Jason Saundalkar talks to the executive about the first 11 years of his firm, regional expansion, market trends, inspiration and the next 10 years
LACASA is an architectural and engineering firm founded in Dubai over a decade ago. In Spanish, ‘la casa’ means ‘the house’, and while that may imply that the consultancy only works on housing developments, LACASA has experience with villas, towers, hotels, furnished apartments and even shopping malls.The multidisciplinary firm offers services including project management, structural design, interior design, architectural design, MEP design and supervision of projects, through its team of quantity surveyors.
“Our business focus is on architecture, structure, mechanical and interior, that’s in-house with the main office in Dubai, and a big branch in Qatar. We serve the Gulf and MENA region, and everything is done from Dubai as the main office. All the design is done here, as well as pre-contract, post-contract and design and supervision,” explains Emad Jaber, managing partner of LACASA.
Since its inception, LACASA has made a name for itself thanks to its quality-driven approach. Today, the firm handles individual projects worth more than US $1.2bn, and in Dubai – as developers focus on hospitality – 70% of its projects are hotels and furnished apartments.
Jaber says, “We are well-known and reputed for the quality management of projects, and we work with a wide range of developers. All of them are repeat clients, and this is what makes us happy – we’ve done four or five projects with each, and in some cases as many as 14 projects with the same developer.” As a result of depressed oil prices and unrest within certain countries in the Middle East, market conditions and sentiments in the construction and property sector are tepid at best. LACASA, however, has a very positive outlook, backed by a healthy pipeline of projects.
“People don’t believe what I tell them sometimes, when I say we are busy and doing well. They believe this is the talk of a businessman. No, the market is good, but it is only good for good companies. LACASA is not the only consultancy that is busy in this market, there are other good companies who are busy as well. We feel that the real estate market in Dubai is strong, and there is a demand. Developers who know how to react to the requirements of end users, they are successful, and we can see with our developers that they are responding to new requirements,” comments Jaber confidently.
Jaber highlights that the market has changed in the last few years, with a focus on end users. “Now developers are focusing on cost-effective units for actual end users. The reseller market is not there anymore. I can see it even within our office; some of the senior management have become end users, and this is what makes the market sustainable. Now, you have real end users who are not just looking for investment or to flip and make quick money.”
As an indication of the health of the sector, Jaber tells Middle East Consultant that his firm has won and started work on several projects recently. “Since January 2017, we’ve started work on 18 projects. Since this is all in the first quarter, I think it is a very good indication of how 2017 will be. In 2016, we signed 36 projects and appointed exactly 96 engineers, so this is the growth that we’ve seen recently.”
LACASA is proud of its achievements, with quality at the centre of everything it does. “All our projects are like our babies,” says Jaber. The firm is working on numerous projects, including the $54m Art Centre Mall in Al Barsha, Dubai. “We are working on some very special projects, and one of them is the new Art Centre. We are proud of the design, as it is a unique concept for a shopping centre. It is focused on interior and furniture, and the design of it reflects the usage.”
Another example Jabber highlights as an example of his firm’s prowess is on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road. “We are doing a 75-storey building on Sheikh Zayed Road; that is the highest tower that we’ve designed at LACASA. The challenge with that is the plot is very small, and to make it work with the parking, that required special attention. Our architects were up to the challenge, and even the municipality was surprised that such a plot can work.”
LACASA, like many other firms, was affected by the global financial crisis and the resulting construction slowdown in the latter half of the 2000s. At that point in its history, the company was focused primarily on Dubai. Jaber recalls: “We were against going outside of Dubai, because we were busy and we would not be able to serve our clients if we started work elsewhere. When the financial crisis happened, we were hit badly because we didn’t have diversity, so after that we decided to expand in case the pipeline of work in Dubai was not sufficient.”
