The last year was substantially dynamic for SGI and as for any other business offered many challenges to go through and analyze. We started it by winning the German Design Award for Excellent Architecture in Urban Space and Infrastructure. Then followed a restructure of the processes and human resources at the company to answer the pandemic, and fortunately, not to stop any workflow. The third and fourth quarters passed with a lot of work on ongoing projects to finish the year with the recognition from the annual Building of the Year awards with a whole 4 out of 9 first awards and one special award for our achievements in the architectural field. We start the new year with lots of learnt and enthusiasm for future opportunities.
How did a British architect end up in Bulgaria to establish one of the largest architectural practices in the region and what it takes to do so? Read below the story of our regional director Alexander Daw for an interview with Investor.bg.
Tell us a little about the history of the company – how did it all start?
A.D.: Like many good things accidentally. I never planned to stay in Bulgaria really until I guess when the kids arrived. I was in Bulgaria when the 2008 crisis hit and was working with a Catalan Architect called Eduardo Rifa on a Golf course project in Arbanasi, so I was living and working in Veliko Tarnovo which was fun for a few years. We ended up designing the new area around Tsarevets amongst other things and as a place to work for a masterplanner, VT is pretty unique. When the crisis came everything stopped. The golf project was binned and, luckily, I had just started talking to David Taylor from Stephen George International as they were looking to set up an Eastern European office. We hit it off and after six months they chose Sofia as the regional hub and Tisho and myself as the local Directors and Shareholders. We continued to support our existing staff and took on SGP’s management systems and protocols which got us off the ground quickly. It helped that we were, and continue to be, supported by some of the leading experts in masterplanning and sustainability that were practicing in the UK at the time. Since then we have continued to build, we worked in Moscow for two years in 2014 – 2016, we have a thriving, in-house visualisation company that works all over the world supporting our UK partners and have moved into the handful of top tier of practices in the local market in a short space of time.
You have been awarded in various sectors in architecture – from residential buildings, through sports facilities, retail outlets and offices. How do you manage to achieve high quality in so many different sectors?
A.D.: Mainly collective experience and a continued passion for developing innovative solutions. When we started ten years ago, both Tisho and myself came from very different backgrounds. The combination of that local and UK experience has helped. The ability to draw on expertise from SGP, our UK partners who are a 50 year old practice as of this year and very established in most sectors, was really the core of the success of the local business from the start and that relationship still continues today.
Does it take a decade to establish an architectural practice?
A.D.: Well, like any business it is improved over time. Efficiencies can be made, management structures can be refined and therefore services offered can be improved and costs reduced. Also, like any business, the team evolves over time and with the right structure you are able to nurture and develop talent and keep talent. We were lucky to be working on important projects in Bulgaria, such as Sofia Airport Center when we were established as an office in 2010. The service SGI can provide now, ten years later, is for sure improved in almost every aspect of what we offer, but particularly in terms of technical delivery. To get the systems and methodology fully refined and fully perfected to meet the requirements of any local market does take time yes.
What have you learned in these 10 years?
A.D.: Where to start? Someone once said to me that you do not become a complete Architect until you are fifty years old. There is some truth in that. I think as soon as we think we know everything and stop learning we start to go backwards. I have learned through trial and error, but with a good dose of applied reason and logic. An architecture practice first and foremost is a team. We are essentially creative engineers engaged in both the creative process and politics whether we like it or not. This may sound cliche, but to keep a team inspired you have to lead by example, integrity is paramount, you need to keep the passion which means making sure there is time to engage at all levels of the process. Equally, you need to empower your team. They need to know that they are valued and they have a future within the organization, you need to understand each individual’s natural talents and encourage them to develop in those areas by distributing responsibilities appropriately to the best of your ability and lastly, good management protocols are essential to succeed long term.
“You need to empower your team”
What are the new projects in your portfolio – are there any in 2021?
A.D.: We continue to work on Borovets center redesign with William Matthews and Green works. Currently, we have a housing and apartment scheme in Cyprus, we are engaged with a redesign and masterplan of St Sofia Golf club and Spa which I hope is going to be pretty special and amongst others, we have The Vale which is a fantastic project in Bistrita / Pancharevo, around 80 houses. It is looking to be the first, true low carbon project in Bulgaria and the second BREEAM communities project after Garitage Park. These are aspirations, but we have designed them in a way that makes those aspirations are commercially viable, even advantageous. Exciting stuff anyhow.