Construction World

Construction World spoke to Henning Rasmuss, one of the two founding partners of the Paragon Group, about the company’s successes, its design philosophy, and why talking about a South African design style goes against the grain of architecture as transcending cultural and national differences.

‘Paragon’, which means ‘Model of Excellence’, is quite an audacious name for a company. “But over the last 20 years, we have made every effort to fill those large shoes ... and we have reasonably often got things right on the excellence front,” says Henning Rasmuss.

Paragon model of excellenceThe modern Paragon Group was established in October 1997 by Anthony Orelowitz and Henning Rasmuss, who were involved jointly in two projects in early 1997. Rasmuss then had a stint in Hong Kong for six months, with the concept of Paragon germinating upon his return to South Africa. The end result was a growing stream of larger commissions from early 2000 onwards for private unlisted property funds.

The group has grown since both by acquisition and organic growth, adding a highly-successful interior design component as well along the way, together with an empowerment company.

“In an African context, we are one of the largest design businesses, with a team of over 120 people in three business units. We have completed projects in 22 countries on the continent, including tough markets such as Angola, and in Brazil, and have built projects in 13 countries outside of our home market,” explains Rasmuss. “We are now establishing both a Cape Town and an Indian office, and are exploring opportunities in the GCC region.

“We offer clients deep experience gained over 15 years. We offer passion, patience, and a business approach that bases projects in economic reality. We offer transparency and clear communication, and efficient and compact planning,” Rasmuss elaborates.

Timing is everything

As in life, half of business is timing, while the other half is hard work. “Paragon was founded under a more stable, less cyclical economy, and in a context when many of our competitors and contemporaries were relocating. It was a unique time to advance quickly,” Rasmuss explains.

“The late 1990s and early 2000s were an enabling time, with a high level of trust in young people and their abilities. A good part of our success lies in the specialist property finance training and experience and networks of Orelowitz, who gave early clients commercial confidence that other architects could not emulate easily,” Rasmuss adds.

As with many successful businesses, the founding partners had different skills and personalities, which gave the burgeoning Paragon Group a wider reach and a good network and sphere of influence.

“Importantly, we have always been generalists by approach, and we have built deep skills bases right from the founding partners to our team members. We have never been afraid, and we have seldom said ‘no’, even to unusual opportunities. This has resulted in our rapid growth, as we are always ‘open for business’,” Rasmuss maintains.

Word has spread

Essentially the Paragon Group is a business partner for design excellence. “And word has gotten around that we are consistent in what we do,” Rasmuss adds.
Current project highlights are the Sasol Head Office in Sandton, and the Bowmans Head Office on Alice Lane. The entire Alice Lane precinct, with Bowmans and Sanlam/Santam and Barclays Capital and Norton Rose and Marsh Head Offices, was designed by the Paragon Group over a period of eight years for four different clients. “It is a unique assembly of work,” Rasmuss says proudly.

Earlier successes were the Creative Counsel on Corlett Drive, AFGRI in Centurion, the Alexander Forbes Head Office in Sandton, and a JV participation in the Cape Town Stadium for the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup.

“On the interior design side, we are currently completing Discovery Health’s new campus, which is in excess of 110 000 m2. We have shaped working environments for Sasol, Alexander Forbes, IBM, Redefine Properties, ABSA Bank, Barclays, Tronox, Credit Suisse, Norton Rose, Delta Fund, General Electric, Stanlib, Shell, and many other corporates,” Rasmuss highlights.

Currently in construction are the Hilton Hotel in Mbabane, the Crystal Rivers Mall in Nairobi, the Habitat Apartment Tower in Nairobi, and three housing projects in other countries.

“‘The Modern’ is a very interesting mixed-use project in Cape Town. There is a building being completed on Scott Street in Houghton, opposite Melrose Arch, and we have started on the Katherine Street Towers in Sandton. Internationally, we are looking forward to two new office buildings in Accra, and the construction of a 22-storey apartment tower in Nairobi,” Rasmuss lists.

Design philosophy

“We like to describe our architecture as one of integrity and optimism; and of its time, here and now,” Rasmuss says. “Our architecture is not defined by stylistic preferences, but by the complex dialogue that evolves between client, architect, and members of the professional team, influenced by market demands, societal trends, local conditions, and external forces. We focus on critical decision-making early in the design process. We continually push both design and construction boundaries: Our design strategies are flexible, and our design process is sculptural and craft-like.”

The design continuum

Rasmuss argues that good design should represent a continuum. “Briefs are often quite sketchy, and high-level. We define the project scope in discussion with clients, as often there are very few initial parameters, other than the planning rights, a tight programme, and a basic business case. There is much freedom that accompanies this process, and with our numerous repeat clients, a high level of trust in our capabilities,” Rasmuss comments.

Design is carried out entirely using an iterative 3D modelling process to best simulate the completed building. “Form emerges out of a continuous reworking of the basic DNA of the building. The mass is refined, and the façades are crafted like a skin over the armature of the floor plates,” he reveals. Value engineering starts early, and continues throughout the construction cycle. Many elements are documented multiple times in order to comply with buildability and time and budget constraints, but always with an eye towards innovation.

The unimportance of a local style

Rasmuss states emphatically that one should not refer to a uniquely ‘South African’ architectural style. “There is no ‘British’, ‘German’ or ‘American’ style as such. The pursuit of national styles is old hat and unimportant. Buildings should be reflective of their micro-geography. They should, if possible, respond only to the immediate locale. That way, they are most likely to be appropriate to the place where they are built. Style is the result of a value-driven working process. Style is an end result – it should not be a starting point,” Rasmuss concludes.

New and existing talent

For Paragon, its people are its best selling point. Paragon actively recruits at universities. It competes for the top talent and makes available places for new graduates in its Design Incubator.

For all staff, it offers continuous software training, autonomous team training, and business skills and people management training.

“We have a 360-degree review system, with full performance reviews three times per year. All of this gives us active working relationships with team members, and fosters trust and career growth,” explains Rasmuss.


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