In an interview with Compelo, Chris Godfrey, the Partner and Global Principal of luxury design studio HBA Residential explains what it takes to create ultra luxury homes for high net worth individuals.

Please, can you begin by briefly describing the evolution of HBA Residential, including the initial impetus behind its creation, business philosophy, design ethos, etc?

After leading the luxury hospitality design industry for nearly 50 years, the Co-CEO’s at HBA began to realize that their work was transcending that of simply hotel design – that their guests and clients were coming to HBA for private residential design as a result of the way their hotel spaces made them feel. Naturally, HBA saw this as an opportunity to offer this ultra-high-net-worth client with a bespoke, unique offering on a much smaller scale that provided a level of privacy and attention that discerning guests would expect and appreciate.

HBA Residential was created to cater to these most distinguished real estate buyers and investors, by focusing on customization that marries aesthetics with function.

HBA Residential is established to design and delivery ultra-luxury homes for private individuals and developers who appreciate the value of the highest-quality design. Our projects consist of mostly private villas, penthouses, houses and high-end apartment complexes.

Combining architectural, interior design and FF&E design services, our specialist team works from the big ideas down to the last details to create and execute sophisticated designs for bespoke residences around the world.

What are the specific challenges and rewards of designing and building residences for ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWI) compared with more conventional architectural projects?

There’s a dichotomy of demands. On the one hand, we work with astute business leaders at the top of their game, very exacting and demanding people. Time is always of the essence and they are precise in all that they do. And then, on the other hand, we’re creating their homes where they can relax and be themselves. We must respond at a highly professional level and understand what they want and how to best satisfy them. They hired us because we are the best, so we must deliver the best.

When working with people of this calibre and high-level discernment, we “meet them at the table” by rising to their level of expertise, learning about their interests and gleaning the best understanding of their unique circumstances. UHNWI are well-travelled and well-versed, so each one defines personal luxury differently.

Our challenge is to figure out what they really want above all else. Luxury doesn’t have to be expensive; it can be the time required for precision tailoring, designing something they’ll love forever because it’s made exactly for their taste. We enjoy a vast amount of freedom, which is quite rewarding.

Every project is different because every personality is different, so with imagination, anything is possible. You can go on a real journey by asking the right questions, listening between the words to realise something. I’m inspired by the clients we get to work with and the challenges and opportunities they bring forth.

How does the studio’s business model strategically tap into the potential provided by the East-West geographic axis and offer highly a personalised service to clients across multiple time zones?

From the outset, we’ve always planned to have three epicentres that allow us to be only a few hours’ flight to a project anywhere in the world. We will have three studios but work as one team, which means we can easily cover a wide range of time zones and service our globetrotting clients from wherever they travel. Our vision is to stay small and intensely focused, without growing too large, which allows us to work with a select number of clients and be reactive but controlled, delivering everything yet still managing everything.

It made sense for us to launch in Asia and tap into the exponential growth of its tiger economies. Starting in Asia, versus expanding from a Western locale, is the opposite of what most design companies have done. However, a Singapore base offered us the most opportunity to bring our model alive, and in Asia, larger plots of land are available for development than in many other parts of the world. We’ve built an understanding of Chinese culture and their needs and aspirations so that now we know how to do things the Asian way. This has proven quite beneficial in establishing our second studio since there is now so much Chinese investment in London.

Clients can call upon our knowledge of British style and sophistication as we help them move into the European marketplace. This synergy between our two locales further strengthens our position as we know how to make the most of the opportunities each present, for the benefit of our clients. In the years to come, we plan to expand into New York City and become truly global by creating a wider offer for our cosmopolitan clientele.

Can you please share with our readers some highlights from HBA Residential projects, including some of the more surprising and challenging demands made by clients?

We’re designing a new-build house in an exclusive Hong Kong neighbourhood at The Peak, the highest point of the island, and we’re just completing the interiors for one of three penthouses within a new super-luxury development at the site of the Beijing Olympic Park. Offering breathtaking views of the venue from the 27th floor of Tianyuan Xiangtai Tower, they will be amongst the most expensive private residences in Beijing.

“Many architects have moved to work on the client side in the past two decades. In their effort to protect the best interests of their employers, they end up downgrading or diluting the design quality and the level of innovation, resorting to tested methods and safe solutions.” - Firas Hnoosh, principal, design director of architecture, Perkins+Will.

Do you agree/disagree with the above opinion and why?

My general view and experience of fellow architects working on the client side are positive. For me, this fosters the fundamental ability to better understand and work through the complexities of a project and safeguard its delivery. All situations are unique, of course, however, I believe a designer’s first responsibility is to protect the best interests of the client without diluting the ambition. This is our challenge.

China aims to build 20 cities a year for the next 15 years but has been criticised for aping some of the worst excesses of Western urban design. Is there a danger that projects aimed at UHNWI ignore social, planning and aesthetic concerns in favour of profit, vanity, and social and political prestige?

The failings of China’s rapid urban growth of past times are well documented and certain criticism is just. However, China’s increase in knowledge and appetite for improvement is also flourishing like no other part of the world and, in many new developments, social and ecological concerns increasingly take a lead role.

From what I understand, the country’s national climate commitment has called for 50% of all new buildings constructed by 2020 to be certified as “green” buildings. Following through on these commitments would grow the country’s green building sector from five to 28% by 2030.  85% of the country’s green buildings have been completed in the past five years as evidence of China’s commitment.

Our work with UHNWIs centres around their residences and other personal portfolios/interests. Through our exposure, we see ever-increasing levels of environmental awareness and social responsibility. There continues to be a significant movement towards preservation and ecology. We are currently designing a project in the foothills of the Great Wall; just a couple hours from Beijing, it’s as sensitive and progressive as any of my previous work.

What advice would you give to an aspiring architect starting out in the industry?

The industry can be challenging, so passion, commitment and conviction are their best attributes. Never stop looking, listening and learning. I think it is important to practice what you believe in and believe in what you practice.

Finally, how has architecture changed since you began your career, and what most excites and troubles you about the contemporary design/architecture scene?

My first year as an architect pretty much coincided with the introduction of computers and CAD into design offices. So without question, technological advances – both in the studio and all the related construction processes, materials and components - have immeasurably transformed the industry during this time.

I’m not much of a techie myself, but what excites me is that the tools of the trade continue to evolve and give designers more opportunities to innovate and achieve. I am a people person. The passion of the people I work within the studio and through the crafting process brings excitement and always will.

The rise and patronage of the ‘icon’ building designed by the ‘starchitect’ troubles me. In many instances, the outcome is an ill-conceived ‘monument to self’; which, for me, is at odds with what makes creating environments for people such a profound and captivating pursuit.