People Profile: Dubai studio Design Manager Rebecca Farmer on the extraordinary opportunities on offer in Saudi Arabia

Rebecca Farmer joined Chapman Taylor’s Dubai studio as a Design Manager in 2019, working on site on the many cinema projects we are currently constructing in Saudi Arabia. She specialises in site supervision and project management, regularly acting both as technical lead and as a skilled liaison between clients and contractors on major construction projects. In this profile, Rebecca explains how it took some time for her to settle on the correct career path for her, her move from the UK to the Middle East and the wide range of exciting opportunities for designers in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Tell us about your background and how you ended up in architecture.

My family is Welsh, although I was born in England – I grew up near Reading and subsequently lived in East London. At school, I had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of a career. I considered going to Sandhurst to become an army officer, as well as becoming a physiotherapist or a marine biologist; I had many ideas but had not settled on a vocation which would suit me long-term.

Eventually, someone at my school suggested I take a year out and study an art foundation course. I loved the mix of fine art, fashion, photography, 3D design, film and graphics, but it was soon clear to me that my focus would land on 3D design, exploring interiors, product design and architecture – the latter of which really sparked my interest.

I developed my portfolio over the course of the year, which I presented to Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, and they, to my disbelief, gave me an unconditional offer to study with them. To say I was surprised would be an understatement! I was the first in my family to go to university (aptly, given my surname, my family background is farming).

Central Saint Martin’s was an incredible experience for me. The mix of nationalities, cultures and sheer creativity in the air made me realise I had found my place. Walking down a corridor at the Southampton Row campus, where the “Architecture: Spaces and Objects” course was based, you could see people cutting patterns for their latest fashion pieces, ceramicists curing their delicate masterpieces, graphic designers graffitiing the walls – there was a strong sense of the disciplines being intermixed, which really resonated with me, particularly given my earlier difficulty in defining myself, career-wise.

What were your first career steps?

At first, when looking for a job, I was filled with that fresh graduate post-degree-show optimism and started applying to the biggest architectural firms, but quickly became aware of the fierce competition. I was given the opportunity to work in an interim graphic design job at an IT consultancy firm while looking for a permanent architectural role. Although I could have developed a good career in that, I wasn’t quite “at home”.

My father, who was working at the time in Muscat, Oman, suggested that I go to Muscat to spend some time with him. I started meeting people there and enjoyed my time so much that, when my father left a few months later, I stayed. I took an intern position with a firm of Omani-German architects and engineers in Muscat, Hoehler + Partner (which became Hoehler + alSalmy).

Muvi Cinema at Al Nakheel Mall

What kind of work did you do there?

I worked on a mix of residential, commercial, hospitality, cultural and civic projects in Oman. I started on residential and commercial office projects, moving subsequently to high-end residential developments for the Omani royal family. I was jokingly dubbed “the royal family architect” for a while! I then worked on hospitality projects, a showroom for Porsche, the German embassy in Oman and several other high-profile schemes, in which respect I was very fortunate.

My manager was Muhammad Sultan Al Salmy, completely transformed my career. He took a big chance on me – I only had my bachelor’s degree, had given up a job in the UK in favour of an internship in a country I hadn’t long been in and had little experience in the field. He took me through how things worked, gave me several opportunities and trusted me enough to leave me to my own devices. Looking back, I think working with Muhammad was one of the biggest turning points in my career.

The German embassy project stood out as a highlight from a design point of view, with a good mix of creativity and pragmatism as well as an extraordinary level of research detail – we knew to the millimetre where each office should be and exactly how much each piece of furniture weighed, but we also had to make the environment a beautiful one, which was an enjoyable challenge and an experience I will always carry with me. From the construction management side, the Porsche showroom in Muscat was also memorable – achieving the requisite quality of finishing from a relatively inexperienced contractor team involved me using my project management abilities to the full.

One of the great things about working in the Middle East is that there is an incredibly diverse range of work available whereas, at home in the UK, much of our built infrastructure is long-established. In Oman, there is a mass of undeveloped and empty land and 2,000km of coastline, with a population of only five million. The opportunities are therefore incredible for an architect, whether it be a solar panel farm, a port, a transport hub or almost anything else.

Muvi Jubail Cinema

How did you come to focus on project management?

To begin with, I worked on the design stages of projects, but this changed once I completed a concept design for the first royal family residential project. Muhammad tasked me with building the project I had designed and packaged, including finding a contractor, sourcing all the materials and really getting to grips with the entire construction process.

After about two weeks, I realised that that I had found what I had been previously lacking when I worked at the IT Consultancy; I enjoyed waking up and going to work, which I realise is a rare quality to find. This part of the architectural process suited my skill sets perfectly, almost as if I naturally saw things with the brain of a contractor. I very much enjoyed the building process and project supervision. From there, I became more focused on the construction side, taking the designs of others and realising them on site.

My next role, also in Muscat, was at Italian architects F&M Ingegneria, where I started work as a project architect on the Oman Air cabin crew terminal at the new Muscat International Airport, as well as working on some offices in Sohar and a Hilton Garden Inn hotel, focusing on construction quality assurance and quality control.

Why did you join Chapman Taylor?

I was introduced to the company by a friend who works here, Anthony Abouzeid, who I met in Muscat. I remember how excited Anthony was by the opportunity he was taking at Chapman Taylor as well as his subsequent excitement about the projects he was working on, mostly cinemas. As a result, I was aware of, and impressed by, Chapman Taylor’s work and kept an eye on the company’s developments via social media.

