Exclusive Interview of Kerem Cengiz of LWK + PARTNERS. Edited by Powered Magazine
In a world where architectural masterpieces captivate our imagination, Kerem Cengiz stands at the forefront, leading the way as the Managing Director of LWK + PARTNERS. Join us as we delve into an insightful conversation with Kerem, exploring his visionary leadership, innovative design approach, and the indelible mark he is making on the architectural landscape. We reached out for an interview. Read more to find out how you can succeed in architectural role.
Tell us about yourself and your business.
Founded in Hong Kong, LWK + PARTNERS is an international architectural practise renowned for its multidisciplinary expertise. We've built a sterling reputation for creating distinct, sustainable spaces that enrich human life, supported by our core values of innovation, collaboration, diversity, and sustainability.
Our work spans multiple sectors, from residential, cultural, and commercial to public and urban spaces. We have expanded our global presence, with offices in China, Asia, and the Middle East, to engage with diverse cultures, architectures, and landscapes, enriching our perspective and the value we deliver to clients.
I’ve been leading our efforts in the Middle East region as Managing Director since the inception of the Dubai Studio in 2018, followed by the Riyadh Studio in 2020. As an architect and urban designer of 25 years, I bring extensive international experience to the business, including significant contributions in the Middle East, UK, former Soviet Union states, and Asia Pacific. My academic background, with degrees from the Birmingham School of Architecture and the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, underpins my commitment to informed, innovative design in addition to being an RIBA Committee Member and board advisor to several academic institutions.
My specialisation in master planning, urban regeneration development, and architectural design has contributed to LWK + PARTNERS’ success in the region. My strategic vision and leadership, along with my partner Kourosh Salehi, have been instrumental in expanding the company's footprint and influence, exemplifying LWK + PARTNERS commitment to architecture that respects local culture, context, and community.
My portfolio of business leadership combines creativity, functionality, innovation, and profitability. LWK + PARTNERS’ Middle East branches continue to contribute to the region's architectural landscape, offering innovative design solutions that respect local identities while promoting sustainable development.
What were your biggest challenges when starting your business?
LWK + PARTNERS’ expansion to Dubai in 2018 was a thrilling leap, fuelled by a mission to bring our unique brand of architectural expertise to the Middle East region. We began by leveraging their strengths and accomplishments in Hong Kong and China while being aware of the Middle East's unique architectural language and cultural and commercial requirements. This was an important step in building relationships in a market where our presence was relatively unknown.
Engaging with local clients and developers, understanding their needs, and respecting the regional aesthetic were key to demonstrating commercial astuteness. We highlighted our ethos of design centred on people, sustainability, efficiency, and context, showcasing how we could bring quality and added value to the UAE and region.
Our approach to staffing and recruitment was to blend our existing team's international expertise with the talent and knowledge of local professionals to create a fusion of global and regional perspectives. Kourosh Salehi, one of LWKs’ Global Design Principals, was instrumental in leading and integrating this diverse team.
Financial planning and business strategy were essential for navigating a new business environment. Establishing a new studio involved upfront costs and understanding the market dynamics. We were guided by our long-term vision of sustainable growth and took a strategic approach to winning projects, ensuring we could deliver high-quality work while building our reputation and relationships.
We have been able to overcome challenges and adapt to them, demonstrating our resilience, flexibility, and commitment to our mission. Our Dubai studio is now thriving and contributing to the region's architectural narrative, and we are excited about the journey ahead.
How have you handled success and failure over the course of your career?
A career spanning 25 years, with 13 years at senior management level, has been an immersive journey from the depths of architectural design to the broad horizons of architectural business management.
Successes have been a source of affirmation, reinforcing that the path chosen, and the efforts invested have yielded fruit. These have also been crucial moments of learning, reinforcing the importance of teamwork, leadership, and staying true to one's principles.
Failures have provided invaluable lessons on resilience, adaptability, and the courage to take calculated risks. They have taught me that failure is not a full stop but rather a comma that invites reflection and reorientation. As an architect transitioning into business management, one's mindset needs to be both flexible and resilient.
