Independent Design Magazine

Karim Elassal Interview: Creating Happy spaces

Karim Elassal Interview: Creating Happy spaces

Karim Elassal

Karim Elassal is an award-winning architect with 17 yrs of experience. Co-Founder of Segments Architects & Managing Director with a demonstrated history of working in the architecture, landscape & interior industry. After graduating from the faculty of fine arts at Zamalek. He worked for 6 years with senior architects before establishing “Segment Architects” along with partners.

Doha Moustafa: Tell us the story of starting Segments Architects.

Karim Elassal: After finishing my studies, I worked in “Palm Hills” design department. Luckily, I was exposed to both; site and design, the head of the design team was the architect Shehab Mazhar. It was a great opportunity to learn from him. During my work at Palm hills, I used to freelance. In 2008, I left corporate life and started officially my own practice “Segments Architects” at this time I had partners. We worked on designing a house in King Marriot, it was a very challenging project.

DM: Can you tell us more about this project?

KE: The owner had a piece of land; it was very narrow and its elevation on King Marriot Lake was tiny. He wanted to have a house for himself and 4 houses for his children as well as swimming pools. The question was; How will we create views for the 4 houses equally? We worked on creating a waterfront view for each house and created links between the houses as well as a shared space.

DM: Tell us about the Award winning Golden Park Resort.

KE: Golden park resort and spa in Hurghada project was awarded the CNBC Property Awards for the best development in Egypt.

The golden park project is a mixed-use, it has a 5 stars hotel, different types of units; condominiums, twin houses, and separate villas. It also included a big spa and a huge lagoon in between the units. The project was a mix of residential and hotel property. We applied several eco-friendly measures. For instance, inside the golden park hotel, no vehicles are permitted. In addition to using LED in the lighting units to minimize energy consumption. Regarding the building material, we used “Mica” local material and bought it from Aswan, which is not far away from Hurghada.

DM: Does Karim Elassal follow a certain design philosophy? What is it and why did you choose it?

KE: I have always been influenced by modernism. “less is more” is one of the things that I tend to implement. Yet, I always think about how can the environment we live in and heritage influence us. Ultimately, I am working on creating a signature. So that people can tell that it’s my design. Also, I always look for new innovations, techniques, being up to date, and merging what those new innovations have to offer in my designs.

DM: Tell us about the type of projects you work on.

KE: After the King Mariott project, we worked on several projects and compounds. We then worked on residential mansions, compounds, restaurants, and hotels. Segments still works on all types of projects, but a shift occurred to us and we became very well known for Food and beverage (F&B) projects.  

DM: How did this shift happen?

KE: We designed a nice restaurant in Zamalek, it survived for 2 or 3 years and eventually closed. The lesson I learned from this project, is to make sure that the owner really understands what he/she is doing and has a strong experience.

In F & B projects, I sit down with the owner, ask a lot of questions to understand if this project has the qualities to succeed or not. Of course, no one can 100% assure this, but we at least have the experience to tell if the successful ingredients are incorporated or not. Especially that the F&B turnover is quite high, many people decide to start this type of business and eventually get out of business. In Segments, we get involved with the owner as if we are partners in the project and we are also keen to help even in different sectors, for example, we talk with the owner about branding. A project that really helped us to position ourselves in the market is Eatery Restaurant in Cairo Festival City.

Eatery Restaurant

KE: Modern industrial design was still new to the Egyptian market. Segments introduced this style along with its own signature. The users’ feedback was great and people expressed how they loved the restaurant. We started to figure out that we design happy places! People enter and leave the restaurant feeling happy, this is actually complemented with the operator’s ability to provide a high-quality experience apparent in every single detail. I was very lucky to work with an operator who loves his work, understands the business, and has done his homework very well. That’s why I always say that the operator has to do his homework and provide a very well-thought-of brief.

After this amazing experience with Eatery, we worked on; Ovio in Diplo, 30 North, butcher’s burger facelift, and others. Since then, we became very well known in the F&B.

DM: Did you face any challenges while working on Eatery?

