Gareth Cain, Studio Design Director at DSA, discusses his new role, how sustainability has evolved over the years, challenges in a project’s lifestyle, and how he sees himself contributing to DSA’s success in the future.
By Roma Arora
With over 20 years of global industry experience, how have you seen this field evolve with the times?Honestly, if I look back to the start of my career and reflect on the changes that I thought I’d see by now, I’d have to say I’m a little disappointed.
I recall first using a 3D printer at university in 2001. 22 years later and I’m reading articles on how 3D printing is set to revolutionise the construction industry, and wondering why it hasn’t already? Although in fairness I also thought that by now every home would have a 3D printer and we would be downloading and printing most of our consumer items. I recall studying Buckminster Fuller’s prefabricated bathrooms from the 1920’s and only using them myself for Student Housing projects 85 years later. Now it’s more than 100 years later and we’re still seeing modular volumetric construction fabricators struggle in an industry that seems to resist change.
It’s great to see that BIM adoption finally seems to be standard now, I think it was 2006 when I started using Revit, the industry has been slow to take advantage of BIM but I do worry that there is such a monopoly when it comes to the software. I was impressed with the leap forward the industry took when it comes to digital collaboration when COVID-19 struck. Most recently, I see fear among some architects over the role of AI in the design industry, there are legitimate concerns of course, but I see it as an opportunity for designers to re-frame their role. We have become slaves to an insatiable need for CGI renders. The time taken to produce those often stifles the time available to research, challenge briefs, and explore ideas. AI has the potential to free us, it can provide the proof of concept that clients and the public want and give us time to rediscover the roots of our profession.
How do you define your new role at DSA?
So I’m fresh back to Dubai last week after having spent the last few years setting up an office in Riyadh. My new role at DSA is as a studio design director and I’m here to help make some strategic changes to help the studio to grow to the next level in the evolution of the firm. DSA have some incredible projects, partners and clients and a huge pool of experience and talent. I can’t give away too much yet since I’m only in my second week. What I can say is that I want to structure the growth of studios in such a way that they nurture the development of specialist knowledge collectively. We need to make the best use of our individual talent and experience but be structured to naturally grow beyond that.
What are your favourite areas of work, commercial, fit-out, hospitality, art installations, or something else, and where do you find inspiration?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work across many sectors during my career, all those you mention and more, and have always found a challenge to enjoy in any project. I’d have to say I generally prefer Architecture to fit-out and my favourite stage of a project tends to be the massing stage. You’ve interrogated the brief, studied the site, identified opportunities and constraints and it’s time to start creating volumes. Cutting masses to create view corridors, hollowing them out with courtyards, puncturing them, stacking them, cantilevering them, folding planes to shade spaces, I feel if you get those big moves right early on, everything you do from there is enhancement. You can always go back to a good white massing model if the project takes a wrong turn later.
How have your prior responsibilities as a university studio tutor and part-time lecturer shaped your current leadership principles?
It’s interesting the experiences that shape you, this was early in my career but yes, if you have to teach something to someone else, you greatly enhance your own understanding of it. I was fortunate to have that opportunity early on and now mentorship in the studio is something really important to me, because it helps both sides of the relationship.
What would you describe as your defining project—the one where you said, “Okay, I can do this”?
I recall experiencing that ‘I can do this’, feeling of confidence for taking on projects myself shortly after I first arrived in Dubai. I was working on a concept for a mixed-use project in Beirut. I was staying in a hotel at that point, it was the weekend and I felt a bit cooped up and decided to take my laptop and butter paper sketches down to work at the bar. I was happily modelling away when someone approached and asked what I was doing, I replied simply that I was designing a building. That somehow felt arrogant to say at first but it was true, and it felt good to say so. This random stranger was intrigued, so I explained the concept and each time they went to the bar or the bathroom they came back to check in and ask more questions. By the time I was done there was a well fleshed out building and I guess at that point I really felt like an architect.
How has the definition of sustainability evolved throughout your career?
The first book I ever read on the subject was Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek. It was published in the 60’s or 70’s. It didn’t use the term sustainability, which came much later but in response to the same issues covered in the book. Things like planned obsolescence for instance. The book urged designers to put aside ego and focus on people focussed design solutions that use resources responsibly. The author believed that industry was too resistant to change and that legislation was too slow but that designers had the power through their design choices to make a difference.
Now the problems we face are so much greater and in the face of growing public awareness and frustration, change must come from all levels if were to have any hope of averting climate disaster. Events such as COP 28 show how prevalent this is in the public mind today. As a designer though I often think back to that book as being something of a moral compass to navigate design decisions.
What are you working on currently?
It’s early days and my role is more about running the studio but I’m going to be involved with a number of huge hospitality and mixed-use projects with familiar clients from KSA as well as projects here in the UAE. Today I visited a zoo where we’re working on something really unique as well as some typical buildings and habitats. I’d done some animal care buildings years ago in the UK but I was designing for domestic animals, nothing like what you need to design for a pride of 400lb Lions! We have a great team of specialists involved for that though and I’m looking forward to being able to take my family along when it’s all done.
What other activities and endeavours keep you engaged, aside from your architectural projects? How do outside interests influence your approach to architecture?
I have three young daughters and being back in Dubai with them happily keeps me very busy outside of work. My girls influence all aspects of my life, including my approach to architecture. Imagining how they might interact with a space offers a perspective that wasn’t available to me before starting a family.
How do you approach challenges and complexities that arise during the project lifecycle, and how does your team ensure successful project completion?
A key part of dealing with challenges on projects is how they are approached by the project team. You have to be empathetic; everyone has their roles and responsibilities on a project and often people are under considerable pressure, that can sometimes make things adversarial. It’s easy to get drawn into defending your area of responsibility and looking to ‘win’ in a situation. Instead, you’ve got to look for the win-win opportunities for the project and for everyone involved.
As you think about the future, where do you see yourself and DSA, especially in terms of the architecture and your contribution?
I see myself facilitating strategic growth and by that I don’t just mean deciding what areas of the business to grow or just hiring more people, but creating structures that are set up for growth. Setting up communities within DSA to share experience and nurture talent that provides even greater value to our clients and helps us to continue to deliver excellent projects. I see myself contributing to a studio culture that builds on DSA’s reputation as a great place to work. I see a whole raft of initiatives to help improve every aspect of our studio and being proud of my contribution to it.