In the studio: Ankita & Anish Rao

The siblings who head FEC discuss their design process, favourite design spots and more.

27 Jun 2021, words by Aneesha Rai in Design & Architecture

In this edition of 'In the studio', we interview Ankita & Anish Rao - a sibling duo that head up Freeline Engineering Consultants (FEC) - an award-winning client-driven progressive architecture, engineering, planning and project management firm founded in 1998. The firm have successfully completed 1000+ projects across UAE, including residential projects in Dubai Hills & Emirates Hills. Ankita is the Lead Architect & Director, whereas Anish as the Director handles the management side of the business.

Ankita & Anish

Q: Tell us about your design process.

Ankita & Anish: We start with a site & contextual analysis. In greenfield projects, our starting point is usually a site visit to take stock of the surroundings and study the built context. The next step would be to conduct a topographic survey & a soil test. Al-most all developers issue an infrastructure pack for the plot which give us a good indication of the external road & inter-lock level services – these have a crucial impact on our design. 

This is followed by the concept design process, which tends to be a collaborative process between us and the client. Before putting pen to paper, we spend time understanding the client’s requirements, collating the local design regulations for the said plot and studying the data collected in the previous stage. We then put together design boards to get a feel of the design language of the project. Following this, through a series of sketches & computer –aided design, we start the very intriguing process of exploring effective space planning and developing the design towards the client’s sign off. 

Once we receive the client sign off, we start developing a more detailed approach to design (a schematic design process) which includes responding to the topographic landscape, existing infrastructure clashes & compliance with local regulations. It is at this stage that we involve our team of multi-disciplinary engineers for their expertise on any potential red flags on the design at hand. It is imperative that all our de-sign & engineering solutions proposed align within the client’s budgetary requirements.

At the final design stage, we develop the detailed design and coordination between the architecture and the various engineering disciplines towards a cohesive design set readied for authority submittals and/or tendering.

Sketch
Dubai Hills

Q: What's your view on the architecture and design landscape in Dubai, especially as your family has been such an integral part of shaping the way everyone views the city?

Ankita: Back in the early 90s when we moved here, Trade Centre was arguably the strongest definition of the local architectural landscape. Today, we have a diametrically opposite story in hand with so many iconic buildings that have put us on the world design map. This alone speaks of the monumental growth Dubai has had in such a small span of time! 

If I speak strictly in terms of design sensibilities of clients and how that has evolved, then definitely there has been a radical shift on that front also. As recent as 14-15 years ago, a ‘modern design’ was perceived as expensive or too ambitious to construct. Many clients were happy just conforming to simple forms and traditional homes – this translated also to time saving and in turn cost saving. Any-thing non-conventional was perceived as time, labor and cost intensive. Of course today, every client wants their property to stand out and are willing to invest in innovative design ideas and technology, albeit with sensitivity to costs as well. 

I can safely credit this shift in awareness to the manner in which the design landscape has shifted in Dubai – not just in architecture but even in terms of furniture, interiors, product design & graphic design. One must be grateful to the pioneering vision of this country’s Rulers that has contributed to this huge shift over the years. Not just in terms of widening the design awareness but also the sustainable and green design initiatives set forth must be lauded. As design professionals, it’s very exciting to practice here.

Ankita
Sketch

Q: What makes the city of Dubai home to you?

Ankita: The fact that I’ve lived here for 30 years! I moved here when I was 7 and even though I have lived in other countries and visited so many others – there’s no place like Dubai!

Anish: Home is where you have your foundation and we have literally made so many here. This place has provided for me and given me my identity. I can’t think of a life anywhere else!

Q: What are your three favorite well-designed spots in the city?

Ankita : The first would be old Dubai & the Al Bastakiya district– I love structures and buildings that have a story to tell! This part of Dubai has so much character – a space that has aged gracefully with time and yet is so relevant as it beautifully mirrors local culture , architecture and art! Second would be Emirates Towers – As an architect, the façade intrigues me to no end. There are so many small details that have been beautifully interwoven as a whole – it’s fascinating! The third being The Louvre in Abu Dhabi; I am always mindful of how I feel in a space. When I last visited the The Louvre, I remember registering the spaces as magnificence without being overpowering . 

Anish: Dubai Opera, this is heaven for the art aficionado in me, given my community theatre background. Being involved in a project here also meant having early access and makes us feel part of this story! Second, Global Village – this visionary project represented the melting pot of various cultures that Dubai would come to be known for! Honored and grateful to have contributed through various collaborations over the years. My third favorite spot would be Al Seef – This area brings back memories of yore and yet subtly blends modern offerings. I love the scenic beauty of this locality and we are proud to have been associated with some of the projects here too.

Ankita & Anish

Q: Name your three favorite designers/architects.

Ankita: 1) Steven Holl (Architect) : I first came across his work when I was an undergraduate architecture student in the US. So many years hence, I am still I awe and keep looking at his work for inspiration specifically to study the creative use of sunlight! 

2) Bjarke Ingles (Architect) : I first encountered his work through his firm, BIG, when I was a fresh graduate practicing in New York. I routinely follow them since and I absolutely love the way they treat form. 

3) Zaha Hadid (Architect) : No architectural discussion is complete without an awe-inspiring gasp for her work, it needs no introduction!

Anish: 1) Kohn Pedersen Fox (Architectural Firm) : They had designed my alma matter Ross School of Business. It was such a sustainable and well-designed functional space! Of course, all their other work is excellent as well, but this one is special to me. 

2) Frank Gehry (Architect) : For the non-conformist style and uniqueness of his work! 

3) Stan Lee (Marvel Comics) : To the excelsior for the beautiful worlds and characters he painted our imagination with! Creativity par excellence.