Man for all seasons
BY Jayashree kini mendes
He was crowned Real Estate Person of the Year at the 7th Construction Week India Awards in September. In November, his company was Ranked 14 in the Top 50 real estate and infrastructure companies in an extensive survey conducted by this magazine. With such accolades, this has certainly been an eventful year for Boman Irani, CMD, Rustomjee Group. Other noteworthy news to have emerged from the company is the impressive sales they notched up during Diwali for their exclusive residences, Rustomjee Paramount, and less than a month later they launched Azziano K Tower at their township, Rustomjee Urbania. The last quarter of 2017 has certainly seen Rustomjee Group grabbing headlines, and all for the right reasons.
Since establishment in 1996, the Rustomjee Group has emerged as a well known construction brand under the indefatigable developer Boman Irani. The individual houses and buildings in the megapolis and the suburbs are a monument to Irani’s keen understanding of human needs and the carefully cultivated housing skills that go with them. Among the leading architects of modern Mumbai, Irani looks a few steps beyond as he moves in tune with the trends. Essentially, he builds communities.
The suburban planner
Having made a mark on the city’s skyline, Boman Irani looks back on his career and the milestones that brought him thus far even as looks forward to a bright and liveable future. All along, it’s been a journey of guideposts and mottos, while keeping a keen eye out for changing trends and details. And so, what is his idea of form follows function?
“Since the beginning, whether living in a cave or a mud-house or an igloo, man has always been concerned about convenience and living conditions,” he says. “As time went by, various styles and standards of living came to man’s mind, including art decor and architecture. Various styles like construction brands also emerged, like Gothic and Victorian. But the key question remained: what is it that a human being requires in a particular environment that he lives in?”
Irani is right behind the trail of progress. Since donning the hat of a developer, he has studied buyers’ needs from close quarters through regular surveys and visits. “Although air, sunlight and water continue to remain basic needs, the priorities of what an apartment should offer has changed. We realised this long ago and for this reason offer two bathrooms even in a 1-BHK apartment,” he adds.
Buying a house is a contemplation of several factors, and no more the responsibility of a single householder. Irani juxtaposed his ideas with those of the consumer to meet the preferences of the various age-groups buying a house. He says, “Each member in a family has his/her own preference when house-hunting. Very quickly we noticed what we saw as the coming together of those choices. Sooner than we realised, we also found ourselves catering to communities who conceptualised a house as per their requirements. We look at all the segments, as also the needs of the commonality in the assortment.”
So how does the organisation train its sights? “Our endeavour in land development or building houses is based on research, as far as I am concerned,” he says. “Essentially, we think constructive, in a manner of speaking. We plan and raise homes for those buyers we have in mind.”
Interestingly, Irani did not neglect buyers in their prime who are city-bred and require a home post-retirement. “People who have recently retired are not devoid of the verve and zest for life. It is okay to absent oneself and choose Lonavala or Pune, but they are city-bred folks, and still have something to contribute. They have the talent, the skills and the experience. Our survey told us that such citizens would prefer smaller apartments in the heart of the city with all the amenities. “Such an approach suits their pocket, and it gives the builder a sense of service. In our business, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. As a developer, one has to ensure form follows function,” he adds.
It is the same with design. The Group believes that offering customers a better lifestyle with creative designs will lead them to build better communities in the space they live in. Gone is the concept of living in an exclusive building. “People want amenities and they look forward to living in communities. Hence, you will see the gated community system thriving,” says Irani.
The Buena vista señor
Creativity also reaches new heights with the team at Rustomjee Group. Thinking out of the ‘rectangle’, Irani says, “The biggest essential that I am trying to promote is the odd-shaped sized construction. People are used to the idea of a rectangular room. How about a five-sided room? With a narrow entry, you have the whole area to yourself. The challenge here is the inability to fulfil this concept due to the strong notion of Vaastu. We cannot teach everyone a new language.”
Stressing on why people need to evolve, Irani says that one can draw lessons from the automobile industry. “Ultimately, it is intelligent housing that we are engaged in. We give their tangible possessions an intangible need. There is much to learn from the automobile industry. They have moved from offering mere seat-belts to ABS, better engines, automatic cars, and so on. We need to stay on the edge,” he adds. What intrigues Irani is that the ideas are flowing in from young, observant people who create these designs.
Ask the sagacious Irani on why he has not taken this concept outside Mumbai, and he says with a smile, “That is because I did not grab the opportunity when it arose. I am keeping my options open, but one has to create for the people who require it. There’s always a gap between what is provided for and what is sought after. But, yes, 2018 should see us announce projects in newer locations.”
Similarly, except for hospitals and schools, the organisation has not pondered on commercial buildings. “Commercial structures call for special skill-sets, and we cannot take that on right now. We focus on the community. We are concerned with residentials. About 85-90% of our activity is into residential buildings,” he adds.
