More than a Projects Director

Having worked with Ahmed in a previous life, I knew that as soon as our Dubai office had grown to a point where I needed a wingman, he was the person to call.

In the role of Projects Director, he brings extensive international experience to the table. And, I’m pleased to say, he’s hit the ground running. The troops have responded well to his relaxed but let’s say, disciplined form of project management and he’s now a fully-fledged member of the clan.

So I thought I’d sit down with Ahmed to find out a bit more about him, and what he thinks about the lighting design industry.

What’s your role at Nulty?

I’m the Projects Director in the Dubai office, so I basically oversee everything that goes on in the office top down: I meet with clients, oversee the production work with the junior designers and make sure that everything’s delivered on time and to Nulty’s standards. On top of that I write proposals and RFPs, as well as fee proposals.

What’s your background within the industry / architectural lighting design? 

I started out as a fresh graduate from engineering, specialising in electrical design. I started working with Cansult Maunsell, which later became AECOM in Canada and America, and was subsequently transferred to Abu Dhabi to work on the Al Raha Beach project. I was introduced to lighting design at AECOM – my team was made up of world specialists and as a junior I got to interface in the area where lighting design meets engineering. From there it evolved into more lighting design and less electrical engineering. It was still based on calculations and simulations in terms of outputs and loads, but with time I started to work with architects….and the rest is history. I fully embraced the lighting design side and moved on to work on most of the big projects in the region, such as Saadiyat Cultural District and Sheikh Zayed Museum, as well as multiple hospitality projects in the Gulf and MENA region.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

The interaction of all the disciplines that make a project come together, and as lighting designers we get to put the cherry on top of the sundae – we get to make a project come “alive” and showcase everybody’s work under proper light (pun intended).

How do you think the Middle East compares to other markets in terms of its approach and use of lighting design?

To be honest, the Middle East in general thinks of lighting as an afterthought, not something that’s as necessary as say cutting edge architectural design, where in other markets like Europe and America, lighting design is a core tenant of the design road map. But the situation is changing, and through multiple attempts, the clientele in the Middle East is starting to see the value of lighting design to highlight the massive projects that are being built throughout the region. It’ll still take time as not all segments of the market have that education and even then, it’s still left until the end, and more often than not, to design and supply entities that aren’t supposed to be doing design to begin with. Lighting designers are often left to compete with design and supply firms, and to justify charging for their services, where design and supply entities offer that service for free. Usually the client has to go through multiple failed projects with that approach to finally see the light per se, and to start hiring professional lighting designers, as they understand the value that they bring to the table.

Tell us a bit about the latest technology / trends in lighting design?

Any lighting designer worth their salt will tell you LEDs. I think they’re here to stay in terms of lighting applications, but I think the natural evolution of that is applying cutting-edge optics with lower consuming power chips and the Internet of Things. With advances in mobile technology, lighting’s the next thing on the manifesto of always on the internet. With your phone you’ll be able to control your lights in all areas where you interact day-to-day; home, office, gym. You’ll be able to personalise your own area of interaction and set your own light levels to the way you want; warm/ cold, high/ low, bright/ dark are all things that you’ll be able to change with your fingertips.

What do you think is the next big thing in the industry, and do you think the Middle East will follow suit?

I think the next big thing, with the addition of usable control by the public via mobile technology, will be the evolution of the light fixture itself. The evolution of optics and materials is rendering the light fixtures ever so slightly smaller ever year. I also think ceiling solutions that double as light installations, as well as rendering the entire space a well-illuminated area, will be big. The direction of fixtures as a feature I think will be in the past while designers push the boundaries of the interior and exterior spaces. The fixture itself will no longer be bound by traditional shapes and conventional forms. Borrowing heavily from architectural shapes, the lighting fixtures might become sections of the façade or the entire ceiling. Seeing that we’re in a market where architectural shapes aren’t bound by external natural elements like snow for example, unusual shapes and forms might be coming to the market in the foreseeable future. Also, because of the need to be unique in the Middle Eastern market, I believe we’ll be at the forefront of adoptability and pushing the limits. One should look at Dubai’s Museum of the Future as one example.

What opportunities and challenges do you see for us, in the Middle East, over the next few years?

The challenges will be to combat the rise of the “one stop shops” with design and supply firms in the market increasing their share of the small and medium size projects. A lot of clients and contractors prefer to deal with one entity in terms of supply and if they offer design services, that’s even better. But the argument is that these businesses operate on the lack of education of the other side. Also, the rise of value engineering as the norm not the exception in today’s market, where the designers are always asked to do a second and a third pass regarding design and specifications.

Given today’s market conditions and smaller budgets (for projects), do you think value engineering is impacting lighting design?

Value engineering is the biggest impact on the current design market in today’s environment. A lot of contractors try to convince the client that they can achieve the same results as specified, with much less cost – but that plan always fails. The problem with lighting is it’s always thought of as an addendum to a finished product and that’s the bad thing about the current market.

Adding to that problem, the multiple suppliers that try to value engineer the original specifications, in order to push their own brands, are creating a whole host of problems in the market. At the end of the day, this ruins the work of the designer and leaves the client with a project that could’ve been much better in overall quality had they followed the original specifications. All the challenges mentioned above could be traced back to the lack of education regarding lighting, as it’s always thought of as a black mystic art that not a lot of people try to understand. It’s usually left to the contractor and supplier to work out without much input from the client, except the bottom line in terms of pricing.

On a more light-hearted note, what’s your favourite thing about working for Nulty?

The fact that it’s an up-and-coming design house – I feel that I’m helping it become a powerhouse in the region and hopefully the world. It’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-disciplinary. Just like Montreal, I truly feel like there’s a sense of inclusion and uniqueness at the same time. We all look at things differently, yet we’re working towards the same end goal. Oh, and the office banter also makes it very enjoyable! And the fact that it feels like home.

And lastly, tell us a bit about you…what you’re known for in a non-work sense?

I’m the techie guy in any situation, whether it’s cars, fighter jets or phones. I’m always up to date on the latest and greatest, which makes me by default the tech hotline and the IT support guy in the office. If it’s not working, everybody is like “Ahmed!”

I’m also a foodie. I like tasting new foods and I love going to new places, or even new countries just to eat the fare – I actually did that a couple of times with friends for a dare. We went to the USA’s West Coast just to try In-N-Out Burger, as one of my friends declared that Shake Shack is the best burger, period.

I like joking around too, and I love dark British humour – my favourite Brit show is Blackadder. I once got to meet Rowan Atkinson, face-to-face, to talk about cars and his impact on comedy. It was an amazing experience.