s 11th Five Year plan, and regulation was introduced for all new buildings to meet minimum environmental standards. It seemed a boon for Australian design firms specialising in this area.

Mr Betadam had the support of the Victorian government’s Australian Urban Systems cluster (AUS) – an initiative set up to promote Victoria’s architectural expertise in the green/sustainability sector, and to grow urbanisation related exports in a more strategic manner – using its long- standing 35-year sister-state relationship with Jiangsu Province.

In China, Victorian firms across a range of sectors have been encouraged to work together inBuchan Cover 1-4 web securing projects in Jiangsu through government-to-government introductions, trade missions and reciprocal delegations. And it has encompassed Australian firms offering services beyond architectural design and urban and master planning, such as engineering or water technologies, and soil remediation services. The premise being that if one firm in the group secures a contract, the services of other members in the group could be recommended for activities in the same contract.

*Pictured: Suning Plaza in Xuzhou. (The Buchan Group)

But while sustainability may have been the initial edge for Australian design firms entering the Chinese market in the early to mid-2000s, today, their long term success in China very much depends on how well they can demonstrate previous success in China, the cultivation of long- term contacts as well as having an edge or niche capability that sets them apart from their Chinese and international competition.

“You had to come here to China with an angle,” says Mr Betadam.

“That angle of sustainability is still being pushed, but it has seen its use by date – it has come, and gone.”

Mr Betadam says one of the big challenges for Australian architects coming to China today is how well they can establish and promote their brand in China. Being famous at home does not guarantee visibility in China, he says.

Competition for iconic developments in China is fierce – and securing one can be pure luck. Chinese developers today are well travelled, they have a global perspective and they know what they want, he says.

“We are dealing with developers who have travelled around the world more than we have – they know what they want, they have looked at successful projects oversees and said, we want that too.”

Mr Betadam’s advice to incoming firms is to find out who the players in the sector are and “bring those developers to Australia and show them your projects there.”

“Demonstrate you have success in Australia. Demonstrate you have a presence on the ground in China and consider working with existing companies.”

Dom Tassone is the Director of the Victorian government’s long-running AUS initiative, which this year celebrates 10 years of operation. As the architectural landscape in China has evolved, so too has the AUS – moving beyond China to help promote Australian design expertise globally and growing to include Australian businesses beyond the architectural and design sphere to promote Victoria’s other key industries including its creative, education and training, F&B and health care industries.

Today, the AUS includes a wide range of expertise from public art sculptors, environmental services to water specialists. “Our foothold began in Jiangsu but has spread far beyond that,” says Mr Tassone.

The AUS’s biggest asset is being able to continue to leverage off Melbourne’s reputation as the world’s most liveable city for the third consecutive year. Firms in the AUS cluster are riding off the brand of not only Melbourne’s world liveability status but that of other Australian cities including Sydney and Adelaide.

“Our push is, let’s collaborate on making your city as sustainable and livable as ours,” says Mr Tassone. “Urban systems is the fabric of how a city works – from the streets to the facilities. Liveable and sustainable cities attract creative and innovative people and in turn creative and innovative people attract high value industries – which is what the State of Victoria is about – a reputation for biotech, clean tech, creative design and the centre for major global sporting events such as the Australian Tennis Open, the Melbourne F1 Grand-Prix and the Melbourne Cup,” he says.

AUS has established connections with a number of big Chinese developers and state owned Dom Tassone Shanghai Tower webenterprises, including the Shanghai Construction Group – the developer behind the Shanghai World Financial Centre and the Shanghai Tower, which is poised to become China’s tallest skyscraper at 632 meters when it is completed in December 2014.

*Pictured right: Architect and urban planning and design members of the Victorian government’s China Super Trade Mission in September were given access to to the construction site of the 632-metre Shanghai Tower, which dwarfs the city’s 492-metre Shanghai World Financial Centre (pictured). The visit was made possible through the special relationship between the AUS and Shanghai Construction Group. (Courtesy Dom Tassone / Australian Urban Systems)

“Because of these types of connections, Victorian firms have a great chance to be engaged in these types of projects because they are not cold calling and have a leg in through the AUS in China.”

Mr Tassone says the environment in China is as competitive as ever, with Chinese architects now being educated in Australia.

“You look at China and after you have seen the Bund and Pudong developments in Shanghai and Beijing post the Olympics, you do wonder, what do we have to offer China?”

For AUS in China, the emphasis is “always talk collaboration,” says Mr Tassone. “Friends first – business second.” Mr Tassone encourages businesses going into China to take small steps and use government as a resource to identify or build business in China.

