Africanism sat down for an exclusive interview with Boogertman + Partners’ Alasdair Forsyth and Richard Wilkins to find out exactly what goes into creating an iconic building such as the new headquarters of the Discovery Group in Sandton, South Africa.
Alasdair, Richard, welcome. Can you tell us a bit more about yourselves?
Alasdair: I’m Alasdair Forsyth, I am 38 and I have been at Boogertman + Partners for five years. I have always lived in Johannesburg and I always wanted to be an architect, so that worked out quite well! I graduated in 2003 from Wits and previously worked for a much smaller firm doing more urban design work, although it was great to work at that large scale, which I think has helped me through the Discovery project, the pace of urban design is slower in its implementation. I had worked on some great smaller scale buildings, but wanted to get into bigger architectural work, which worked out well too! I am now associate director, and the Discovery building has been a good project in terms of moving up the ladder. I have been involved from the get-go with the original concept design, all the way up until what ultimately became the building.
Richard: I am Richard Wilkins, I am 43 years old and I graduated from Wits Tech in 1997. I did a year of work and a half of work here in South Africa and then in 1999 I went to the UK and worked there until 2005 for various companies, doing contract work for the first few years and then permanent for a firm based in Camden, I worked on various project from very high end residential, commercial work, medical – all sorts of interesting projects – and then came back here and got a job at Boogertman in 2006, so I’ve been here for 12 years. I’m currently a director and joined the Discovery team in 2014 when we went to site. So I got involved after these guys spent years with design options (laughs), taking that final design option and running with it.
Discovery will be the focus of this chat, but what other projects with the practice have you enjoyed working on?
Richard: I have been very fortunate, as I worked on the Murray & Roberts head office in Bedfordview which was a very interesting large refurb which also included a 6 storey parkade, I worked on Soccer City as part of the core team there on site, and then did the EY building in Sandton. There have been a few other smaller projects in between, but those are definitely the most notable ones.
Alasdair: The bulk of my time here has been on Discovery as we started on it after I’d been at the office for about six months, but I also worked on a few proposals, one of the most interesting being a proposed rugby stadium in Botswana, but unfortunately that never came to fruition.
When did the Discovery project come on board?
Alasdair: The RFP (request for proposal) process is quite a drawn out one. Our involvement began when Growthpoint bought a piece of land which was the core of what eventually became the Discovery site. Before I arrived, Bob (van Bebber director at Boogertman + Partners) worked on around 12 schemes on that site over a period of five years preceding Discovery coming on board.
Richard: Yes, those weren’t for Discovery – Growthpoint responded to other RFP’s with proposals on that site.
Alasdair: So all the other big offices that have gone up in Sandton, Bowman Gilfillan, IBM’s office, EY, all of those were also pitched on that site at some point. So when the Discovery RFP came out early 2013, we pitched with Growthpoint on the site, but we originally did it in a bigger urban design framework which had a hotel on the corner. Bob pitched that and the feedback we got was that Discovery didn’t like the hotel, but they liked the site, so we made it to the next stage of the RFP process, 1 of 3 shortlisted sites. In June 2013, after months of back and forth in the process, we made the decision to redesign the whole building to get to where we are now. We were told at the end of August that we had won it. Bob likes to tell the story that when he presented the new design to the Discovery board, about 20 minutes into the presentation Adrian Gore (founder and Chief Executive Office of the Discovery Group) said, “Hang on, is this a different building? Did you guys redesign it?” Because they hadn’t liked the hotel, we had to rethink and redesign the building from the inside out, with very little time to spare. The core team were doing 80 hour weeks just trying to punch this thing out, but it all paid off and we went into documentation, trying to figure out parking, ramps, layouts in the second half of 2013.
And now it’s close to completion?
Alasdair: Yes, practical completion for Phase 1 was in October 2017, and Phase 2 will be in February 2018. Discovery are hoping to have completed moving into the building by the end of March I think.
Richard: The initial plan was to move 500 hundred people a week which would take them four months to move! That’s the size that we are dealing with.
What was the initial brief for the building from Discovery?