Having weathered the construction slowdown, the company identified Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Tunisia as countries of interest, and expanded into those markets. “These markets gave us a healthy amount of work, which bridged the gap between the good times and the tough times in Dubai. Our strategy was long-term for these markets, we were focusing on having a sustainable business within these countries. Unfortunately, with Syria, Libya and Sudan, it didn’t work out because of the revolutions, so we had to close our offices there,” explains Jaber.
LACASA did, however, find success in Qatar. “Qatar was one of the successful markets for us, and we continue to focus on it. I think we are successful there because it’s similar to Dubai in terms of regulations, people and clients. We’ve invested a lot in Qatar with regards to the premises, the facilities, the engineers, and now we are one of the biggest consultants there, with 80 people handling more than 32 projects,” Jaber notes.
Perhaps more importantly, repeat business is common for LACASA in Qatar. The company has worked on more than nine projects with the Al Khayyat Group, and eight developments with Sharaka Holdings. Jaber points out that his firm also works with other developers that aren’t based in Qatar but have projects there.
“We work with some developers who are in Dubai and have jobs in Qatar; they want a consultant from Dubai. We are doing this for a tower with ENI, and for DAMAC. So Qatar is a good market for us; we have a full-fledged office there, and we can do designs there with the support of the Dubai office.”
Trends and Inspiration
As a veteran of the construction sector and a private investor, Jaber sees one troubling trend on the rise, driven by developers looking to attract end users. “I’m an investor on a small scale in Dubai and Palestine, and I believe that you don’t go with the trend just to attract the end users. In the end, they will opt for a product that they want. Now, unfortunately, developers are reducing the size of the apartments, and they are attracting end users and investors by the total amount of property. In the long run, these people will be surprised by the size of the apartment they receive.”
It’s a trend he and his firm are trying to push back against. “If a developer asks my opinion, I always tell them to have a reasonably sized apartment, so that if the owners want to stay in it or rent it, they will be satisfied or can easily find tenants. Now we are within a very dynamic market; there is demand in Dubai today, and people can sell and rent their property. In a few years, when the supply is more than the demand, people will start to be selective.”
Jaber is a civil engineer by profession, and notes that his experience in the field, combined with his staff’s expertise, are what make a winning formula for LACASA’s clients. Efficiency is something that inspires him on a professional level.
“I’m a civil engineer, I’m not an architect. I manage architects, and that’s beneficial to the client. Civil engineers are mathematical people – one plus one equals two, and for me architecture starts from that formula. We should have an efficient building, we should have a functional building, and that building should make money. Architects don’t focus on this, they focus on the form, the spaces, making it iconic – these are their priorities, whereas cost, time, durability, efficiency are a second concern. As a civil engineer, I want both!”
The Road Ahead
Looking ahead, Jaber has a clear goal in mind for LACASA as part of a detailed 10-year plan. “Right now, 70% of the volume of work is coming from Dubai, and 30% is from outside. Maybe 25% is from Qatar, while the other 5% is from elsewhere. We see that things will continue the same until 2020, not because of the Expo, but because in the next three, the infrastructure of Dubai will be almost complete.”
Post-2020, Jaber expects things to change. “Right now we are focused on hospitality; after 2020, we will focus on specialised buildings, and we are preparing ourselves to be experts here. After 2020/2021, I think we will have 70% of the work coming from outside of Dubai, and 30% coming from Dubai. We will continue to be in Dubai, as we believe that the UAE will be serving neighboring countries within the region, because it has the expertise and it has the infrastructure.”
Jaber also plans to take his firm back into the countries LACASA started working in prior to the Arab Spring. “We will be reactivating our offices once things get better, hopefully in four or five years, and there will be reconstruction in those countries. We in Dubai – and when I say we, I don’t just mean LACASA, I mean the other consultants, contractors and developers – are the only qualified people to lead the reconstruction of these countries. So by 2025, we will still have our main office in Dubai; however, only 20% of the volume of work will be in Dubai – 80% will come from outside,” he concludes.