The Architecture of Greatness

The glare of the sun, the suffocating heat and humidity of Jeddah at high noon advise one to be sane and away from the outdoors.

Still, as I wiped the

sweat off my face and shaded my forehead with my hand to get a clear view, I was brought to awe at a structure that would soon stand as a monument to architecture in the Kingdome I live in.

Underneath poles, exposed blocks of cement and shields of plywood were the foundations of the new ZuhairFayez Partnership (ZFP) office, but I am not about to review this building; nor will I take you through the marvels of its construction process.

The story I will share is of a journey through the life of role model; a man who has set the foundation for any designer to feel she or he can succeed to accomplish great milestones and build a creative business empire. After twelve enthralling years of experience in the United States, Architect and Engineer Zuhair Hamed Fayez set his eyes on an ambitious future in Saudi Arabia.

‘It was 1975 and opportunity was knocking on his door. A wise man would seize that opportunity to start building his ambition: The largest and most respected architectural firm in the Middle East. Fayez did exactly that.’

The country, at the time, was booming with projects. Fayez, in retrospect, was qualified with two undergraduate degrees, a masters, a doctorate in progress, and three years of practical experience from two US firms. Arch. Zuhair Fayez took his first project, a home. The rest is history constantly in the making.

Today, Arch. Zuhair Fayez’s dream is realized, but not without obstacles.

I was determined on this – not so friendly – summer afternoon to cut through cranes and poles, enter the finished part of his office and find out what any aspiring entrepreneur in the fields of architecture or design would be dying to know: how did he do it? Once, I entered his fully furbished office, I began to assume the answers, some of which I was right to realize, others completely surprised me…


Once in his office, I was greeted by the cool comfort of its vast interior space and the warm handshake and regal approach of Arch.

Zuhair Fayez himself. Fayez began by inspecting the cleanliness of his spectacles, adjusting his already perfect posture and offer precise hand gestures with every point he made. It was hard not to pay attention to his vividly told story about where it all began.

As Fayez spoke, I was immediately taken to a corner of his childhood home, where I would see a small boy collecting planks of wood from fruit crates with a twinkle of excitement in his eye and an ambition to build something out of raw material. This boy would break the fruit crate into pieces, saw them into the shape he liked and, “Bang, bang, bang with the hammer I would go. Soon enough, those pieces of wood transform into tables, chairs and small houses.

” Fayez expressed as we discussed the birth of his life’s passion, architecture. “Of course, my family were not too thrilled with the loud noises, so I found an empty room at the far corner of our house to use as my work area.” Clearly, I was no longer worried about getting regular answers to predictable warm up questions. Every state menthe made was engaging and insightful. I soon asked him about his one true role model,

“My inspiration came from the great master builders of historic Islamic empires.

During the Ottoman Empire, the Master Builder, Sinan Basha would handle projects from France to China while he was based in Istanbul, Turkey. This points to the fact that he was, not only a master builder, but also a genius at leadership and management in a period of time when there were no advanced methods of communication, like we have today. ”The hint was obvious: lack of technology is not an excuse.

He continued to describe how people today needed to remind themselves of key qualities. He states, “Will, skill, principles, attention to detail and determination are basically what we need to build success. If a man Like Sinan can do it so can we .

” I was now interested in how he began realizing his passion. What was it like to actually live his dream of being an architect? “Well, it was a dream that was almost overlooked. During my last year of studying structural engineering at the University of Colorado in Denver, I decided to take a design course in architecture for non-architects. All of a sudden, my childhood came back to me and so did the passion to design and build. While I graduated as an Engineer, I made it a point to acquire a second degree in architecture and a masters in urban design, with the help of the dean of college of Arch At C.U.Denver; he was my second most inspirational person.”

While Fayez was preparing for his doctorate, he journeyed back to Saudi Arabia. An economic boom was on the rise at which the opportunity to build wide scale housing projects was high.

Luckily, Housing was his focus, and still is his passion. Fayez started to sign on vast projects that required him to create living spaces for large groups of people, “The Challenge is always how to build a housing community for people, who essentially do not have a say in how their individual homes will look or feel like. How do you meet a criteria that is acceptable to all?” Fayez had the know-how to build things right. His insistence on quality would be one of the most important factors in elevating his success against other architects in the Kingdom at that time, “You can’t charge cheap and get quality, though. Never sell yourself short.

Clients are observant. When you give them a detailed drawing and use the best material they will respect your craft; therefore, do business with you.”


Arch. Zuhair Fayez’s aura of success can easily engulf anyone who actually takes the time to ask

him the right questions. One cannot resist the desire to act on ambition and find ways to succeed professionally.

I was learning from him, even before he spoke. This, already articulate individual, was more than ready to explain to me the ins and outs of starting out successfully.