“China is tough, but entry structured properly with government support, and speaking to people already on the ground there, you can actually be quite successful,” says Mr Tassone.

“It is tough, but the rewards can be significant.” studio505 Pheonix Valley exterior 1123 JG 043 L web

Victorian firm studio505 – best known in Melbourne for its work on the Pixel building – won its first Chinese contract in Jiangsu province in 2005 as the façade architect for the Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Centre. Other projects in China, include, most notably, Pheonix Valley (pictured right) – an ornately constructed building housing Wujin’s 1000-seat Grand Theatre, four cinemas, sports and dance halls, art galleries and an early childhood education centre – and the iconic Wujin Lotus Exhibition Centre. Both projects were completed in 2013.

Pheonix Valley – which was secured from direct links through the Victorian government’s AUS cluster – was recently awarded the China 3 Star Rating (China’s highest rating in sustainability) and the 2013 LuBan prize for construction excellence.studio505 Lotus 1140 JG 037 L web

The brief for the Wujin Lotus (pictured right) was to design something “beautiful” resulting in studio505’s sculptural and ethereal lotus flower centre- piece in its three stages of bloom. The contract also included the upgrade of the lake and park. Entrance to the centre is from beneath the lake, opening into a cathedral like space with an internal mosaic finish and the studio505-designed seven metre-long chandelier. The project was unusual in China, with the planning minister making regular onsite visits to ensure attention to detail.

“These relationships are made so much more secure through government,” says studio505 director, Dylan Brady.

He says competition in China is changing, but having a niche and being prepared to evolve with the market bodes well for long-term success. “It is changing but so are we,” says Mr Brady.

“The market in China is diversifying a lot faster than even the market is ready for. There is a big emphasis on brands and that applies to architecture as well. And while we don’t have the brand yet, we are in a position where we are now at a level above those who haven’t yet secured a project in China.”

Part of that evolution includes a move into health care. studio505 is currently the design consultant Architecture studio505 Singapore hospital web on a radical new air recycling system for a 1000- bed hospital in Singapore – its first contract in South East Asia. The project looks at ways to improve ward layout to enhance the experience for patients and staff. By reconfiguring beds in six-bed and 12-bed wards, studio505 has improved natural ventilation by 200 percent. Every patient will have their own window and a view to a garden and natural fresh air. The design takes into consideration Singapore’s hot and humid weather where only air movement can create natural cooling effects.

*Pictured above: studio505’s Ng Teng Fong General Hospital. External close up view of multi-bed, naturally ventilated, subsidised ward tower with external planter gardens. (Courtesy: studio505 in collaboration with CPG, Singapore and HOK, USA)

“We need an edge – we had never done hospitals before but we saw that a 12-bed ward in Singapore had no air conditioning. By rotating all the beds everyone could have a view and improved ventilation,” says Mr Brady.

“We are very interested now in how we can help hospitals in China,” he says. “We are ultimately, as architects, into designing buildings which engage in the world. We are most ultimately interested in building cities which encourage participation.” 

Mr Brady says competition in China has changed. He says it has become much harder to get invited onto the lists and there is more maturity on the part of the clients. “Our real edge is personal attention and enthusiasm. And enthusiasm lights fires in other people.”

Mr Betadam, during his 11 years in China has also noticed the change in competition. Partly from an influx of European architects arriving in China post the global financial crisis and also from China’s local design institutes.

“The relationship between foreign firms and local design institutes hasn’t changed – but the way the LDIs are working has,” says Mr Betadam.

“Local design institutes in China are now looking into more partnerships with foreign firms – such as working together from the start of the project through to the end, rather than just at the end of the design process to get the compliancy approval.”

He says Chinese design institutes are now looking at ways to enhance their capabilities by collaborating more with their foreign partners or by offering lower fees in some cases in exchange for the opportunity to learn more or aligning themselves into niche sectors.

Another area creating niche opportunities for foreign firms is in BIM technology, which allows for the three dimensional modeling of the design process incorporating everyone from engineers to structural personal having access to the same BIM model. The technology is expensive and requires skilled people to operate it. 

“Chinese developers want this technology and they can’t actually get it. It is the new environment and that’s an edge we have,” says Mr Betadam.

Mr Betadam says that instead of seeing each other as competition, Australian firms should be working closer with each other to gain more clout. “When you are a small player in the world of developers, you are a nobody,” says Mr Betadam.

“Hope is not a strategy.”

