NEW URBAN provides integrated design solutions; which is architecture, urban design, housing, sustainable developments, restoration of historic buildings, and architectural & planning research.
For New Urban, the definition of architecture is too narrow as the solutions that Africa needs are integrated by nature rather than just products. New Urban is a network of specialists rather than a firm – the structure is fluid, very strong, dynamic and evolving.
New Urban is a merger (rebranded and amalgamated formally in February 2018) of Holm Jordaan (Pty) Ltd and GWA Studio (Pty) Ltd, two old companies that had been working together for about four to five years on various projects.
SAprofessionals.com recently spoke to Director: Architecture & Urban Design Gerrit Jordaan at New Urban about his professional journey thus far. He joined Holm and Holm Architects (established in 1962) in 1981 and became partner in 1983. The firm later became Holm & Jordaan and it amalgamated with GWA Studio in February 2018 to form New Urban.
What inspired you to join the Architecture industry?
In my case it was by default. My dad was a minister of a church and as a result he was always on a building site somewhere looking to create more comfortable spaces for the congregants. I was often there and got to experience this. A lot of my friends were also in the building industry and that was another influence. I was always very interested in urban spaces and related issues and that is how I found myself doing pursuing a Master’s degree in Urban Design in the late 80’s. I was having fun then and actually I am still having fun today.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Director in the organisation?
We are in the business of solving problems – one needs to be solution-driven and not just focused on the actual profession. I say don’t let the definition of your profession determine your overall plan.
What does the role mean to you?
You have to be visionary. It means being able to guide the day-to-day activities in line with the vision. This means being able to create the most awesome spaces that are sustainable and suitable for the people we are servicing. At the end of the day, it’s a people game internally and delivering value for their money for the externally for our clients. I need to be able to share the passion about what we are trying to communicate and do it effectively and efficiently. It means having a long-term view of the projects we do like taking into account sustainability with respect to the development work we do across the African continent.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?
We don’t have positions, rather we have roles and those roles must add value. I might be the MD today for instance, but that same role might be given to somebody else, who would be better suited at the time given the various projects we have, the geographical locations and the time frames for delivery. We would like to call it a flat matrix based on consensus and collaboration. It is not a top-down approach but a co-operative management structure. There is no end to my career. I must keep reinventing, changing and adapting to the ever- changing world and environment. It is the price you pay for survival in this sector.
How would you describe your management and leadership style?
I would like to see myself as inspirational, flexible, co-operative, and a believer in having a learning enterprise. We will never know everything and we are always learning even from the students that come to work with us for internship purposes and from our clients. You stop learning, you stop living…… These students are given creative independence to be able to later compete in the market. Working for a smaller organisation also means that there’s less waste. Essentially it’s an environment that’s easier to manage and control.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?
I am always looking forward to where the next job will come from and more so the excitement of the challenge the job will come with. On a not so exciting note, there is currently a lot of uncertainty and we are also dealing with various socio-political forces in the market place. It is up to us to see the opportunity from those challenges and that is where the fluid and flexible nature of the business comes in. It cements the need to be agile and adaptable. We are never scared of the challenging times.
How have you taken part in mentoring others?
We have an ongoing relationship with the University of Pretoria where we avail ourselves for guest lectures, studio work and sponsor architecture students at Master’s level as and when the need arises. We take four to five students on internship annually. Our outlook on mentorship is not formalized in policy but formalized in approach. For instance, we have a lot of students coming to our offices busy with their thesis projects. They have interacted with their lecturers thoroughly but want to get inputs and perhaps have a sounding board from architects and urban designers on the ground. We do get to answer those ‘HARD’ questions which we are happy to answer. We are happy to be of assistance and offer referrals where we can bearing in mind that it is a two way street because we are also learning in the process.
