Words: Yasmine Mohamed
Images: Mustafa Zafar, Phil Weymouth & 23 Degrees North
We came to know that 23 Degrees North, a multi-award-winning architectural consultancy, was named after the latitude that passes through Oman through a refreshingly candid interview with architect Nadia Al Lawatiya, the co-founder and CEO. “I have also recently come to know that Earth’s axial tilt is about 23 degrees and I love the mystery and curiosity the name generates. It just makes sense in so many ways and resonates,” she tells Khaleejesque writer Yasmine Mohamed. The enterprise lives up to its name by honoring its Omani roots in its communication of designs made with the future in mind, supporting Omanization through the celebration and valuing of local expatriate expertise, and unrelentingly championing sustainability. “Architecture is a celebration of place and we have always believed in that,” explains Nadia with excitement.
From being the first female chartered architect in the Gulf region to recently celebrating ten years in business, Al Lawatiya’s journey has been interesting and one that tells of valuable lessons in self-discovery, entrepreneurship, and leadership. In our hour-long interview, we were able to get a feel for what life has been like for the half Peruvian, half Omani skilled architect and proud mother.
Yasmine Mohamed (YM): Why did you choose architecture as your life’s career path?
Nadia Al Lawatiya (NL): High-school students are usually asked to decide whether they want to pursue paths in the sciences or humanities. Nowadays, it’s even a bit more complex of a choice as there is this question of whether the pursuit of higher education altogether is a necessity for succeeding in life. I don't feel like it is fair to ask students to choose one or the other. The way I see it, every person has varying degrees of analytical and artistic capabilities and it should be a matter of encouraging them to embrace both. That is exactly what I wanted for myself. I wanted a career path where I could be both artistic and expressive, and still be able to talk physics for example. Architecture to me straddled both, and that was why I went for it.
YM: I see you have attended the Glasgow School of Art and the Bartlett School of Architecture. Can you talk to me a bit about your college years?
NL: I received my schooling in Oman, then I was granted a scholarship to continue my studies abroad. Now, this is a bit of a funny story. Initially, the scholarship was meant for me to go and study architecture. For some reason, the Arabic translation on paperwork referred to architectural engineering instead. I only realized that when I arrived in the UK and started classes in architectural engineering! Upon completing the foundation year, I quickly realized that it was not for me. The hassle of communicating with authorities back home to rectify my scholarship’s title was only the beginning of a long and arduous road.
Once I switched to architecture, my background, which was lacking in the arts compared to my peers, was an impediment. I could barely sketch! You can only imagine the horror I felt when we went to galleries to sketch corridors and arches. I honestly don’t know how I survived to this day. In retrospect, however, I realized that my individuality and uniqueness, being the only hijabi Middle Eastern of mixed ethnicity at the time, was very much celebrated. That was true again because architecture is heavily influenced by culture and topography. It was indeed very empowering and gave me a great deal of confidence in my voice.
YM: In your TEDx Qurum talk, The Alchemy of Essence, you spoke beautifully of being true to one’s self. How does that translate career-wise and in your everyday life?
NL: Labels, like the first chartered female architect in the entire Gulf, and recipient of the National Entrepreneurship Award 2014 for Best Small Enterprise in the service sector, can become heavy quickly. It’s tricky what one chooses to celebrate. The difference between empty labels and true merit is in the added value offered. For a while, I allowed those labels to define me and I held on to that comforting notion in complaisance with the ego. When we would pitch for a certain project, we would pitch from that pedestal. Looking beneath the surface though, I quickly realized that these labels don’t mean much after a while in terms of winning and work. Questioning what my real values are, what my firm truly brings to the table, and what my clients entrust me to do, I discovered that my true strength and what sets me apart from the rest is community engagement.
Because Oman is a developing country still, and 23 Degrees North barely turned 10, we cannot compete with niche consultancies that are years ahead in terms of expertise. However, I am an Omani who was raised on these grounds, speaks this language, understands this culture, is sensitive to local time, place, and person, and will have the people’s best interest at heart. I will take full ownership of the project I co-create with my clients and will be able to make it morph into whatever it needs to be in the future. This is the true essence of 23 Degrees North. For the longest time, I resisted this truth because I felt like it was not enough. In all reality, once you overcome that internal battle, and embrace what you know deep down inside is true for you, you'll be better equipped to serve others and yourself.
YM: I understand that there are family ties between you and Stuart Caunt, the founding partner. I am interested to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of working with family.