Alasdair: The big thing was for something that would architecturally describe them as a brand and as a company, and try and capture some of their ethos. A big part of it was efficiency; at the moment they are in four disjointed buildings in Sandton and it was impacting on their ability to effectively do what they had to do, so that was a big drive for them. I think a reason for the success of the scheme is the massive floor plans; including Phase 2 it’s 12 000sqm a floor and we have eight of those. So for the same bulk we could have built a 30 story tower, but that wasn’t what they wanted, so we squashed the building out and it is now over a hectare per floor of office space.
Richard: Yet when you’re in the space, you really don’t feel like you are in a warehouse that is a hectare. The human scale of it is very intimate despite the size.
Alasdair: So yes, that was important for them; it was about efficiency and about how they could express their corporate culture, which is quite flat. They are very responsive to projects and they churn something like 3 000 seats per year, which means moving people around to different areas, so that kind of flexibility was important.
It took them some time to agree on where the execs should go. A lot of the big, big guys actually sit on the lower floors with their teams so there isn’t this king of the castle mentality, which is really nice.
Do you find that clients create briefs which are workable and achievable in the real world?
Alasdair: I think it depends on the clients, this is a tricky one…
Richard: They have a dream but what the problem is, I think that the dream is achievable, but they don’t know how to explain that dream. So the brief is never really a brief. “Okay, we want a building, and we want it to be awesome”, well, we like to think that all of the buildings are awesome (laughs). So you have to kind of ask the right questions to get the right answers so that you can get to where they want to be. They are not architects so they don’t really know how to ask for what they want. You’ll be lucky if the client can actually see what they want in their head. Most people in Sandton, where there is a lot of financial and insurance, they see numbers, they don’t really see that grand design, so the challenge there definitely is trying to interpret that one line brief. We have it more often than not, that three months down the line after you have done 10 schemes and the client is still not happy, we say, “You need to tell us what you want”, and we’ll get a few key words, but really it’s hard to find out exactly what they have in mind.
Alasdair: I think exactly that. What we tend to get as a brief is a series of answers, but what we also need to understand is, what was the question that led to that answer? Because that gives us the information we need to know to give them the right kind of building.
Richard: How do you work, why do you work like that? We were talking about it this morning – the guys are already using the running track at Discovery, the multicourt is already being used, the gym is packed all day. That is the culture within a company that you won’t know until you see it, and they won’t really know how to explain it or ask for it as to them it’s normal, it’s their work culture.
Alasdair: I think in the particular context of Discovery, they were a very good client. The relationship between us and Discovery was slightly set back, because we work for the developer, but what was really nice with this project, because Discovery were on board right from the beginning, everyone was on the same page, I think that because Discovery manage their own building and have their own facilities team, they had quite a good idea of what they needed from a numbers point of view, and what we needed to help them with, was how to give them the best space for those numbers.
A project of this size surely comes with its own unique challenges?
Richard: Where do we start? The list is very long (laughs). I mean, we have done some big projects like Soccer City, but every job has its unique challenges and a job of this magnitude is certainly no different the sheer size and complexity created its own challenges. As every decision has massive programme and cost implications – a simple change to the balustrade seems straight forward but when there is over four kilometres of atrium balustrade, the consequences are substantial. Change a shadow line detail from 20mm to 50mm, it costs millions. Every decision you make has massive financial implications because of the scale.
Alasdair: Everything goes back to the scale of the project; we had to cram almost 6 000 parking bays into the basement, and what was very important for both developers from the get-go is that the building has a direct street relationship. The entrance from the Sandton Gautrain allows you to walk right into the front of the building.
Richard: Which is quite a unique feature in Sandton. Most buildings have podiums sitting up off street level. Discovery has direct access onto one of the busiest intersections in Sandton.
Alasdair: So we were cramming every possible crevice with cars so that we didn’t have to go down too deep. The requirement from the city is four bays per hundred square metres, but Discovery wanted six, so that’s 50% more, and that is because they’ve been burnt with parking space before. I think they are currently renting parking space in Sandton City and all over the place, and it is costing them a fortune so they wanted all of their staff in this building.
I think that was the first big challenge, and then it is, how do you get all of these people into and out of this basement quickly so that you don’t have traffic snaking out all of the place? So we have this big speed ramp which drops from basement four to basement six very quickly, and a lot of ramps, a lot of ramps (laughs).
