Oliver Ephgrave meets GAJ partner Graeme Fisher, who is set for a client-side switch with his recent appointment as head of design and infrastructure for GEMS Education.
Career switches can be a daunting prospect but Graeme Fisher is relishing his forthcoming shift from designer to developer. Although Fisher’s new role as head of design and infrastructure for GEMS Education will see him move away from the drawing board, the 41-year-old GAJ partner believes his design skills will be put to good use.
“Obviously I love design and architecture – that is still my first love. But having spent such a long time in practice there are certain things that an architect can bring to the development table,” he remarks while sitting in a glass-walled meeting room in GAJ’s Barsha office.
He points out that a client-side switch has been on his mind since university. “I’d always had a desire to move into development at some point. I find it fascinating – I think it’s just as creative as design in many respects. Donald Trump calls it the art of the deal and I think it’s very much an art form. You’re identifying the opportunity. bringing in the consultants, the financial companies and ultimately delivering the building.”
As head of GAJ’s education group, Fisher grew into the position due to his specialist education experience. He explains: “When I first left university in 1995 I moved over to Brunei for a couple of years. The main project I did was the first international school in Jerudong. That really gave me an initial interest in education design.
I moved back to London in 1997 and started working for Sheppard Robson where I spent nine years and my primary focus was on schools.
“When I moved to GAJ in 2006, the company was more hospitality biased. However, GAJ already had a great education portfolio, including the sequential development of Dubai College. Last year we decided, with the new focus in the country on infrastructure projects, to really go for winning school work.
Fisher reveals that GAJ is working on two GEMS schools in Qatar which are starting on site and due to open in 2013, as well as a school in Abu Dhabi. More recently, the firm picked up three school projects in Dubai. “This is a great Dubai story for me. The schools are being built because of market research – people need them desperately. We are all gunning for Dubai,” Fisher remarks.
He continues: “The growth and success of GAJ’s education team this year will definitely continue – there is a great team now. It will be headed by David Green and the school sub-sets will be led by Jason Burnside. If there is a good time to leave it is now.
“I’ve got a huge amount to be thankful for, particularly to Brian Johnson who made me a partner within a year. The great thing is that GEMS is a client of the practice, and there is no reason to think that that relationship won’t continue.”
Fisher explains more about his new role on the client side. “GEMS is already the world’s largest operator of schools and has very big global expansion plans. My role is head of design and infrastructure and that is based in Dubai at the HQ, but my remit is to help with the global growth. I
’ll be the custodian of design and I’ll have to develop relations with consultants across the world. I will also be responsible for the successful delivery of GEM projects.”
When asked about his school design ethos, he replies: “I tend to turn to corporate headquarters to look at how they deal with staff attainment and staff performance. It’s about the quality of the space, the areas for interaction and facilities. They all have a massive impact on staff attainment.
“If you are providing a similar space for a school, then you will see a reduction in absenteeism and the level of teaching is naturally going to be enhanced. It’s not going to provide everything but it is a backbone.”
When it comes to the common design mistakes made in Middle East schools, he says: “There is sometimes too much emphasis on elements that are just gloss. They aren’t really going to affect the quality of teaching.
“There’s no doubt that with fee paying schools you need to provide something that is going to entice the clients, i.e. parents, such as great sports facilities and a great auditorium. But if you’re spending all your money there and sacrificing the teaching spaces, then there is a bit of a question mark.
“It will take a bit of time to get the balance right. However, it’s great to see organisations like GEMS, ADEC and others taking a leading role in looking at contemporary teaching and education spaces.”
Fisher points out that schools are far from static projects. “Of course we don’t always get things right the first time. It’s vital to have ‘lessons learnt’ workshops after a project has been operation for a year or so. Certainly in my experience, teachers have a lot of things to comment on – they are the people we need to listen to the most.
“It’s important that we leave a certain amount of flexibility, for instance, to be able to double the size of classroom space efficiently and economically. We need to ensure there is an ability to expand either horizontally or vertically, unless it’s a tight site. A lot of schools are phased programmes anyway.”
For Fisher, Dubai College, designed by GAJ, is still the benchmark for regional schools. “I refer to it when I’m in meetings with GEMS. It’s not brand spanking new – some of the buildings are 20-years-old – but it has a lovely feel to it.
There are clusters of classroom spaces and so many people feel at home there. It’s almost the antithesis of the commercial HQ. I think getting a mix of the two is the challenge. Also the auditorium is amazing – it is the best in the country.”
Another reason for its success, according to Fisher, is its use of external circulation. He continues: “I am a big advocator of using external circulation space as much as possible to reduce air conditioning load. Yes, of course it gets hot, but this climate is far more appropriate for people being outside for longer periods of the year than it is in the UK. Plus schools don’t operate in the height of summer.”
When it comes to other benchmark regional projects, Fisher highlights Education City in Qatar. “The work by the likes of Allies & Morrison and Henning Larsen in particular is phenomenal. It is more higher education but it is very responsive and responsible education work – you know that it is part of this region.
“At the same time it is producing fantastic levels of teaching and learning spaces. It is a brilliant focus for this region. I was blown away. We can learn a lot of lessons from it.”
Fisher continually expresses his passion for education, and the twinkle in his eyes suggests he genuinely wants to make a positive impact in his new role at GEMS.
“For me, education design, paticularly schools, is the most interesting type of design because it throws up such a range of possibilities. There’s a blend between different ages and cultures. It’s a really fascinating sector to be in.
“We all want to make a difference. An architect is lucky enough to make a physical difference, but to apply that skill-set to something that makes a genuine difference is something I’ve always wanted to do.”