1.Discipline and dedication:

whilst both can be viewed as two separate steps. Essentially, as Fayez would explain, the two go hand in hand.

“While I was working in the states, I noticed the employees arrived half an hour before time everyday, without fail. They would prep themselves, drink their coffee, go over their agendas and once the clock struck eight, it was diligent dedicated work for the next eight hours if not more.” He would go on to explain, “This kind of attitude and dedication builds discipline. It’s also why students in at the petroleum university, for example, rarely struggle getting jobs.

Everyone knows that their life on campus revolves around discipline and dedication to their work. This is also a principle I focused on when establishing Dar Al-Hekma Collage.” We would soon stumble upon ample examples, which are the unfortunate norm in companies across Saudi Arabia – undisciplined groups of people that seem to be blocking out the dedicated few. The result – lower productivity, slower growth on a micro/macro scale and, more importantly, alack of trust in an institution’s ability to deliver.

2.Faith and focus:

“What made the previous Islamic Empires thrive was a focus on their objectives which were routed in a solid faith.” Of course once those empires started to loose focus and faith, their reign soon ended. “This example,” he would add, “applies to any organization. When leaders of a firm or company lose focus on their objectives and start to get tempted with what strays them away from their fundamental rules of ethics, that organization soon finds itself tumbling down towards failure.”

3.Management and leadership skills:

Like the example given of the Master Builder Sinan, “leadership is a must in any organization. Even as individuals, we need to how learn how we can acquire leader ship and management skills.

Talent alone will not earn you success.” Naturally, I asked him if his organization provided management and leadership training, “I emphasize on providing extensive training courses in such matters. How can I promote an employee to a higher level of responsibility when he or she cannot manage projects or people?

Even as an entrepreneur in this business, you have to be able to market yourself, sell your work, bring in business and deal with different contractors. Without management and leadership skills, none of that will be possible.

” He goes on to say that most of such skills can be learnt on the field as one gets their practical experience. The point of being on the ground helps build this discipline, “From my first project I was on the ground with the construction workers, going everywhere to find the best material, even when it was not available here. I wanted to make sure every detail was to my satisfaction.”

4.Principles of inspiration, quality and following standards:

“One must find inspiration to build strong, successful work. One must also inspire his team in order to get the best out of them, especially when it comes to creating quality work.

Every designer must be adamant about quality.” I personally, found this point to be true. In my own experience within the communications industry, when leaders of departments or projects don’t constantly seek ways to inspire their team, the interest in the project deteriorates. With the enthusiasm to create work, comes a set of rules and standards one must follow. “Unfortunately, there are not enough architects in our country that follow building codes and standards. I’m not surprised at this, because the majority of university instructors, here in the kingdom, don’t teach their students enough quality.

They haven’t had practical experience to do so., because they were not allowed to do so” What’s even more alarming is that most of these instructors have PHD’s. Then again, a PHD in this country seems to be in abundance and not a good indicator of abilities. He goes on to explain, “It’s not your degree that counts; it’s what you do with it. I’ve given lectures in over thirty universities throughout the United States. Seldom did I find people with a PHD in Architecture – unless, they specialized in research or architectural history or the like.” Ultimately, Arch. Zuhair Fayez makes it a point to follow internationally set standards. “At ZFP, we’ve devised a book defining those standards and everyone is responsible for following them.” ZFP has been awarded ISO 9001, defined as the «Model for quality assurance in design, development, production, installation and servicing.»*

5.Creating Specialized Sections:

“In the past, master builders handled everything from design to planning and actual construction. These days, each part of an organization presents a specialized unit. That has proven to be pivotal in the success of a project.” Why? “Assigning specialized departments to work on specific parts of the project encourages focus on each part, attention to detail; thus, a successful and complete result comes to life.

” Arch. Zuhair Fayez’s Architecture business is split into five key departments: Architectural– Planning – Interior Design – Landscaping –Project management. Each one completes and relies on the other. Furthering these five rules, Fayez has given a lecture on The Five Parts to Innovative Work.

The lecture covers the five points mentioned and uses the example of the old master builder as a point of reference.


Amidst our discussions of how the masters of the past tackled issues of space, lighting and ventilation, I asked Arch. Zuhair Fayez about his own projects. What does he, as an architect focus on? What was his favorite design? Does he still, in a large thirty three-year-old organization with over 2500 employers, find time to get involved in the design process?

When it comes to his signature or mark on each design, Fayez had this to say, ”My signature in every design is the study of human behaviour. All my designs and my architects’ designs must incorporate an understanding of human behaviour.

During my doctorate studies, I spent two semesters learning nothing but the whys and how’s of human beings.” The logic rung true in my mind, since, most of us have to live, work and spend hours occupying the spaces we dwell in. he goes on to use an example, “you can’t build a tiny window…” he gestures a small box shape with his hands, “… on a large wall. And say: it makes sense.