Working internationally has required adaptability and an understanding of diverse cultural and business environments. Each move has been a fresh start, broadening the perspective, enriching understanding, and helping to lead with empathy and inclusivity.
The recessions since the 2000’s have been a major challenge, making me rethink strategies, reassess priorities, and innovate out of necessity. This has reinforced the importance of sustainability in business, as it requires prudent financial planning, adaptability, and a workforce that can evolve with changing circumstances.
My career has been a mix of art and science, design, and management, local and global. The challenges have been many, but they have shaped me and the business I have managed. I look forward to continuing this journey and exploring the convergence of architecture and business, contributing to the growth and resilience of the architectural industry.
What strategies do you use to stay competitive in a changing market?
LWK + PARTNERS takes a comprehensive approach to the international architectural market, focusing on design, HR and staffing, marketing, business differentiation, innovation, thought leadership, and technology. We hire for potential and train for skill, investing in people who show a propensity for adaptability, creativity, and collaboration. LWK seeks to build a diverse team that can bring a wide array of perspectives to the table, fostering innovation in every project.
We position ourselves as PARTNERS and innovators who help realise our clients' aspirations. Our unique approach to architecture blends artistic vision with functionality and commerciality, aligning perfectly with the Middle Eastern market, particularly Saudi Arabia, where there is a growing appreciation for architecture that respects local culture and environment while integrating modern elements and commercial assurance.
We strive to push the boundaries of what is possible, exploring new ideas, techniques, materials, and business models. This forward-thinking approach positions us as thought leaders in the field, inspiring others and contributing to the progression of architectural design.
Technology plays an important role in our strategy, from advanced design software to virtual reality, to improve our design process and deliver better outcomes. It can help us design more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably.
As the founder of Apple once said, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower." We strive to be leaders in the international architectural landscape by providing quality solutions and unique experiences through our unique blend of people, vision, and technology.
What motivations drive you to keep pushing forward in the face of adversity?
I am driven by an intense passion for architecture and its potential to shape our environment, improve lives, create meaning, and be commercially successful. This belief has been the bedrock of resilience, helping me to persist through challenging circumstances, whether in business, projects, or financial uncertainties.
The motivation to push forward in business and projects is driven by a belief in the transformative power of work. Financial adversities and recessions have been periods of great learning, reinforcing the importance of prudent management, adaptability, and innovation. These trying times serve as reminders that resilience is not just about survival but about finding ways to thrive and grow amidst adversity.
My family and team are my safe harbour, providing a sense of balance and perspective. They remind me of what truly matters and instil a sense of gratitude and humility. The moments of joy, support, and love I share with them help me endure the challenges and look forward to brighter days.
Motivation is derived from a passion for work - I love my job, belief in its potential, strength from relationships, and a desire to learn, grow, and contribute. The journey is not without challenges, but each hurdle adds to the richness of the experience, making the destination more fulfilling.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their chosen field?
Passion is essential for success in this industry, as it fuels resilience and creativity, enabling you to turn challenges into opportunities. It is the compass that guides you through the highs and lows, and it is essential to sustain it.
Maintain a learning mindset to stay ahead of the curve in architecture and business; stay curious, open-minded, and willing to learn. It's not just about learning from successes but also from failures, which are not setbacks but lessons that shape your path.
An important detail is the importance of understanding and respecting context, networking, building relationships, seeking mentorship, and finding ways to contribute to the community. It is also important to balance ambition with patience, as setting high goals is important, but meaningful success takes time. It is also important to take the time to celebrate small victories along the way.
The journey into architecture and business is a marathon, but if approached with passion, knowledge, respect for context, relationship-building, and patient ambition, you will succeed and find fulfilment and joy in the journey.
How have technological advances affected the way you conduct business/operate your venture?
Steve Jobs once said, “Technology is nothing. What's important is that you have faith in people, that they're basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they'll do wonderful things with them.”