Rustomjee Group has also spent the last five years in creating leaders within the organisation who are responsible for the P&L of a particular project. In particular, Irani is glad that this frees his time to strategise, while the team attends to securing land, executing projects, and attending to customers. He encourages his team to attend international symposiums on design and architecture and consult renowned architects so as to expose ourselves to the latest trends.
The Group has also continuously moved with the times. The advancements in construction technology has the organisation adopting novel methods that allow them to construct faster and safer. From the ancient T-Square, like all others, Rustomjee has moved to Revit, which allows them to plan, design, construct and manage buildings and infrastructure. The access to good-for-construction drawings depicting facilities, amenities and utilities, allows the Group to even test the structure before laying the foundation stone. Similarly, it prefers to go with shuttering systems, especially MiVAN. The technology is suitable for constructing large number of houses in a short span of time using room size forms to construct walls and slabs in one continuous pour on concrete. The Group is yet to adopt tunnel formwork but is actively considering it in the near future. Besides offering quicker construction, tunnel form can help the developer complete a slab in three days, which means a 30-storey building can be completed in six months! “There’s nothing more pleasing to the buyer to know that the building is being completed in record time. They are then willing to pay their installments on time at a time when reports of rampant delays have been plaguing the real estate sector,” says Irani.
An adeptness in managing costs also gives it an edge. We go by the road map. Sometimes a project has languished because of social, economic and political situations. Our big fear is a regime change, and with it the possibility of new rules. When you play football they introduce hockey sticks, and when you play hockey they bring in the cricket bats. There are obstacles in the progress. But we as developers are well engineered, and so don’t face a cost over-run. From the architects to the consultants to the planners we make sure we don’t over shoot. We are answerable to the consumers after all the publicity and the promises,” says Irani solemnly.
Similarly, procurement of numerous fittings are also carefully chosen based on the clientele who would buy into the project. A comparison is again drawn to how car makers have numerous brands for different users. Irani believes in clear segmentation of the products. At the same time, he feels there should be no differentiation over material with regard to the levels of housing. Whether it is a high-end product or a low-cost, materials should be consistent in quality. “We are talking of optimum reliability here. You see, there are German brands, Japanese brands, among others. Some are luxurious. But I have always had a soft corner for Toyota because they offer optimum quality across the board. We know how to distinguish. Procurement has to be mass-based. I keep telling my peers that we should adopt a group buying strategy. It will benefit all the players. It’s good for the developer and for the manufacturer,” he says.
These are the days of high individual skills. “I have great respect for those who are into backward integration, and if given opportunities I would explore those possibilities. I do backward integration up to a point where it helps me to continue smoothly. But right now we are happy to be on the course that we have embarked on. And I don’t think it is very essential for me to give unnecessary weightage to backward integration,” adds Irani.
The company also does not believe in outsourcing work to contractors. It has a team to look after that aspect. “Mumbai has many contractors with experience, but we have our own people for quality control and supervision. Over the years it’s been easier that way,” says Irani.
An idea whose time has come
Sustainability is another hallmark of the Rustomjee brand. Considering that it has built two self-sufficient townships in Mumbai, which are like cities in their own right, it has developed the entire infrastructure of the townships to offer solutions to the problems that plague the city. The Group has carefully studied the traffic and population density in the areas and designed spaces with 100-feet-wide boulevards, 7-feet-wide paved footpaths, uninterrupted water and power supply, water conservation systems, pocket parks, clubhouses, gardens, etc. As a Group, and also as part of the CREDAI initiative for Clean India, of which Irani is vice-president, it has taken the onus of ensuring that 15,000 homes built over a period of time will be zero waste.
Skill development is another aspect that Irani is gravely concerned about. For instance, if he adopts tunnel form technology which comes form Turkey, it is obvious that he looks at the Turkish technicians through rose-coloured glasses. ”It’s not that in India we don’t have the know-how. It’s just that the Turkish are better trained. Three Indians are equivalent to one employee. The Turkish are trained; the Indian aren’t,” he adds.
He believes there is a dire need to train our workforce. The training is not just physical; it is mental and futuristic as well. Safety, health and an ability to earn more should be included in the training, he says. Creating constantly is not easy in the Indian circumstances. An initiative here along with CREDAI and RAGC (Rustomjee Academy of Global Careers) is to train 100,000 labourers on various sites in the two-year period of his stint.
Irani is also happy that the government is attempting to streamline the industry through RERA while focussing on Housing for All. He plans to set his hand to the plough when needed. “We will continue to build good homes. It is said you don’t build buildings but build people, and people build the buildings. Whether it is high-end housing or slum redevelopment, Rustomjee always has a humane face. I like the rainbow, so I try to get all of them in because each one has taught me something,” he ends.