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July 8, 2011: San Diego Union-Tribune

When work’s slow, go abroad, local architects say

King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia is considering building a 120,000-square-foot, $150 million research lab. The campus currently features a landmark water tower with a mosque overlooking on a pond in the foreground. King Faud University/Kornberg Associates

Kornberg Associates, a San Diego and San Francisco-based architectural firm, once had 27 employees working on research and development projects, primarily for high tech, biotech and biomedical facilities.

But with the recession, it has been forced to scale back and even outsource some of its work to India.

Founded in 1979 by Kenneth Kornberg who pioneered research lab design, the firm hopes to win the commission to design a 120,000-square-foot, $150 million lab core at King Fahd University in Dharan, Saudi Arabia.

San Diego partner Mike Mulvey is heading to Saudi Arabia in September as Kornberg and other firms seek international work to make up for lost business in the U.S. We posed these questions to him about his firm's work and the state of architectural practice generally:

Q – What are you doing in Saudi Arabia?

We were approached by King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) to help program a new central lab core facility that will house extremely sensitive and specialized equipment used for materials analysis and testing. The intent is to create a facility that can be used by all university departments as well as by outside clients who will pay a fee to use the equipment which will help defray costs. It is also hoped that collaborative use of the facilities will increase efficient utilization of expensive equipment.

We were also part of a team recently appointed by the Saudi Royal Commission for Yanbu and Jubail to design a new 500,000-square-foot medical education facility at Yanbu on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. This facility included the latest robotic patient simulation and clinical training facilities. Unfortunately that project was recently put on hold.

Q – What's it like to work there?

Hot and dry, a bit like living in a hair-dryer. And that was in June - it gets a lot hotter in July, August and September! The people are sophisticated, knowledgeable, friendly and committed to the research and academic goals of the university. They realize that education is the key to the future and are creating the infrastructure to facilitate future, diversified industrial growth.

Q – How important is it for San Diego architects to solicit work abroad?

Our first priority will always be to supporting the local economy, but in tough economic times we can bring foreign-earned fees to California. Even in more prosperous times, having strong international links will always foster understanding and progress for all concerned. We also learn valuable lessons from international experience that may benefit our local work.

Q – What are some tips for winning a international commission?

Understand and respect the local customs and way of doing business. They may do things differently but we need to respect that and not try to change it -- our way is not necessarily the better way. Everyone speaks English, but some knowledge of their language and traditions will be appreciated.

Q – What other countries are you active in and what sort of work are you doing there?

We recently handed over the first part of the first phase of what will be a 2.5-million-square-foot graduate research campus on a spectacular new site in Okinawa, Japan. This campus was designed to attract the brightest and best researchers in the world. Even though Japan does not have LEED" (the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program), the campus was designed to reflect environmental stewardship and sustainability while respecting the local cultural and historic context. The campus has now been open for just over a year and is proving to be very successful. [Kornberg's Japanese design partners are Nikken Sekkei of Tokyo and Kuniken of Okinawa.]

We also recently completed the Brenner Centre for Molecular Medicine" on the National University of Singapore campus.

Other countries that Kornberg Associates has done projects in or been asked to advise on research facilities for include France, Malaysia, Dubai, Vietnam and Turkey.

Q – When do you think business will pick up enough locally that you won't have to go abroad – or is a part of the business you'd like do permanently?

As the national economy improves, California should lead the way as before, but I doubt that we will ever get back to the "glory days" of old unless we make it more desirable for companies to invest here, make it far more business-friendly. If we can do that and attract the right companies, we will generate well-paid, clean-tech employment which in turn will increase tax revenues and spur the local economy. The days of expecting desirable companies to invest billions here just because it's California are gone. We have to compete in the global economy. Countries like India, China, Korea, Vietnam, etc. that used to service our economy now have extremely sophisticated economies of their own, a growing consumer base and their own needs that we may now need to service ourselves to some extent. Having said that, I think that even when things improve locally, international work will play an increasing role in business. Thanks to modern communications and the global marketplace the days of one-sided trade are past. I have also learned from over 30 years of practice in an extremely economically-sensitive profession that the more one can spread one's risk across many diverse economies, the more insulated you are against dips in ones home economy.

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