Perspective talks to Alex Bent of Hong Kong real-estate company District15 about the future of his industry and the value of good design
Please tell us about District15. What drove you to set up the company?
When Dinesh [Nihalchand] and I set up the business in 2005 there was not much design-led real-estate development and investing. Many companies in the real-estate space thought 'design' was a catch-all for pretty wallpaper, but design is really about how someone looks at the usability, functionality and circulation of a home, office or retail space. We had a simple mantra right from the beginning, which was to build spaces that people would want to live and work in. That still guides us today.
What are the challenges of running a property business in Hong Kong?
The market is very small and prices are very expensive, so sometimes there's a lot of stuff we would like to do but can't find the right asset, or are unable to rationalise the price of those assets to do it.
The government, in my opinion, needs to look at its building code and allow for more innovative and creative ways for private developers to look at designing and building residential developments
What are the main issues facing housing in Hong Kong, and what might the solutions be?
There are many build-able areas of Hong Kong that the government needs to look at and rezone or revitalise to allow for the release of more land. The government, in my opinion, needs to look at its building code and allow for more innovative and creative ways for private developers to look at designing and building residential developments. It's often hard to innovate when the regulations don't allow it.
For your newly released project The Nate [on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui], the kitchen is a shared amenity. Will co-living be the next big thing?
I don't necessarily think co-living will be or needs to be the next big thing – rather we need to look at how we make smaller spaces more liveable. Because if the supply of homes cannot keep up with the demand in Hong Kong, the only financial alternative will be to continue to build smaller apartments to house people – and we need to get better at how we build these apartments. The Nate, for example, is a short-term rental concept; when we previously invested in and created Kush Serviced Apartments we noticed that many of our tenants never used their kitchens. So, with The Nate we decided to move these kitchens to a communal floor where the lounge and dining areas are also located and keep the studios as a place for residents to relax and get their quiet time.
What trends do you expect to see in your sector?
I think design will continue to be a very important component of how developers approach their investment decisions. Like any industry, we need to respond to what our customers want. We see customers, quite rightly, becoming pickier about how a space feels, looks and is designed, especially when all spaces are becoming smaller.
Is it rewarding to invest in design? What's your rationale?
Investing in design is rewarding because design is the basis by which a watch, a chair or a building is created. It is a collaborative effort between us and the designer or architect and seeing that manifest itself into a finished space and watch people using and enjoying that space is very rewarding.
From the developer's point of view, is there any aspect of design that can better serve the building industry?
I think that in Hong Kong we have seen a change over the last 10 years in how developers value design; with that you have seen a growing community in Hong Kong of designers, architects, graphic designers etc. I think that as an industry we need to continue to foster creativity, because creativity often leads to better spaces for our customers and I believe it ultimately helps our bottom line. If we are going to produce smaller spaces, for example, we need to ensure that our designers are using their brain power to help us make them as liveable as possible and not just building a box with no regard to how someone is going to use it.
What qualities do you look for when appointing architects and interior designers?
No ego, a willingness to listen, to test their own creative boundaries and be open to experimenting within the building limitations we have.
As a Perspective 40 Under 40 Award winner, what is your advice to other young designers and entrepreneurs?
When Dinesh and I won this award many years ago our business was just starting. At the time, I don't think either of us understood the difficulties we would be up against while trying to stick to our conviction that design ultimately has value when it comes to real-estate development – which at the time was quite a new concept. But we stuck with it and are very glad we did. So, I think the only advice I would have is to be tenacious in your convictions and have patience in their outcomes.