Attitude and ambition – Razan Najee interview

Razan Najee, interior designer at NEB talks about the impact of social and economic forces on interior spaces and the key factors making for an ‘A+’ experience in an ever-more challenging climate

With roots dating back to 1984, UAE-based National Engineering Bureau (NEB) is a well-established entity in the regional construction industry. Today, it offers several services including architecture, engineering, interior design, supervision and management solutions, which combined with its early track record of project success has enabled it to win work consistently.

As a result, it has grown at an extraordinary rate and become a major international brand with more than 500 architects, engineers and project managers in its home office alone. Along with its considerable talent pool, the firm boasts an enviable portfolio of work across multiple sectors including residential, offices + commercial, mixed-use developments, education, hospitality, healthcare, retail + malls, civic + cultural, sports + leisure, in addition to masterplanning + urban design and palaces + villas projects. The firm has also made an impact outside of the UAE in markets such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

As one of the few regional architectural practice to be highlighted in the World Architecture 100 2019 list, it has to be asked whether its scale enables it to retain a ‘local’ flavour with regards to the work it delivers for clients across sectors.

“To a certain extent, yes,” says Razan Najee, interior designer at NEB. “In a way, this is inevitable, because we like to work around the clients’ requirements and the majority of the clients are based here in the UAE. They are our number one asset – and therefore, we need to understand them and do our best for them. When it comes to clients, our approach is a combination of attitude and ambition. These are our two key words; and mirroring what the clients really want is imperative. That means understanding local tastes and preferences – and you will see that hallmark in our portfolio of work.”

Like other companies NEB had to tackle the ripples in the construction industry that were created by the outbreak of COVID-19. One of the key topics of discussion, on a global level, following the outbreak of the pandemic is the design and usage of interior spaces – in fact, there is thought to have been more debate on this topic in the last two years compared to the last 20.

Asked about her views on this as an interior designer, and if client perspectives and needs have changed in the wake of the pandemic, Najee comments, “Yes, but it tends to depend on the client. Let me give you an example; before the pandemic, clients were often trying to squeeze the absolute maximum when it comes to how many people they could fit in any given space. But now, they understand that there has to be at least a 1.5m gap between workstations, and so on.”

She adds, “On residential projects, people are looking at the finishes and materials they use much more closely. Many people’s lifestyles have changed, so we need to focus on the kind of experience we want them to have. Before, maybe they wanted fabric or wood but now, they put hygiene first, and that means solid surfaces, material that is easy to clean, a finish that bacteria won’t cling to.”

“There’s also another key factor here, which perhaps we don’t hear quite so much about. Since more and more people are working from home, the home has to include dedicated areas for work and leisure, so that it’s possible to switch between the two without the day becoming oppressive and boring. In other words, we need to work out the ‘zoning’ of home interiors: the layouts are changing, so that people can have real variety when they stay at home.”

“All of this means that right now, interior design is something that as a practice, we’re committed to growing. It’s always been there, but there’s no doubt that currently, greater emphasis on internal space means that we are very rapidly building the interior design side,” she remarks.

The View from the Top

NEB has an international reputation for its work on tall buildings, with a number bordering on the acclaimed ‘super-tall’ category. Does this height mean that the strengthening required for structural integrity imposes particular requirements on the way that internal spaces can be planned?

Najee responds, “It’s all down to the layout – and that should be decided from day one, working with the architect. It must be a harmonious experience, where the theme of the building is taken all the way through to the apartment. Of course, the structural integrity may require a certain shape or building profile, but this can be accommodated in a straightforward way when the architect and interior designer work closely together.”

Here she points out, “I would also add that this scenario doesn’t just exist with tall structures: there are certain space requirements and constraints across all types of building, with their need to meet certain requirements and protocols. In our case, for example, we work across every scale of project and translate its external form into internal structure – and that includes work for schools, nurseries, healthcare facilities, and so on. Then, in the residential sector we work across everything from multi-story to private villas. Throughout, it’s all down to effective translation of the layout from the architect’s blueprint to the interior designer.”