LWK + PARTNERSh as invested in its people as much as digital technology, IoT, data analytics, AR/VR, and AI, which have transformed our operational approach and driven impressive growth. This has enabled us to transform our operational approach and drive growth.
Our expansion strategy, 'Enhanced Design Offerings' (EDO), aims to differentiate our services, attract a wider range of clients, and contribute to the realisation of smart, sustainable cities by integrating automation and intelligent city products into our design flow.
Automation is becoming increasingly important in the Middle East's real estate market due to factors such as energy efficiency, security, technological advancements, market differentiation, and demographic changes.
MiC technology is used to manufacture and assemble building components off-site in a controlled environment, then transport them to the construction site for installation. It complements EDO initiatives.
MiC is a faster, more efficient, and adaptable construction method that helps meet the region's growing infrastructure needs while promoting economic and environmental sustainability. LWK + PARTNERS offers this faster, more efficient, and adaptable construction method to address the region's unique challenges.
LWK + PARTNERS’ business strategy is to combine people, advanced technology, and architectural creativity to create sustainable, intelligent, and people-centric built environments. This synergy is enhancing revenue and operational efficiency as well as contributing to the creation of sustainable, intelligent, and people-centric built environments. Our commitment to innovation will continue to shape the future of architecture.
In what ways has customer feedback or response influenced how you prioritise goals or objectives for your business or venture?
LWK + PARTNERS places great emphasis on client feedback and considers it integral to our continuous improvement and strategic planning processes. Feedback from clients and stakeholders helps us understand our strengths, identify areas for growth, and deliver a superior service.
Timeliness and quality are fundamental pillars of our service delivery, and feedback helps us gauge our performance and make necessary adjustments. This has led us to invest in advanced project management tools and systems, enhancing our efficiency, accuracy, and ability to deliver high-quality work within agreed timelines.
Feedback on responsiveness influences how we structure our client service teams and communication strategies. Commercial feedback, particularly regarding value for money, has guided us in designing our pricing strategy. We aim to provide premium yet cost-effective services that bring tangible value to our clients. We have initiated innovative solutions such as enhanced design offerings and modular integrated construction to offer high-quality, cost-effective, and time-efficient solutions to our clients.
LWK + PARTNERS values their clients' feedback regarding adaptability and change. This feedback helps them identify nuances and changes in the market, allowing us to adjust our strategies and remain ahead of the curve. Client retention is a key metric for them, as it gives them insight into what they're doing well and what they need to improve. Feedback also influences how we prioritise our goals and objectives, allowing us to deliver a service that is timely, high in quality, responsive, commercially competitive, adaptable, and ultimately one that drives client satisfaction and retention.
What trends do you see emerging in your industry that are likely to shape its future growth and development?
The global architecture industry, including the Middle East, is rapidly evolving due to social, environmental, and technological factors. LWK + PARTNERS monitors these developments to create designs that are sustainable, human-centric, and future-ready.
The integration of technology into design and construction processes is becoming increasingly commonplace, with advanced design software, BIM, artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual reality being used to improve efficiency, precision, creativity, collaboration, and client engagement. Intelligent cities are also emerging, with buildings designed to be part of a connected ecosystem powered by the Internet of Things (IoT).
Sustainability is a major influence in architecture, with a focus on energy-efficient designs, the use of sustainable materials, and the incorporation of renewable energy sources. Biophilic design is particularly prevalent in the Middle East, where there is a commitment to sustainable development. Modular Integrated Construction (MiC) is another emerging trend, while common in Asia has the potential to improve efficiency, reduce waste, and address labour challenges.
A shift towards designs that foster community and wellbeing is evident in the rise of mixed-use developments that blend residential, commercial, and public spaces. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increased focus on designs that support public health and resilience. Additionally, architects are seeking to create buildings and spaces that respect and reflect local heritage, materials, and climatic conditions while meeting modern needs and standards.