NL: I am going to be vulnerable with answering this question. Yes, Stuart used to be my husband. One of the greatest advantages of having him by my side, man the fort, was that it was less difficult for me to enjoy my role as a mother. For the first two years of my children’s lives, I fully attended to them and it was one of the best decisions I made. Working mothers are often plagued with guilt. Whether they end up applying for a sabbatical or attempting to juggle both responsibilities, the feat often comes with its own set of nuances. I always knew that I wanted to have an active role in my children’s lives, and I did not want the narrative where I had to rely on a nanny heavily to be able to spare time for my career. That could not have been possible without Stuart.
Now, making enough profit out of doing what we love most is where there are shortcomings. Depending on this business as our only source of income took a toll on us. Grappling to break free from the belief that there is nobility in being a “struggling artist” has been such a real challenge for me in particular. Clients appear to be under the impression that my services are free of charge, and I understand now how I have contributed to that. I was often too worried if our services were worth the sums offered to us in exchange. Then, I came to realize that the value we provide is greater than the symbolic value paid in currency. The COVID-19 situation magnified the problem too, but it was a blessing in disguise. We were all forced to look at what is no longer working in our systems, bringing us to implement new and innovative solutions.
YM: Why is sustainability such an important value for 23 Degrees North, and how is it being implemented in designs?
NL: When Stuart and I were laying out the foundation for 23 Degrees North, Stuart had just converted to Islam. He was exploring his spirituality and relationship with Allah through architecture as well. Islam talks of stewardship and how the earth is human inheritance. Hence, adopting sustainability as a value was a no-brainer honestly. In the west, innovation in sustainability has garnered great attention because these solutions eventually end up saving governments a lot of money. In this part of the world, however, because we are blessed with governments that subsidize our energy sources, sustainable options are met with much less enthusiasm.
Also, because it is a relatively new technology, it’s a costly investment at first. This narrative is surely shifting as we are moving away from oil-dependent economies. We will soon be forced to consider sunlight as a source of energy. In 23 Degrees North, we partake in that narrative by ensuring that the ABCs of sustainability, being insulation, are being implemented in all of our projects. We simply will not accept a project where clients resist the concept, and we have indeed lost prospects holding on to that value. Along the way, we learned that if we are going to be a business that pushes boundaries to the edge, then we need to be talking to the decision-makers. Negotiating sustainable solutions simply is a conversation that needs to be held with leaders that dare to step into that new mindset, and not the middle management.
YM: Which project was your favorite to work on, and why?
NL: That’s an easy question. Outward Bound Oman Desert Training Facility. The successor to its sister project, Lycée Français de Mascate, is the first building in Oman commissioned by the government that’s completely reliant on solar energy. It was also inaugurated by His Highness Sayyid Faisal. By going completely solar, we were able to save around 100K alone in capital savings, it being located in the middle of the desert, 1.7km away from the grid. I can’t belittle the importance of the client's role here. A client who knows what they want and trusts their architect to deliver is an invaluable asset.
YM: Let’s talk a bit about the awards that 23 Degrees North received and what they mean to you.
NL: To be eligible for any award you need to fill out a questionnaire. A great award stimulates you to reflect on your business and the systems instilled through these questions. This was the case with the entrepreneurship award. Besides winning the actual title, the entire process was shapeshifting for 23 Degrees North. The accolade was also great because it frames you as a role model to other female entrepreneurs in the service sector. MEED awards are more industry awards, they recognize us amongst our peers within the region. As for the Young Global Leader (YGL) award, it opened my eyes to this lovely and supportive community. Meeting with like-minded leaders and being able to discuss global matters is proactively refreshing, and allows for un-judged vulnerability.
YM: What are the future plans for 23 Degrees North?
NL: Pre-pandemic, the plan was to maintain a niche boutique identity with a huge focus on Omanisation. Since we are chartered, have seamless international connections, and have spent a considerable amount of time scouting for like-minded and like-hearted consultancies, we want to collaborate on big projects in Oman and the Gulf. For now, and in an attempt to navigate the current situation [COVID pandemic] with sensibility and optimism, we are using all of our creativity and knowledge in the realm of business and finance to survive the high waves we are sailing across, aiming to scale up as soon as possible.
YM: What in your opinion is the reason behind the success of any ambitious architecture firm?
NL: Staying motivated, curious, and excited about what you do and what every new day brings is crucial. Avoiding cynicism is key too. Invest in your team and in maintaining a positive and collaborative mindset. As long as you continue to be inspired even in the bleakest of situations, things will turn out okay.