Have skills, will travel

Taking on international projects, and especially the lighting element of them, was up for debate in this latest FX Design Seminar. Johnny Tucker sits in and reports on the proceedings

While few would disagree that lighting can make or break a project, it seems to be a key area most at risk during the specification on an international project.

In offices it's often the forgotten element and in others sectors it's purchased late in the cycle and seen as a prime target for cost cutting once a good deal of the money has already gone. And that, of course, is if the original specification is still in place, as cost cutting and local pressures, on international schemes in particular, means that 'the other' cheaper option often ticks most of the right boxes for a client or the company delivering a project.

Lighting was not the only thing under discussion at the Megaman-sponsored FX Design Seminar on international projects, but it did dominate the conversation. That said, Light Bureau principal Paul Traynor gave a little perspective in talking about a recent project in Azerbaijan, where the skills were simply not good enough to deliver a building to the engineers, beam depths increased and what should have been 6m clearances, shrank to 4.5m. 'That's a bigger quality issue than are you going to get with "Light source A or B?" he said.

But that was some way into the conversation, and to begin with things concentrated on how you deliver an international project - do you open a local office, and when's the right time to do that?

The general consensus was that it was a mix of organic growth often involved with the geographical spread of key international clients, along with the specific targeting of markets, such as Moscow in the case of Scott Brownrigg Interior Design, whose director Ken Giannini explained that the practice's experience had been very positive, with work coming in just six month after targeting the market.

The other important thing to emerge was working with local practices, which is vital for everything from local knowledge to being able to get the required licences and the working with local regulatory bodies.

With so many architects and designers, not to mention manufacturers, based in the UK and servicing international projects, London is a major specification hub, but as Edge Architect's MD Rachael Cadey pointed out, that doesn't mean you can just provide the same solution time and time again: 'Cost and availability are the two key factors for international specification. I don't believe there's a one-size- fits-all solution. And from our experience there's no one standard that fits every country.'

While agreeing, Penson Group CEO, Lee Penson added: 'That said, if you use the UK level of spec' standardisation in different countries, such as Cyprus or India, you can't go wrong, because the level is so high here, so stringent and well thought through.'

Tom Dixon technical director, Phil Muir, brought in the manufacturers' perspective: 'From a product point of view you have to modify products for the world for different voltages and frequencies. In somewhere like Japan that even varies within the country. A lot of companies are naïve and think one product will ? t every market, but you have to have real understanding of product application - where it's going to be used and the market itself. So having an of? ce there, or a partner, so you understand how it all works, is really important. So many manufacturers don't seem to understand that you have to know how it works from end to end - from the manufacture to how it's sold into market. It needs to be joined-up thinking.

'As a manufacturer, you have to have that international project management in place, firstly to make sure the budgets are correct to start with. So many times things are specified at UK prices and without any regard for import duty or modifications to the product. Secondly it needs to be in place to make sure the specifier gets the product they want into the project. I've seen it so many times where they just fall at the first hurdle.'

Rachael Cadey added to this, returning to her point of availability and saying: 'You can specify everything right down to the last detail, but it's also about what they can procure in the right time frame.'

Looking at the project as a whole, Andrew Black, CEO of main contractor, Interiors Group, said: 'We tend to find that architects will project-manage the specification, then leave the technical parts to the consultant.' He continued, picking up on Phil Muir's point: 'Things like import duty often get missed. If you are importing a light fitting into the UAE it will have a 20 per cent tax, so you've just added 20 per cent cost to that part of the project.

'What often happens is that on a $1m project, $50,000 goes on tax and it's just swept under the carpet and the client ends up going without one of the big features in the reception area or the like. If you go to the local market there are often very similar products available, and a lot of clients will also want to source locally anyway to support their own economy.'

Paul Traynor countered: 'A lot of contractors and installers we work with tend to make it dif_ cult to buy the product that's specified and easy to swap out for something else.' He also cited a recent project in Montenegro: 'A product we priced as 400 euros from list - not even a project price - translated into 11,000 euros by the time it got to the contractor. What they do is in. ate the price and then knock 25 per cent off so you think you are getting a deal.' He added that this highlighted the need to work with local agencies that looked after your needs as a specifier.