Anthony made me aware of an opportunity to work with Chapman Taylor in a site supervision role as Design Manager and I had an interview with Leisure Director David Wallace soon afterwards. Within a month, I had moved to Dubai and, a day later, I was working in Saudi Arabia.

Muvi Cinema at Al Ahsa Mall

Tell us about your projects and your role since you joined.

All of the projects on which I have worked so far for Chapman Taylor have been based in Saudi Arabia, although my permanent base is the Dubai studio. The bulk of what I have been doing is design management on cinema projects for Muvi Cinemas, the first Saudi-owned cinema brand, which is rolling out 20 new cinemas across the country at the moment. My arrival allowed Anthony to concentrate on Riyadh and Jeddah, with me taking responsibility for projects in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia.

The first of these projects on which I worked was the Muvi Cinema at Al Nakheel Mall in Dammam. Dammam is one of Saudi Arabia’s less well-known cities but it is lovely, with its relaxed seaside environment reminding me of my time in Oman. Many people in Dammam used to cross the bridge into nearby Bahrain to go to the cinema, so it is wonderful to see cinema coming to the city, particularly as it is a Saudi-owned brand. I started on site when the warm shell was being completed, taking charge of the finishing process through to full completion.

More recently, I have worked on the five-screen Muvi Jubail cinema and the eight-screen Muvi Cinema at Al Ahsa Mall, both of which completed in late August. I am working on an 18-screen Muvi Cinema at Mall of Dhahran, which will be the largest cinema in Saudi Arabia when it opens in September. It has been an exciting project to work on, particularly because we have been able to respond flexibly to client requests (such as adding an 18th screen to what was originally envisaged as a 17-screen venue at short notice).

I particularly liked learning from Anthony on the Muvi U-Walk development in Riyadh, which finished at the beginning of 2020. The cinema is split across two levels, which posed challenges in terms of acoustics and other aspects, and it was enjoyable to figure out solutions for those problems. It is also a very specialist cinema, with cutting-edge Dolby and Onyx formats as well as the more standard cinemas, helping to win it a leading cinema industry award.

Muvi Cinema at Mall of Dhahran

Are there challenges working in a site supervision role in Saudi Arabia?

Sites usually open quite early, and I’m generally on site at about 6.30am each day. I spend some time early in the morning running over paperwork with the contractors; this process tends to be like a workshop over breakfast and coffee, where we work things out and catch potential problems before they are built, ensuring, for example, coordination between the elements the contractors will be working on that day and other elements which have already been built or are yet to be built.

My job is to think about issues in a rounded way, encompassing mechanical, electrical, structural, acoustic and other features of the finished development. Seeing mistakes before they happen is one of the most crucial parts of what I do.

About 70% of my time is spent on the site and chatting to the contractors about what they are doing and what I want them to achieve. Face-to-face interaction is a very important aspect of Arab culture and it is much more effective to sit down and talk than to write long emails – people here like to talk things through in person. It’s a different style to working in Europe and it is much appreciated when you take the time to ask about their families and their lives or share a meal with them.

It can be surprising to some people in Saudi Arabia when I tell them I work as a project manager on cinema projects; the liberalisation of cinema laws can still be controversial to some, because it is such a new event, and being a woman in architecture is an emerging concept in Saudi Arabia, as there was a ban on women studying architecture from the 1980s up until about a decade ago. This is one of the most fascinating parts of my job, which I am sure I will never tire of. When I speak to local women, I am amazed at their foresight, “dream big” mentalities and cutting-edge attitudes. Being a woman in a role such as mine actually confers certain advantages, especially being able to encourage other young women in their education and future careers, whether this be in tourism, art, sports, architecture or cinema.

What do you enjoy the most about what you do?

I love seeing designs become a reality. It is always amazing to see something sketched on a piece of paper be built and used – I never tire of that.

Also, the business is always evolving, with new things to learn all the time. For example, in cinema, Dolby Cinema, probably the most advanced of all cinema formats, is constantly innovating and using new techniques, equipment and materials, which I have to keep abreast of. No two days are the same and I never really know what my day is going to be like when I start in the morning.

In addition, when on the ground in Saudi, I try to explore and promote local areas, tourism, artists, and architects, especially women. I really think that, within the next 10 years, people will be jetting off to Jeddah for their diving trips, rather than The Great Barrier Reef!

Airport City Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

How do you see the future of the Dubai studio?

I see very exciting times ahead; there is massive potential in this region. For example, my colleague Olly Barnard is currently working on the incredible Airport City project at Jeddah, which will be a mixed-use urban district close to the international airport. I think this project will really put our studio on the map within the region, bringing great potential for studio growth. We are currently very busy, which is excellent, but there is scope for further expansion to take advantage of the incredible range of opportunities here.

The Middle East is changing rapidly and there is a lot of room to develop the region further. I think that Saudi Arabia, in particular, is truly on the cusp of wonderful things and it is great to be here to witness that first-hand.

Rebecca Farmer (BA (Hons) )

Design Manager

Rebecca Farmer joined Chapman Taylor’s Dubai studio as a Design Manager in 2019, working on site on many of the cinema projects we are constructing in Saudi Arabia.

She specialises in site supervision and project management, regularly acting both as technical lead and as a skilled liaison between clients and contractors on major construction projects.

Originally from the UK, Rebecca studied for her bachelor’s degree in Architecture at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London.

Rebecca has a wide range of sector expertise including in residential, retail, leisure, hospitality, cultural and civic projects.

Areas of expertise:

Project Management / Delivery / Cinema / Residential / Retail / Leisure / Hospitality

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