David Whitehouse, Savant
Chaos or Design, off the rack or bespoke?
"There are things you can plan for in life, things which can be considered, or designed if you like, and then there are other things that just happen".
By James Blake
David Whitehouse came to Russia back in 1993 on a 300 day visit, met the love of his life, and has remained in eastern Europe ever since. Architectural planning and design have become the hallmarks of his career, culminating, on a professional level at least, in the creation of Savant International; one of the most respected construction and design consultancies operating in Russia.
A chat with David reveals he knows an awful lot about construction and design, particularly managing the costs associated with his projects. His experience range from football stadiums in Ukraine, sunflower processing plants in Voronezh, to ceramics factories in Chelyabinsk. And then there are the retail facilities, hotel developments and corporate developments of all shapes and sizes. The company, Savant International, of which he is a principal, was set up specifically to cater to the need for effective design and construction consultancy services across Russia. And now Savant International has expanded with a portfolio of extensive projects across Europe and the CIS.
Russian property development has been under-invested in for nearly a generation and almost anywhere one looks there are manufacturing, housing, retail, and transport facilities which could do with upgrading and modernization – if not complete replacement. And now this is changing. The Russian economic boom from the early years of this century is driving an infrastructure – and facility-construction boom like few others. Russian investment in its own industry and infrastructure is not only a central part of the Government's agenda, but also that of most industry as well. Production facilities of all types are being newly built or upgraded. Steel works are being overhauled, retail centers are being built, and industries such as breweries, car part and hotels are planned or in the process of construction. This development is not being centrally planned. Needs are being addressed on a site-specific basis. Private companies, and even local governments, are concerned about costs, return on investment, and profitability. Unlike in a previous era where ‘one size fitted all’, all development is tailored to the relevant project's requirements.
David understands that this change of culture can be represented in many ways, noting that in the Soviet era to visit the circus in one city was essentially to see a replica of the Moscow circus. The culture was about getting one thing which worked – sometimes only moderately well – in one location, and replicating that exact thing elsewhere. Industrial plants, hotels, factories, housing, and public buildings all came from the same mold. But any given site has its own design needs, which stem from its own particular location, the specific people who will use the facility, and the operational circumstances in which it exists.
It is the difference between bespoke tailoring and off the rack. Sometimes the latter does the job nicely, but the former will always do it better though perhaps more expensively. This is where a design and construction consultancy steps in, a company which marries form, function, design and construction, while operating within time parameters and costs. The demand for such specific services in Russia today is huge.
One of Savant’s recent flagship projects was the 210,000 square meter Pushkino Logistics Park, on the Yaroslavskoe Shosse, north east of Moscow. In a city which is crying out for a Class A logistics facility, this is a good example of the benefits of attention to detail and design that Savant can bring to a project.
“The key to any logistics facility is its design and the way it works: the grid situations and office locations and layout. Otherwise, what you have at the end of the day is a big shed,” he says.
The attention to detail in making sure the project is something more than a big shed is staggering. There are load bearing capacities, column grids and ceiling heights to think about, as you would expect, not to mention the layout of the loading bays and parking. But it goes well beyond the obvious to working out the security and the access for the site, storage areas, lighting systems, sprinklers and fire alarms, office locations, anti-dust flooring and, in the case of Pushkino, a rail connection. It all takes a tremendous amount of planning, mulling over what goes best with what and where. But it pays off, insofar as the end result is rated ‘the best designed and most modern logistics park in Russia.’
DHL, amongst a range of logistics operators, has taken long term rights at the Pushkino facility, and as Russia’s consumer boom really kicks in, it is local Russian companies along with the local divisions of international companies who are driving the boom in rents and the construction of new facilities. The further east one goes in Russia, the more pressing is the need, so the company is looking into several projects in Siberia, in the Tomsk and Novosibirsk regions.
Changes in administration or regulatory requirements, difficulties in finding good contractors who can work to the standard required, and are able to complete tasks on time and in any industry weather have the potential to delay completation dates, which is always a worry for someone with more than half an eye on the costs of a construction project. Then, even when a good team is put together, there is always a risk that an other firm will entice them away to some other project. Construction can be a dog-eat-dog in any industry. Local work customs, health and safety standards, and simple communication can often bemuse and confuse international project managers, if they are not careful.
But logistics centers aren’t all that Savant creates. The Firm has also recently been appointed to oversee the design and construction of CBC Park Huaming, China’s largest ever investment project in Russia. This will see Savant wondering the construction of a trade and social exchange center which includes offices and conference facilities, entertainment venues and an apartment hotel – all set in a traditional Chinese garden. The company is also considering high-rise projects in St. Petersburg and some retail developments.
All of this should mean that David will continue to be a busy man into the foreseeable future. But he gives the impression he likes being busy, and this is one of the things which attracts him to Moscow. “There’s always something happening here, something going on, and it has an unpredictability and sense of chaos which has its attraction, with every day being different”, he says, providing some sort of insight into moments, which one assumes, just happened to him back in October 1993. For a man who likes planning design, and careful consideration of costs, he sometimes likes things that just happen.