Talking about 'similar' products Lee Penson commented: 'Lighting in this country is really good quality, but it costs a fortune. If you look at stuff made on the other side of the world it's like your stereotypical copy of a Gucci T-shirt. You get these fittings which are a fraction of the cost of the real thing, which sometimes look quite good or sometimes shockingly bad. The problem we get is that a lot of clients will push us to use the stuff from China because of the cost. They can't see the difference between the two.' However he added that he was also in favour of sourcing locally, particularly from an environmental point of view to avoid high levels of transportation.

Megaman MD Fred Bass replied: 'I think you have to remember that it's a global market and that you can buy really good stuff anywhere in the world and really bad stuff anywhere in the world. It's also about choice. Its provenance doesn't matter; it's about how it performs.'

Ken Giannini agreed, adding: 'You have to match the product with what you need. There'll always be a cheaper product, but if the minimum quality matters you have to meet that standard, and if that has to come internationally then so be it. There are some countries where you are forced to go locally because you don't have the right licences and such like. But my view is, let's get the right quality. If we can get it locally then fine, if we can't let's go international.'

Fred Bass also pointed out that loss of quality was one of the biggest problem in re-specification: 'We are not the cheapest product on the block, and one of the biggest problems is being switched for something "similar".' He added that he was aware that a specifier will often name a product 'or something similar' and so in a way it was down to the manufacturer to create unique points in their products so there isn't anything similar.'

Lee Penson agreed, adding it was necessary to offer the client some flexibility on cost: 'Somebody at some point always asks, "Can't you swap out this element?" It may be the client, local QS or local PM, and you try and fight for it, but you can't win every time.'

Phil Muir reiterated the vulnerability of lighting to this whole process: 'It gets to the point where they are trying to cut the budget - lighting is usually purchased late-on in the process. All the other money as been spent and so lighting is an easy target.'

FX editor Theresa Dowling wondered if there was any specific lighting sectors which were more vulnerable to this sort of behaviour than others? Traynor cited anything in the design and build arena, 'because that's not about quality, its totally cost-driven'. Office lighting was also put forward as an extremely price-driven sector and one that suffers from a lack of creative input. Rachael Cadey added that with projects she often inherited buildings fitted to Cat A or B standard: 'The lighting is all very generic and that's expensive to change, and often clients are not very keen to bring on board a lighting specialist either. It's like a forgotten element of the project.

'We do a lot of retail and that's very different, because lighting is always a key feature of the project and the consultant is part of the team. It's a feature part of what you do and it's the same in hotels - it's more about mood, more experiential and more customer-facing - not just about health-and-safety levels of lighting in a space, as is often the case in offices.'

Andy Black agreed that lighting in offices was often an afterthought: 'Nobody seems to spend the money or take the time to discuss it, and in many ways that's the problem of the lighting industry that has allowed manufacturers of a certain type to come in and dictate on cost. We've all judged awards and the ones that stand out are not the ones with the £3,000 sofa or the £50,000 reception desk; it's the ones that feel right. And the thing that makes an office feel right, I would argue, is the lighting.'

The need for education on lighting as ever-more complicated technological changes come through at an ever-increasing pace also came up. Neolite International's Sean O'Callaghan agreed this was vital and that there was also a trust issue to overcome with new technology such as LED, 'because people have had such a bad experience with compact fluorescents.'

'Rewind two decades and everything was much simpler,' said Paul Traynor. 'There were fewer products on offer and it was easier to understand. Now there are so many projects, and the technology has become so complicated, people don't understand it and can't relate it to a quality of light. They don't understand colour temperatures and colour rendering and all that goes with it. It's become really dif cult to specify lighting, which is great as far as lighting designers are concerned.'

However, Lee Penson pointed out that he's also had bad experiences with some lighting designers, and that if this part of the industry was growing up and becoming more professional, it should be better at self-regulation.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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