If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
My highs in the industry are not so much project based, but are the value we add to communities, that is where I get the most satisfaction. Apart from the building itself, I am happy for instance, if we can solve an energy problem that might come with a building we have delivered. I am happy when we create a solution that is bigger than the problem we were solving. I am happier when we do a lot with what we have at our disposal. I was quite pleased when we helped the National Treasury with their National Development Planning Grants for municipalities. The glossy projects are fine, but they tend to have a very short shelf life as compared to helping and serving communities.
The lows would be a project we did in Refilwe; the project was hijacked by criminal elements that had their own short-term agenda. It was really sad. The other lows pertain to the architecture profession not seen as adding value in the building process. It is a fact that when you pay peanuts, you cannot expect a decent final product. I am also saddened when the professional cost is more than the service provided. With the economic times we are in and the uncertainties in the economy, young talent is leaving the country with its experience and resilience. The other sad reality is that young people often sign up for architecture for the glamour and not the hard work and passion the profession demands.
What notable accolades have you and your organisation achieved?
NewUrban won four international Charter Awards from the Congress for the New Urbanism in America. (CNU)
Locally NewUrban won numerous Awards from the Pretoria Institute of Architecture (PIA) and nationally from the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA).
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth?
We don’t grow exponentially; we have been very conservative in the way we grow and how quickly that happens. We have maintained a steady growth rate. We shy away from fast growth as we need to accurately read the cycles, particularly the downtimes. As a result, we have found that even during the downtimes, we are extremely busy and that talks to not limiting ourselves in the market and specializing in what we know and are good at. For me that is a decent growth rate. We will grow rapidly when the right time comes. This again emphasizes the need to always be problem solvers.
Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high levels of ethics and integrity?
We stick to the work we know, particularly when working in Africa. We stay away from the role of facilitator; we leave that to project facilitators. Project politics can kill the business. Africa is a hierarchical society; one needs to understand that. Respect the hierarchy because manipulating the hierarchy for your own benefit is regarded as corruption. Once you cross the line once, you pay the ultimate price and sadly, you can’t get your name back. People know each other in the sector we are in – it’s a “small town” and everybody is family somewhere somehow.
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
Transformation is not done to get jobs at New Urban, we don’t do patronizing, we don’t do colour-coding, we will not have Black, White, Coloured, or Indian personnel for the sake of numbers. We believe that would be an insult and therefore we don’t tick boxes. Everybody shall have equal opportunity to be unequal – that is real transformation. If you enforce a quota system, you are reinforcing the past and that is not ideal. We need to understand that we are investing people’s money and doing that well is what will keep you in the business.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
It has to start from the top. I would rather have a culture in the business than too many policies. We have a holistic approach when building appropriately in Africa, based on responsible and resilient urban principles that we have learnt through all the years. As part of our business model, we believe in research for each project to ensure that ideas not only work but are on par with international best practice contextualised for Africa.
What values do you hold dear and why?
Integrity and commitment. If you are committed, you will work hard for the client; you will always create the energy and deliver the service. You can’t work for money. Money comes as a result of the effort you have put in. I have always been advised that you must make things happen because they won’t happen by themselves. That means taking risks to ensure the success of the business and making use of all opportunities that are at your disposal.
When you not at work, what do you get up to including family life?
I love travelling. The more I travel, the more I learn. I fly myself in some of my travels. I do a lot of sailing – for me, the harder you work, the harder you play. I love photography. It’s also a bonus that my children are in the construction and engineering space so we do give each other advice on opportunities as well as personal, professional and entrepreneurial growth.
Where can people follow you online?
I am on LinkedIn (Gerrit Jordaan). As New Urban, we have a website – http://www.newurban.co.za/ and pages on the following social media platforms – Instagram (newurban.africa); Twitter (@NEWURBAN4) and LinkedIn (NEWURBAN Architects and Urban Designers). We leave it to the younger people in the organization who understand the application and impact. We are finding that we are getting more hits from students, younger audiences and technologically savvy entrepreneurs.