KE: We had two challenges in this project. First, the operator of this project has strong experience in the F&B industry. He already has 20+ branches, met a lot of designers before, and wasn’t convinced with the designer’s role. The owner was convinced that the food, environment, and operation are the reasons for success. This was because he already had successful projects. He is a friend of mine and was about to create a new concept and it wasn’t an easy job to convince him of the architect role.

The second challenge was the place itself, the restaurant was on the first floor and usually, people tend to enter the ground-level restaurants. In addition, the depth of the space was significant. It had two glass sides but still wasn’t enough to lighten the indoor space. The area is 500 m2. It was very challenging; why would people leave the outdoor and sit inside.

We came up with two main ideas. First idea; the open kitchen; at that time, it was a new concept that we wanted to introduce and let the users see how is the food being prepared. The owner bought a Pizza oven from Italy and I suggested that we place it at the very end of the restaurant. It was supposed to be the state of art, but I had the vision of placing it strategically to attract the users to sit next to the oven and watch the Italian pizza chef preparing it.

The second idea; opening a skylight in the ceiling. Back then, the owner resisted the idea. He now says if the project is repeated 50 times I won’t change a thing! We also placed an orange tree under the skylight and a connection between the owner and this tree came into existence. Finally, the space became livable and people love spending time inside.     

DM: We noticed that you use landscape in interior spaces, can you tell us the idea behind it?

KE: The relation between indoor and outdoor space is very important. Bringing the outdoor atmosphere into the indoor design is something that I always think about. Going back to the “happy places” that we create, it definitely has something to do with incorporating landscape into the design. Everything in the indoor space is usually static. On the other hand, plants are alive. Once we use them in the design, they change the feeling of space. One of our constant challenges is to think about bringing the outdoor feeling inside. Nowadays, materials and fabrics’ specifications are more advanced than they used to be previously. Therefore, it became possible to use the same material outdoor and indoor.

DM: How does Karim Elassal approach residential projects?

KE: Residential projects have a psychological part, I give a questionnaire to the owner so that they can put in words the way they live, how do they want to live, and what they like and dislike. I help the owner reach what they truly want. Our community already has its pre-assumed set of standards on what should a home look like. However, sometimes when I talk more with the owner, we discover that they don’t necessarily want to follow those standards.  

DM: Did you do your own place? How was the experience?

KE: Yes, I did! I actually moved to a place that had parts of it already finished. It was close to what I had in mind. I did some additions and I am glad about my place.

DM: Was it challenging?

KE: Yes, a little bit. But, I know that at some point I’ll design my dream home and I am looking forward to it. Most probably, I will take a vacant land that is not in a compound. So I can create its architectural design freely.   

DM: What motivates you to design when it comes to a new project?

KE: It could be any of these: brief, owner, the number of users, or location. We currently have a project in Soma Bay on the beach. I can’t resist thinking day and night how will we design it. Also, whenever I know that the space I design will be used by multiple users, I feel excited. For example, a restaurant can have 500 users every day. Accordingly, the place will contribute to making more people feel happy.

DM: Tell us about your experience with malls.

KE: We worked on different malls, in the past we did a strip mall project in Hurghada. Segments Architects had several projects for existing malls that already exist but aren’t working properly. So, we step in to analyze the situation and facelift it. Currently, we are working on a very interesting strip mall project on the ring road with the Maxim Kempinski group right in front of Kempinski hotel.

DM: What kind of interventions did you do in Soma bay marina?

KE: The architecture in Soma Bay is very beautiful, but the Marina space was a bit dull. We worked on small-scale interventions such as; seating, lighting, wayfinding, experience, and using the spaces that aren’t functioning properly. Read DUCO’s Vibrant Urban Art in Somabay-Egypt.

DM: Do you have any advice for young architects and designers?

KE: Give yourself time to learn and gain experience and don’t rush into starting your own office. Although I was in a hurry, still I gave myself time to learn. Don’t ever say “NO” to experience or opportunities. For instance, don’t refuse to work on technical drawings. You will never be a strong architect without having very good experience in the technical office. Read, develop yourself and learn from everyone.