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Originally published Sunday, February 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Sunday Buzz

Local firms designing faraway skylines

Local architecture and design companies that are helping shape these quickly rising skylines believe the overseas assignments could insulate them against a slowdown at home.

Rami Grunbaum, deputy business editor, and Seattle Times Business staff

From Abu Dhabi to Vietnam, an impressive building boom is under way in the developing world.

Local architecture and design companies that are helping shape these quickly rising skylines believe the overseas assignments could insulate them against a slowdown at home.

Just outside New Delhi, a posh community with 30 residential towers clustered around a golf course and business park has been laid out by Callison, the Seattle firm best known for retail design.

In Abu Dhabi, the largest of the United Arab Emirates, a $435 million waterfront hotel is being designed by Otak, a firm based in the Portland area with offices in Seattle and Kirkland.

This past week, Callison added to its roster a mixed-use Shanghai project called Greenland Luwan Project, where the firm will lead master-planning and architectural design for six towers totaling 2.9 million square feet.

The opportunities in China, India and the Middle East are often hard to match at home "in scale and in complexity and cost and speed of construction," says Ro Shroff, a principal at Callison. "Only New York and Chicago can compete with the scale of projects that are routinely done in Shanghai or Beijing."

Nationally, however, most architectural firms see overseas work as merely "a niche business," says Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

They typically don't have much staff on the ground overseas, either, he says.

Not so these local firms.

International work now brings about 20 percent of total revenues at Callison, one of the largest U.S. architecture firms. Shroff expects that share to grow: "That is our game plan, with the U.S. economy softening to some extent."

Otak, with 100 employees in Seattle and Kirkland, gets 15 to 20 percent of its revenue in the Middle East. CEO Nawzad Othman opened an Abu Dhabi office two years ago and says the staff of 65 there will reach "close to 100 by year-end."

Of course, the exponential growth of some emerging economies makes them vulnerable to a sudden downturn, too. But the projects designed by local firms showcase the upside of the current boom.


Callison's master plan for the 350-acre Unitech Grande development on New Delhi's outskirts amounts to "a small, self-contained city," Shroff says. The firm also designed two 45-story signature towers at the gated community's core.

Shroff readily acknowledges that the luxury project is going up in "a country of anomalies — abject poverty and obscene wealth." At the high end, though, there's definitely demand for large, $500,000 to $2 million apartments sheltered in "a calm resort within this very chaotic, bustling, choked-with-traffic metropolis."

In oil-rich Abu Dhabi, perhaps the most surprising aspect of construction is a strong focus on good design and sustainability, Othman says. "People don't think of that happening over there, but it is."

The Al Bateen Wharf Hotel, designed and engineered by his firm, will include a wide range of green building elements. "That's the kind of work that we all feel very excited about," he says.

Making a big play for work in the Middle East may have come naturally to Othman — he immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq more than 50 years ago. But it also required a big investment in technology so teams from the Pacific Northwest and Abu Dhabi can collaborate easily.

International connections have a way of growing, too, says Callison's Shroff.

"Our client in Dubai is doing a project in Qingdao [in China]; our client in Korea is doing a project in Vietnam."

Must be a pony in there somewhere

The odds are good that a cash-strapped local company is the first in the history of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to file documents that include sketches of a horse's rear end.

Aldar Group, which aspires to make a business of breeding and racing Thoroughbreds, filed the papers this past week in a step toward trading as a penny stock in the loosely regulated over-the-counter market — a venue at least as risky as the track.

But the shares to be sold won't benefit Aldar, which has paltry revenue and is short on cash.

Rather, the SEC registration would allow existing stockholders to cash out on several million shares they acquired at prices from one-tenth of a penny to 25 cents each.

Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? Not a problem, says Kevin M. Murphy, who describes himself as the Fox Island-based company's investment banker and unpaid farm manager.

"It only takes one good horse, literally, and we are very fortunate that we own a one-third interest in a filly named Russian that ran very well last year," he says.

The company also owns two mares for breeding and a partial interest in a top Northwest stallion, he says.

Murphy also is the largest shareholder, with 1.3 million shares, though his stock isn't being registered.

The horse drawings are part of Aldar's lengthy background briefing on Thoroughbred horses and racing. The filing also itemizes several horses' breeding histories.

Aldar's CEO and sole employee, Jake Bottay, is a 60-year-old resident of Vancouver, B.C., who spent a couple of decades in so-called "junior" Canadian mining companies. But he wasn't in the Thoroughbred business before founding Aldar in 2004.

It hasn't proved much of a business yet. From inception to June 30, the company's total revenue from racing was $376. Later last year it sold the first foal from its breeding efforts for $6,200, and received $8,454 as its share of two horses' race winnings.

Despite those numbers, Murphy predicts investor interest will grow as the racing season approaches. His sales pitch: "Very few people have the opportunity to have their picture taken in the winner's circle as a part owner [of a horse]. It's an emotional high ... that's worth a million bucks."

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@- or 206-464-8541

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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