AI is revolutionising the architectural and design industries, allowing for the generation of design options based on inputs such as site conditions, local building regulations, environmental considerations, and client preferences. AI is becoming an indispensable tool in the design phase.
AI algorithms can sift through complex inputs and generate design outcomes that a human designer would take longer to conceive. AI is being integrated with building information modelling (BIM), transforming the way architects visualise and communicate their designs. AI can analyse BIM data to predict project timelines, costs, and environmental impact, helping architects and clients make more informed decisions. This blend of AI and BIM is streamlining the construction process, minimising errors, and reducing waste.
AI is becoming a critical driver of innovation, efficiency, and sustainability in architecture. It is being used to manage systems like heating, lighting, and security, optimising efficiency, reducing energy consumption, and enhancing occupant comfort and safety. Machine learning algorithms can analyse vast amounts of data on materials, construction methods, and building performance, helping architects design buildings that are more energy-efficient and have a lower environmental impact.
LWK + PARTNERS is embracing AI to create smarter, more sustainable, and more human-centric buildings and cities. As the architectural landscape continues to evolve, our commitment to harnessing the power of AI will remain steadfast, ensuring we stay at the forefront of industry innovation. These directions will continue shaping the architecture industry, leading to more sustainable, smart, inclusive, resilient, and culturally resonant designs.
What have been the most rewarding and difficult aspects of your chosen career or business path?
My career has spanned multiple countries and regions, including the UK, former Soviet Union, Asia Pacific, Australasia, and the Middle East, and diverse companies, including LWK + PARTNERS. It has been a journey of both rewarding accomplishments and challenging hurdles.
At SEH I reaped the rewards of large-scale master planning in the UK, the challenges of understanding and navigating the complex regulations and cultural nuances of the regeneration sector, and the rewards of witnessing the transformation of spaces and creating lasting impacts on communities.
At HTA, PRP, and Chapman Taylor, I was fortunate to be exposed internationally and gained invaluable experiences across diverse but faced challenges such as leading teams through economic periods, making difficult decisions, and managing complex stakeholder relationships. Working at The Buchan Group offered the me exposure to the Asia Pacific and Australasia markets, where I faced hurdles in adapting their approach to different cultural norms, construction methods, and regulatory landscapes.
LWK + PARTNERS is currently steering its growth in the Middle East, a role that is both fulfilling and challenging. It has been rewarding to see the firm's influence grow, but it has also been challenging to navigate through market fluctuations, build a reputation, and steer the company through significant market fluctuations.
The strategic focus on evolving the business and nurturing the next generation of leaders has been rewarding and integral to the company's sustainability and growth. It has been challenging but rewarding.
Kourosh and my belief in the importance of fostering new talent and driving a culture of mentorship will be instrumental in shaping the future of LWK + PARTNERS in the Middle East. The firm has created a nurturing and supportive environment that encourages learning, growth, and innovation. One challenge has been striking the right balance between providing direction and allowing freedom for individual development. However, witnessing these emerging leaders grow, take on more responsibility, and shape the direction of the firm has been a deeply rewarding experience.
The success of LWK + PARTNERS’ strategy has been evident in recent years as many individuals have assumed leadership roles. This new generation of leaders is helping the firm stay agile and innovative in a fast-paced industry by embracing the latest technologies, exploring sustainable design practises, and fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptability. They represent the future of LWK + PARTNERS, and Kourosh and I take pride in their growth and achievements.
The most rewarding part of my career has been the ability to create sustainable, aesthetically pleasing, and socially impactful spaces. I have mentored emerging architects and driven business strategies, and each challenge has been an opportunity for growth. I look forward to the road ahead, motivated by the power of architecture to shape lives and communities.
How has working remotely or online impacted your business or venture over the past year?
It has had little impact. As a business, we adapted very quickly during the COVID period and have continued to evolve our approach since. Flexibility is a must; one size does not fit all human and professional scenarios.
What tips would you like to offer to others who are in a similar position to you but looking to take their careers or businesses further?
Be tenacious, have a plan, develop perseverance, and be patient.