Richard: Moving 6 000 cars is not an easy challenge. It’s actually almost an unconceivable amount of cars to move in half an hour, because a lot of those cars are arriving between 7:30am and 8.30am.
We keep going back to the scale of Discovery as a challenge but I think to put it in context, the facade of Discovery is 25 000sqm. Soccer City’s façade, the ‘calabash’, is 28 000sqm, so it’s 3 000sqm short of Soccer City. And the EY building just down the road, which EY occupy, the shorter tower, can fit in the atrium of the west tower of Discovery. That’s a 2 000sqm floor plate of offices with an atrium, and that fits into the atrium of the one wing of this project. We pretty much spent a year going down, a year going back up to ground again and a year going up.
“My kid is at school now, he’s four years old, and my youngest had just been born. When you start putting that into perspective – for his whole life, I’ve been working on one job – you realise how much time, effort and personal commitment that it takes.” Richard Wilkins
For a project like this, did you look at other projects to inform the design or do you just take it on face value and try and do something different?
Richard: You guys went to Australia and did a bit of a green building tour, didn’t you?
Alasdair: Yes, early on in 2014. It was a tour to Australia to look at primarily green office buildings, and it also gave us the opportunity to see buildings which kind of convey what we were talking about earlier when you get lost describing something to a tenant or a client. You can do as many 3D’s as you like but you still don’t always get that idea across. So when we went to a few big offices, such as ANZ in Melbourne which is 87 000sqm, we walked into their atrium, then you could see the Discovery guys who came with think, “Okay, so this is how it’s going to be, this is what you’re talking about.”
Richard: And we’re going to make it bigger!
Alasdair: We went to another building which was smaller, but more ‘curvy wurvy’ and they were, “Okay, we’re are seeing this now”.
Richard: The Discovery concourse is massive. You walk in and it is seven stories high; that’s colossal. But the shape of the building came from the site really, when you guys flipped it around, optimising the entire site area that was now available with a much bigger floor plate per level. .
Alasdair: We looked at the site and had this core idea of the outside coming into this central space. The core had to be filled with natural light, a space where people could gather and that defined the atrium shape. Discovery didn’t ask for an open sky atrium, that was our design. It was a big part of our initial thoughts.
Richard: You feel like you are in the open, you don’t feel like you are in an atrium.
Alasdair: Going back to our challenges, for future reference, when you stick a round building on top of a square basement, there are a couple of challenges in sorting out transfer structures, and a lot of skew columns which had to go from a grid to a curve, so that was quite exciting (laughs). Architecture is one of those things where it is very difficult to do something which is really, really new. What you do is take a lot of common sense from your experiences on other projects and put it together in different ways which suit that particular brief and client. And also, why not look at other buildings? People have treaded the path and you can learn from them.
Richard: It is always a different process, and that process takes you on a different path, so you will never land up in the same place. The dynamics of the whole team, the client, the developer, the Tenant are all different, so you land up in a different place every time. We always say, “We have done this before, surely we can do it quicker and more efficiently?” but you can’t! There is always a process which has to happen and you land up in a different place, and that process depicts the next step, always.
Alasdair: There was a great talk by Bjarke Ingels recently and that was one of his big points – trust the process. The Discovery project is testament to that, as frustrating as it can be.
Richard: In South Africa we do everything at the same time, design and build, literally, so that process is happening while the guys are building. Going back to the challenges, that’s a challenge! You are still doing design concepts while the contractor is building this is a uniquely South African challenge, without a doubt – it doesn’t happen in the UK, I have worked in the UK and the process is simple… There are the drawings mister contractor, and he says, “If you want to change anything, I will tell you how much it is going to cost you and how long it’s going to take.” Here, (laughs), we added two new elements to the project months before handover, but that’s our environment which we work in and I think we all accept it as the way it is, and embrace the challenge with solutions.
“There’s always a stage in every project that wherever you look, wherever you go, you snag it. You look at things and say, “That’s a bad detail!” Richard Wilkins
What can you take from this project and apply to other projects which might not be of such a grand scale?