He also stresses the importance of having a presence on the ground in China. “There are opportunities here in China people just don’t see. Living here you have an appreciation that things are not stagnant, whereas fly in-fly outs only have a snapshot of this,” he says.


Joburt Betadam is no stranger to doing business in China. Originally from Melbourne, the Australian architect first visited China in 2002, moving to Shanghai full time with his family five years later.

In that time, Mr Betadam has undergone all the usual rites of passage to doing business in China, setting up two wholly-owned foreign enterprises from his base in Shanghai and working on a wide range of projects from masterplans to residential projects, schools, office towers and office fit outs, and working with a cross-section of China’s building sector with clients in government, the private sector, and developers.

He had first arrived in China to capitalise on his niche architectural expertise in sustainability. But at that time, he says, “there was an interest in sustainable design, but not a desire.”

He has noticed over time, that while the sustainability edge may have diminished, developers in China are placing a higher emphasis on quality and brand.

Recently Mr Betadam joined Australian architecture, master planning and interiors firm, The BuchanBuchan Cover C6 7 web Group as the Head of Business for China. The firm’s international reputation for designing iconic malls including Westfield Stratford City in London (one of Europe’s biggest retail malls) and Chadstone, Eastland and Highpoint shopping centres in Melbourne, has led to huge success in China working with developers to design malls and retail plazas, in addition to advising developers in ways to increase foot traffic and develop the malls into entities beyond retail.

*Pictured right: Suning Plaza, Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province. (The Buchan Group)

Mr Betadam says Chinese developers today have travelled widely and know exactly what they want. “We are finding a lot of developers coming to us with maybe two or three existing old malls and telling us they are not working and can we help,” he says. “So it is not just about design, they are selecting us to add value to their property in order to achieve a higher yield. So the expectation is not just design – but a solution.” 

There are 3,500 malls in China. Mr Betadam says the successful ones factor in ‘the total experience’ – including entertainment, food, ice rinks, cinemas, access to good public transport hubs, and often with a hotel and office tower attached.

“The more of those integrated venues, the better for the developers. Mixed use with high-rise are the hottest developments at the moment, and then with a subway line and a hotel to support the mall,” he says.

Mr Betadam says the big opportunities down the track in China for Australian design firms will be in the areas of aged care and health as China prepares for its already burgeoning ageing population. “Connections are more important than ever – the Chinese today have so many more choices, so unless you are offering something really niche, they won’t come to you.”

Ping Chen HUGE Architecture Office Shanghai thumbPROFILE: PING CHEN

Ping Chen is the executive director of Shanghai-based architecture firm HUGE Architecture Office. His firm reflects the changing face of China’s architectural landscape – bringing western influences and western clients into China through a partnership with a Dutch company. Mr Chen himself, brings to the firm an Australian edge – having completed a Masters degree of Urban Development and Design at UNSW, Sydney, and work experience with two big Australian design firms.

His decision to study in Australia was prompted by his desire to improve his professional standing in marketing and as a leader in design planning in China. During his time in Sydney, from 2009 to 2011, Mr Chen made new friends, especially fellow professionals in urban and architectural design areas who gave him opportunities to work and cooperate with Australian firms when he returned to Shanghai, including HASSELL and Woods Bagot.

“This provided a lot of challenges and opportunities for my career,” he says. Using his professional background in architectural design and real estate consulting as well as his skills in urban development and design, business development and project management, Mr Chen is helping overseas firms develop connections in China while also providing architectural services of an international standard to his Chinese clients.

HUGE is a multi-disciplinary architecture company, with offices in Amsterdam, Shanghai and Hangzhou, specialising in architecture, interior design and master planning services for clients all over the world, including Australia.

Mr Chen says the main obstacle for foreign architectural firms coming into China, is connections.

“I think the China market is still very big for global investment and development – but it’s how well Australian firms can find those opportunities, and how they sell their brands in China, or how they promote their knowledge and previous successful experiences into the right areas and to the right people,” says Mr Chen.

He says overseas firms still have an edge in China, such as creating and generating new lifestyle options for China’s responsive younger generation.

“In terms of the future for foreign architects in China, I believe that foreign firms have a bright future here based on Chinese social demands – population growth and the improvement of life quality,” says Mr Chen.

However, he says foreign firms need to confront the reality that as more and more professional and sophisticated clients in China, including government and developers look to reduce cost but enhance quality, foreign firms will face increasing competition from Chinese local design institutes committed to improving their standards by investing in foreign partnerships or benefitting from overseas-trained Chinese architects. 

*Pictured top left corner: The interior chandelier of studio505’s Wujin Lotus.

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