Some level of logic and visual acceptance have to factor, especially if you want the people walking into your designed space to accept it.”

The point about human behaviour led to how human beings feel comfortable in an occupied space. Thus, he went

on to say,“ Lighting, ventilation and space are all key focuses in any design my designers or I create.

Once again, if you go back to historical examples in old Arabian and Islamic architecture, you’ll find that natural lighting relied on reflections and candles at night.

In terms of ventilation, every room in a house was kept cool without an air condition, which also requires an understanding of space and material.” Arch. Zuhair Fayez talks about never giving a visual dead end. “I strongly believe in giving the eye a tour first.” From the moment you enter a building, you can see in all directions, immediately knowing where to go.

” An example of such structures is the King Khalid University in Abha that will accommodate 55,000 students. He describes it as having, “beautiful environmental harmony.” He continued to emphasize, “ We took advantage of the good climate that exists there to provide natural ventilation throughout the campus area.” Parts of the university are already open. However, the entire project will take, approximately, three years to finish.

When it comes to his favorite project, Arch. Zuhair Fayez enthusiastically responded, “My house, of course!” Second to that, “Armco Mosque in the Eastern province. Of course, like all dream projects, this one came with a few obstacles. The initial design had a courtyard that had to be removed to make space for added worshipers.

” Fayez also wanted a specific stain glassmaker for the calligraphy on the windows, but had to settle with another option. Fayez stressed a crucial point about working on this project, “We had to fight to get what we wanted and there were a few compromises in the end.” In other words, passion and persistence will help you pull through in the end. “All in all, The Armco mosque was a magnificent modern structure that I am very proud of. Its beauty is in its simplicity.” He added that many of his projects were equally enjoyable, especially when he was able to design them the way he wanted to – not always a luxury, but most certainly a perk for an experienced professional.

It goes without saying that Arch. Zuhair Fayez still involves himself in his firm’s projects. Although, he does not get involved as much as he use tour would like to, but the passion can still be seen clearly in his tone, man nerisms and his new office that will be complete by the end of the year.

An example of one important milestone project he personally worked on from scratch was, the Armco Oil Museum. He was the only local amongst a list of internationally acclaimed architects to enter a competition to design the museum. “The limitations were many, especially when it came to presentation. The only item that could be submitted was a sheets of drawing of depicting the design.” With this drawing, he won the competition. The Oil Museum marked the beginning of many important projects to follow.


For every successful individual comes a list of obstacles. Aside from the common issues of dealing with client demands, Arch. Zuhair Fayez furiously points out the problem with copying ideas and the pride that some copy cats take in such cases, “I’ve never seen a place like this, where people, not only copy your ideas, but are proud to let you know about it. I’ve had an incident with a client, earlier in my career, come up to me and admit how much he loved my designs by showing me his copy of my work.

” As a listener to this story, I could not help but join in on my own expression of bewilderment. Another, more crucial problem he sees is, Environmental planning .

The examples he gave were extensive, from the poorly managed roads, to the lack of recycling centres to the “monstrous buildings blocking the Corniche.”

He stated the problem as, “One that requires joint social responsibility. We can’t just wait for the government to change the way things are. We have to work to improve our habits and principles. So start from an early age with your children. Teach them to recycle.” As far as the cities aesthetic goes, “Architects should think of their city as a symphony with varying notes that, together, create a harmonious piece.” With all this, Fayez remains an optimist, believing in a bright future; but he is also a realist, “that bright future can never come if we don’t move and get ourselves act.”


A successful businessman and mentor, such as Arch. Zuhair Fayez, often finds himself at a point where he needs to share his knowledge, build a community and “act on change.

” Earlier this year, Arch. Zuhair Fayez began expanding the reach of learning for aspiring female architects by instituting, along with UC Denver, aa study abroad program for Dar Al-Hekma College.

“The process was natural. As a member of the board for the school of architecture at UC Denver, my job is to provide them with global exposure. They were very active in wanting to extend their architecture programs abroad. As they viewed all the Kingdome’s universities with architecture programs, I introduced them to our interior design program at Dar Al- Hekma. They had one look at the students ‘work and were impressed to see that, as interior designers, their work rivalled that of the architecture students from other universities. As one of the founders and board members at Dar Al-Hekma College, part of my mission was to create opportunities for development at the college.” Dar Al-Hekma’s architecture department and semester abroad program will commence in the fall of 2009.


Two words played in my mind as I walked out of our interview session:

dedication and commitment. Successful individuals, such as Arch. Zuhair Fayez, spend their lives constantly evolving, learning and educating.

One cannot question an individual who has truly worked hard for every bit of credit gained. The lesson I’ve walked a way with is: To earn credit requires respect; respect is acquired with wisdom; gaining wisdom takes experience; experience can only be gained with patience, practice, persistence and time.

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