Richard: There are a lot of things, obviously the experience, but from a personal point of view, I think your threshold for that intense productivity raises to a different level , so when you go to the next job you know you can handle it.
I’m working on a couple of other smaller things now and you can’t believe that something can be done on a three month programme. When we started Discovery we didn’t even think of 2017. In 2014, 2017 was not even a thought in our heads!
Alasdair: Most of our children’s lives were spent on this project.
Richard: (Laughs). My kid is at school now, he’s four years old, and my youngest had just been born. When you start putting that into perspective – for his whole life, I’ve been working on one job – you realise how much time, effort and personal commitment that it takes. It’s a lot of time, and a lot of long hours, it is four years of your life, which at 43-years-old, is around 10% of your life. We both had kids and we’ve been working on one job for their whole life and that’s what makes the achievement of completing a building like Discovery so rewarding.
Alasdair: What you take also from it is that you can do pretty much anything with the right kind of will. That’s what I will take to other jobs – you can fight for the right way to do things. One of the other big challenges was the cantilever, it almost gets dwarfed by the size of the building, but the floating nose is a 17m long cantilever which is held up by these three enormous beams and all those floors hang from those beams. We had to argue with the structural engineer, with the QS, with the client, but eventually we got everyone to buy into this thing, but it took months, for us it’s such a key element. If we didn’t have it, the building would be a completely different thing.
Richard: It’s the money shot.
Alasdair: And when you look at it, you actually almost don’t see it because it is so small compared to the rest of the building, but it’s so important, and after that experience, you realise that there are right decisions and you can actually make it work. You have to stick to your guns.
Richard: In addition I think the way in which the team achieved a 5 Star Green building is quite notable to be honest – it’s the biggest green star building in South Africa – we did a whole lot of rationalisation in terms of the parking bays; 6 000 bays, the mobility bays, scooter bays and bicycle racks are all worked out on a percentage of the building size and how many parking bays you have. Suddenly you have 500 bicycle bays required. So we rationalised that using information from Mobility Week, but if I were to take something to the next job, I’ll take a lot from that experience and information.
In our office, people will be working on a range of other projects and Bob will go, “Go ask Richard what we did on that project,” or “Go ask Alasdair what we did on Discovery, that concept worked,” and I think those are all the small things that you take with you to the next one and the one after that.
“I have certainly learnt that you need to have fresh eyes – you sit and you stress over something and keep on looking at it, but sometimes you just have to walk away, do something else for a while, and come back to the problem with a refreshed perspective.” Alasdair Forsyth
Like you said, its 5 years of your life and it can be a very consuming and stressful job, so what do you guys do to get away from architecture and switch off?
Richard: Personally I feel you’ve got to get out of Joburg… that’s key! Because wherever you look you see something that relates to something that relates to the job. You drive through Sandton and you see all your buildings… There’s always a stage in every project that wherever you look, wherever you go, you snag it. You look at things and say, “That’s a bad detail! (laughs). It’s hard because wherever we go you are analysing and criticising the space and the detail, so getting away to a quiet and remote place is what I enjoy I also do some MTB riding and running. You have to try and make time for it, and that gets tricky, especially when you are starting to work Saturdays and maybe a bit of Sunday. You have to draw the line and say, “That can wait,” and it can, 9 out of 10 times it can. Certainly with me, mountain biking is what I enjoy to clear my head.
Alasdair: I started running… I was not a big fan of it but I have started. Exercise, I think, is important, trying to find something physical to do. It just turns your head off and focusses your mind for a while.
Richard: You have to find a way of drawing the line – you can’t think about things 24-7, and a job like Discovery almost requires you to think about it 24-7. But it’s not healthy, you have to step away, which more often than not allows you to see a different picture and a better solution
Alasdair: I have certainly learnt that you need to have fresh eyes – you sit and you stress over something and keep on looking at it, but sometimes you just have to walk away, do something else for a while, and come back to the problem with a refreshed perspective. I used to have a set of drums, which were very good for “refreshing” my perspective, but I lost a fight somewhere down the line and don’t have those anymore. It’s about doing something that’s totally different.