NEB says it has cultivated a reputation for innovation over the years. When asked if there are examples of cutting-edge solutions in the firm’s recent developments, which Najee sees as breaking barriers and transcending industry norms, she notes, “To be honest, there are a lot of innovative companies out there. We are one of them, but I want to make the point that innovation by itself is not the be-all and end-all. For us, it’s the relationship with the client that makes us special. What makes the difference with any business is not just your innovation, but how well you take care of the client.”

The Razan Najee ‘Signature’?

Discussing whether she has any signature calling cards with regards to projects she works on, Najee notes that each project is tackled in its own unique way, with significant attention paid to details.

“Many people ask me if I favour a particular design ethos or if there’s a special theme across my work. But the truth is, I treat each project separately – so there’s no one motif or concept that’s the hallmark across everything I do. I study each project thoroughly from an interior design point of view, so everything that is there is there for a reason. Not because I like a certain school or a certain design.”

She elaborates, “Having said that, I have always been fascinated by attention to detail – properly rendering the details is a key factor in every project I work on. I developed this approach throughout all my years of training; I graduated from the American University of Sharjah and did my Masters at Chelsea College of Art, in London. Both of these represented certain traditions and styles of training, and I applied these to my love of detail.”

Switching gears to project budgets and whether budgets have reduced owing to the fallout from COVID-19 and other issues, Najee remarks, “Yes, to some extent. Budgets are reduced, and many projects are now also wrongly value engineered. That means we have to think about projects differently – how can we still have the same experience and the same concept, but create it differently, now that budget is such an important thing? We put a lot of thought into the materials and finishes that can fit with the new budget constraints, but which nonetheless still have the luxury look or the functionality that the client requires.”

Allied to this – when asked about what some of the biggest problems that an interior designer is likely to encounter, whether as a result of ever-changing social dynamics or client demands, she explains, “You always have to evolve and keep updated: materials, textures, suppliers – whatever is happening around you. Sometimes it happens that what a client wants simply won’t work with the project. So then, you have to propose what you think is the best option in a subtle way: you give them a practical choice, they see the alternatives – and then they’ll make the right decision themselves. Again, this comes back to having the right attitude with the client and the right mental flexibility.”

 Tech-Driven World

Moving onto technology and its uses in terms of design and construction, and its integration into day-to-day life, for a long time it has been a case of one foot in, one foot out. However, Najee reckons the time is finally right for a change, as long as it provides real world value.

She comments, “A few years ago when we used to design home technology and smart homes, people never used to understand – but now, people are increasingly seeing the benefits We’re living in a tech world now, both in design and in life, and the fact is, we always have to stay updated. It’s not just a case of having smart systems that turn on the lights at the right time. The right technology really makes a difference and reduces your bills. It uses telematics to give you an amazingly detailed feedback of your energy costs balanced against lifestyle needs and the home or office environment that you prefer. It’s so advanced now that I often think that, after a certain point, technology will understand us more than we understand ourselves!”

“Here’s another factor to remember: tech doesn’t have an emotional element: it gives us the facts – they may not always be what we like to hear and they can be very hard to argue with!”

Internal Space and Mental Health

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many social commentators have been talking about the impact of working from home on people’s mental health. Asked whether there are mental health issues to consider with regards to designing better interiors in a post-pandemic world, she exclaims, “Yes, of course! For example, if your movements outdoors are restricted, people now understand that sunshine is so important and that, at the very least, we need a better view. Similarly, when you design interiors, you really want to make people feel good – you don’t want to make them feel claustrophobic.”

She adds, “There isn’t really a lot of totally scientific research as yet about the pandemic and the strain on mental health if people are confined for long periods of time, so no-one really knows the statistics. So, our job is always to make sure that in these uncertain times we can put peoples’ minds at rest and help them feel better.”

Asked about her overarching view in terms of form over function or vice versa, Najee states both have to work together for the best results on a project.

“That’s a very interesting question. I would say they have to work together. That’s one reason why, here in our office, the architect and the designers work together from day one. What makes for an ‘A+’ project is that you have a nice fo


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