The key interior design takeaways of 2021

SAY Studio’s Matthew Sexton on how a tumultuous 2021 is shaping the outlook for the year ahead

With top global brands such as; Facebook, Uber, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, PwC, LinkedIn, PepsiCo, Oracle, IBM, Nestle, Deutsche Bank, General Electric, The Fairmont and CNN under its design belt, SAY Studio’s Managing Director, Matthew Sexton, looks back on a unique 2021 and ahead at the interior design and architecture space across the GCC.

In 2020 the construction industry recorded a contraction of 10.4%, GlobalData predicted a growth to of 4.4% in 2021 however this figure has, to date only hit 2.2%. The industry is expected to register an annual average growth of 3.9% between 2022 and 2025. As of June 2021, the total GCC construction project market was estimated to be worth US$3.2 trillion, covering; buildings, infrastructure and industrial, along with the power & water, and oil & gas sectors.

In 2022, residential, commercial, mixed use, airports, sports facilities, hotels, healthcare and education facilities, will be the largest contributors to the construction sector, with new contractor awards estimated at a value of US$45.1billion, followed by oil & gas projects at US$22.6 billion and infrastructure at US$17.5 billion.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are at the forefront of construction contractor awards in 2022, which are expected to be worth US$11.4 billion and US$20.1 billion, respectively.  Qatar, which is set to host the football world cup next year, will list US$5.5 billion worth of building contracts.

The UAE showed a decline in contract awards during Covid for the short term, however, the long-term outlook is relatively promising, as the government continues with infrastructure initiatives such as; the Energy Strategy 2050, the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme and the Dubai Tourism Strategy. Infrastructure projects are a key part of the UAE’s economic expansion as it looks to build efficient transport and logistics networks, as well as reliable supplies of clean energy.

With over $1tn of construction and transport projects planned, and $58bn worth of construction contracts being tendered, Saudi Arabia is by far the region’s biggest construction market. The kingdom accounts for 54% of all construction projects planned in the GCC, and 54 per cent of those being tendered.

The coronavirus has proven that academics and tech visionaries who have been talking since the 1980s about the possibilities of remote work, were not exaggerating. After months of working remotely, we have all learned that most tasks and meetings function effectively without an office. Offices, however offer more than just a place to work. It offers opportunities to socialise, share ideas, realise the intricacies of their job and build trust with colleagues. Many innovative business ideas are born between encounters in the workplace- “The water cooler talks.” Today our requests for proposals are asking us to show how design, technology and management practices can be used to make tomorrow’s offices more effective as social, learning, and innovation spaces.

Flexible working has taken the forefront in businesses, ongoing restrictions are still causing teams to be dispersed, a major new trend comes from the need to design the Hybrid Office. We have seen a shift from workplace to “culture space.”  Post-pandemic, finds the office will only secondarily be a place to carry out tasks or engage in routine meetings. As a result, employees will increasingly be working a hybrid office, moving between a home work space and a traditional office building. The latter will become primarily a culture space, providing workers with a social anchor, facilitating connections, enabling learning, and fostering unscripted, innovative collaboration.

With working from home, employees are becoming naturally accustomed to a more casual approach to their working days. This is mirrored in both the physical space and within company culture and patterns of behaviour. Many employees have been given access to an unprecedented amount of choice and can control when, how and where they work and will want this to continue. Many people will now be looking for a workplace that feels and looks more like a home-from-home. The combination of “resimercial” and commercial design features – resimercial – isn’t a new concept at all and is a design trend that has been gaining momentum for a number of years. The appeal of “resimercial” has gained momentum since employees were obliged to work from home.

During the first half of H2 this year, a number of clients flagged workplace issues arising as companies adjusted to life in “the new normal”. This has given food for thought to the SAY organisation. Their approach as the deliverers of a “ new normal” is intrinsically linked to change management, and the holistic process of implementing resilience within a workforce. Employees can typically be removed from a business decision to upgrade or move offices, so many blue-chip companies are getting their workforce on board using change management techniques. Change is rarely readily accepted, and an example of how this was with work with PepsiCo. Part of the brief was to ensure its workforce was as excited about the new office space as the management. Enabling employees to “hit the ground running” when it came time to return to the office was paramount. Say Studio used real-time rendering software to create a real-life, 360-degree, virtual tour of PepsiCo’s new office for staff to experience an office return in advance.

The UAE is one of the best-placed countries in the world to lead the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. While sectors such as aviation and tourism remain deeply impacted, other key areas such as Dubai real estate and Abu Dhabi’s oil and gas projects sector are already growing. Top brands are now looking to Middle East hubs to define global trends, a recent project completed by SAY for PwC became the only commercial WELL Health-Safety Rated space in the Middle East and Europe, with the theme “office of the future.” This set the precedent for offices across the rest of the world.

With the impact of Covid new office spaces all have a health & safety design requirement. The WELL Health and Safety seal is a mark of trust from the international WELL-building institute, the global authority on healthy buildings. Global brands are working to strict regulations in the design phase to achieve this. The seal can be seen on buildings which have set out to prioritise end user’s health and safety. This includes measures such as cleaning and sanitising procedures, air and water quality control, emergency preparedness programs and health services.

Technology can’t be missed from the key learnings list from 2021. SAY Studios both adapted and created technologies for remote access, process facilitation for Workplace and hospitality clients. The first big step taken was the adaptation of extended reality software which was applied across the UAE’s hospitality sector. The newly adapted software offers new and existing hotel operators, a real time rendering platform. The anticipated time saving, from conception to delivery, is as much as 80 per cent, and a total cost saving of up to 50 per cent. It’s always challenging when it comes to finalising a design along with specific materials, as this is traditionally done firstly through 3D visualization. This can be time consuming, especially when you factor in the number of revisions that are often required, coupled with the restrictions in numbers of people in a meeting, no-shows due to Covid contact and you have a much-delayed project. The adaptation of existing software is certainly not new, however, Say Studios with extended reality (XR) technology  apply it to the design process which allowed a more immersive experience, thus reducing the time spent “optioneering”.

In implementing robust construction initiatives, the UAE has adopted a collaborative Public-Private Partnership (PPP) across the sector’s segments, including education, transport, and municipal works, to ensure efficiency and head start economic activities in the post-pandemic era. With most of the UAE’s population inoculated, the region expects the hospitality and tourism industry to rise alongside global easing of travel restrictions. Being one of the world’s most sought-after travel destinations in 2021, the UAE will establish 11 new hotels at the end of 2021, primarily built by foreign players.

The UAE boasts the highest sovereign credit rating of any country in the region and has made the most progress on Covid-19 vaccinations. It led the world throughout the pandemic in terms of the scaling-up of its testing infrastructure and the growth trajectory from half way through 2021 is set to continue into 2022.

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