Richard: You see it, I went to site today after the Christmas break, and you go back with a completely different view of things. You get caught up on that treadmill and it’s a vicious treadmill. Before you know it, you forget where you started… You have to say, okay, tonight I’m leaving at this time to go home to the family or Saturday I am going for a ride. And when you come back as Alasdair said you have a different perspective.
We could probably talk for hours about who in architecture you admire, but who in other walks of life inspires you?
Alasdair: Quite recently I’ve been following a guy called Ray Dalio. He runs the worlds must successful hedge fund in history, an American guy who has been doing it for 40 years, a multi gazillionaire, but he has written a book about principles and he has this whole idea of radical transparency and idea meritocracy, that the best idea should win out, not necessarily the best idea that the most senior person has. And I quite admire that approach to solving problems and I think that it is something which, certainly in our team, that we do quite successfully. So that’s a relatively recent find, this guy.
Richard: I don’t think I could pinpoint any particular person, but I agree. I enjoy reading articles and books about those types of people. In fact, I read a good article in December about hiring the best people for the job, and one person isn’t going to have all the good ideas, so make sure that you have a number of people to give you the best ideas in their field and together you are going to create something amazing. I think the whole business models of the tenants we are building buildings for – we were talking about it earlier with Discovery where the top guys are working in the general office space –. The top guys are working at a desk, where if you walked in there and you didn’t know, you wouldn’t differentiate between him and one of his team members. So that kind of mentality is coming across more and more, so it’s not particularly one person, but there are a lot of businesses and a lot of people who are talking about it and those are the ones I am interested in.
Alasdair: I quite like Elon Musk. I don’t know what he is like to work for or whatever, but you have to admire how he puts his ideas out there but with a view to actually doing it, so I have more and more admiration for architects who I might not necessarily agree or like the design per say, but you can see when they have stuck to their guns through the process and they have achieved their vision.
How easy is it to achieve your vision when you have a client dictating, and ultimately, paying for it?
Alasdair: There are a whole bunch of synergies which you have to get… You have to have the right client who buys in right from the get-go into what you want to achieve. And getting on the same wavelength as them. And then in the commercial/corporate space in particular, the tenant also has to buy into that, and lining all those guys up to be on the same wavelength as you is very, very difficult. It takes a lot of personal motivation on the architect’s side.
Richard: You referred to that talk with Bjarke Ingels earlier, he explained how he goes through that process. I found it extremely interesting how he does that.
Alasdair: A lot of the time it’s actually showing them how the alternative way isn’t the right way. So that means you have to design the other building and say, “Look, there it is, it doesn’t work and we think that our idea is still the best way.”
Richard: Things have changed so you have to adapt with the times. It’s not like the architect of 40 years ago. That’s why Ingels is so dynamic in the way he runs his business. But having said that, there is a difference in the way you approach a client when you are looking for work to when you have a five year waiting list, so all these dynamics are a part of it. We also don’t often have the budgets that they have overseas. You have to learn to pick your battles – this is important to my design, I’m going to fight for that, but this isn’t really important to the design so I will let that one go.
Alasdair: It’s all about relationships in the end.
If you weren’t architects, what do you think you would be doing with your life?
Alasdair: I would love to be a film director or a Top Gear host (laughs), I think that would be the best job ever.
Richard: We have a joke in the office – although it’s probably just mine and Bob’s – we’d flip burgers! Put up a little pop-up place on the beach, flip burgers in board shorts and a t-shirt, and your life is stress-free. I haven’t allowed myself to think about what else I would do, because it might be an exit strategy!
But seriously, I always enjoyed designing, graphics and art, and if I think back to school, marine biology was something else I was interested in. I was always interested in both and that could have been a direction I went in, but then something switched and that was it, I never really hesitated. Or looked back.
“In architecture particularly, you can’t be passive – you have to get your ideas out there but you have to be patient with how people react. You might think you have the best idea ever, but it’s probably not. It probably needs some refinement and you have to take that knock.” Alasdair Forsyth
Finding yourself where you are at the top architectural practice in Africa, what advice do you have for architectural students or qualified architects in their first job?
Richard: Think carefully! (laughs). No, listen, it is an amazing career, although it’s not as glamourous as it is sold to be. You’ve got to love it and love what you do, although there is no doubt that there will be days when you won’t love it. Sitting in a five hour site meeting, but there are the moments, there are the achievements. You can stand back and kind of step out of the box and look up and go, “Wow, I was part of that,” I created that in a way, with a team, but I was part of that process.
I think the beauty of architecture is the amount of different directions you can go once qualified, whether it be design based or technical, myself for example, I definitely went in a more technical direction, which is what I enjoy.
Alasdair: I think if you are starting to study, be sure that it is what you want to do. I think for somebody starting out, you have to be patient because someone’s not going to ask you to design their R10 million house on the first day of your job, but the second thing is, don’t be passive – architecture is a contact sport. You have got to get out there and take the knocks. I think, in my own development, that I thought I would wait my turn, and eventually I would move up, but I realised relatively quickly that you can’t do that in architecture (or in any profession actually).
Richard: I agree. I think you get put in a corner very easily and hope that someone notices you.
Alasdair: But you are just going to stay in that corner… In architecture particularly, you can’t be passive – you have to get your ideas out there but you have to be patient with how people react. You might think you have the best idea ever, but it’s probably not. It probably needs some refinement and you have to take that knock.
Richard: It’s long hours… Varsity does prepare you for it though because you do all-nighters there and that’s a reality as you will do all-nighters at the office. The reward at the end is worth it though. It’s a funny profession…
Alasdair: What I found at varsity and tech, the difference between us and other professions, particularly as everyone compares us to doctors – if you studied for that long you could have been a doctor – but doctors spend their whole studying life learning the answers to every possible question; if this goes wrong you do this… We spend our whole university career learning how to ask the right questions, because only when you know how to ask the right question will you get the right answer.
When the building was ready for practical completion, the contractor got everyone out so that we could inspect it. We walked through the doors that morning and it was completely empty, there was nobody in the building, no builders, nothing, and that was pretty amazing…
Richard: Yeah, it’s that moment, those five minutes that you savour, then you’ve got to start thinking about the next project.
Did you work on anything else while working on Discovery?
Richard: Very little. It goes back to that process, and unfortunately with big jobs you have to give 100% of yourself to that job. You can’t afford to give 50%.
Alasdair: Which is a fairly unique situation.
Richard: We’d help out here and there, but very little. I tried for a few months – someone had left the company and I put my hand up to help, but three months later I was back. Those hours from 1 to 5 in the morning, I needed them to sleep!
So what is next?
Richard: The current market is tough, and you don’t get a Discovery with 6 000 employees every day. But there are a few proposals bouncing around and we just need to pin them down and get them on site.
Alasdair: Its nice with a firm of our scale, as there is always something happening in different sectors, so there are always new jobs coming through, but I get a sense that we have started 2018 positively, this year has a bit of a feel about it.
Richard: The political climate last year certainly doesn’t help but I agree, I think 2018 is going to be good with the changes up top.
Does it hinder a practice of your size doing a building like Discovery, that some people might think you are too big for them?
Alasdair: I absolutely do think that is the perception, but it’s certainly not the case. Every job is taken on its merits and we are happy to do anything, but that is definitely the impression.
Richard: 100% agree People might say, “Sho, they did that, there’s no chance they are going to do my 2 000sqm, which is completely not the case, and the other thing they think is that we must be too busy, “If we give them our job they’re not even going to look at it,” so you find you get less people approaching you because they think that all 105 of you in the Joburg office alone are working on this one project, but that’s not the case – there is always a core team, but the others need some work (laughs), You only get a Soccer City or a Discovery at the top of the pyramid a few times in a decade, but it’s the bottom of the pyramid projects that makes you tick day to day.
Alasdair: The opposite is probably also true actually, because we are a big company we also have the resources and the experience to turn around projects quickly, whereas a smaller firm, the entire company will have to work on it.
Richard: But you are 100% right, the fact that you even asked the question shows that it is a perception in the market, it’s a reality that as a company, we know of and we have to constantly try work on it.
Alasdair: There’s no such thing as a job that’s too small.
Richard: Though we do draw the line at carports and granny flats!
Look out for more in this exclusive series as we chat to the staff from Boogertman + Partners. For more information, visit www.boogertman.com