Meet your future landlords

When international investors go in search of real estate, the question is not if but when they’ll come to London. The UK capital’s stability, transparency and liquidity have made it a magnet for money – private, institutional or sovereign – from every continent. In 2013, foreign buyers were responsible for more than two thirds of commercial property investment, with established sources of capital competing with newer ones, predominantly from the Far and Middle East.

So where will the next wave come from? Ultra-high-net-worth individuals may hail from anywhere, but the greatest concentrations of wealth tend to be where there’s either a lot of resources, as with the oil riches of the Middle East and Central Asia, or a lot of people – the pension savings of the growing middle classes in China, Malaysia and Korea. In this feature for Estates Gazette’s MIPIM issue, I identified five countries set to be the most significant new entrants over the coming decade – a world tour that took in Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Brazil and, still some way off, Iran…

Homes of the rich and famous

Are you a concrete-obsessed billionaire searching for your dream holiday home? You could do a lot worse than check out Concrete Quarterly’s house-themed Winter issue (which I edited). So what’s it going to be? Norman Foster’s luxury apartments in downtown Buenos Aires (pages 4-7)? A modernist retreat apparently carved out of a rocky outcrop in the hills of Maharashtra, with a bath open to the skies (10-11)? Or, for those seeking a third way between luxury holiday and survival weekend, this extremely comfortable cyclone-proof bunker deep in the Queensland jungle (9)? It may look like the home of a Bond villain but the owner’s actually a stamp dealer (the clue’s in the perforated facade). And for the rest of us, there’s the rather more liveable Hill Top House – Japanese-style exposed interiors seamlessly inserted into an Oxford terrace.

China, South Korea… Azerbaijan

“Remember during the Olympics, you’d walk down Regent Street and there was a flag for every country? It’s almost like that now in terms of the owners of London property.” That’s how one consultant described the market to me when I was researching trends in overseas investment in the capital for this article for Estates Gazette.

London’s property market has always been international, but now private wealth and pension savings alike are coming from an unprecedented number of source countries, seeking a safe home. During 2012, investment reached its highest level since 2007, accounting for almost three-quarters of deals in both the commercial and residential sectors. Money continues to flow in from established sources such as the US, Canada, Germany and the Middle East, but also from new players across the Far East, Eastern Europe, South America and Africa – not just dipping a toe in the water but buying up some of London’s most expensive stock. For this feature, I picked ten countries that have made the biggest splash in recent times and assessed what’s in store during 2013 and beyond.

Market forces

If you’re in any doubt that insurers secretly rule the world, take a look at the latest edition of Lloyd’s Market magazine. For this issue’s Foresight section, I interviewed insurance experts on Mexico’s controversial new government and its likely impact on infrastructure, organised crime and the oil and gas sector; the latest EU sanctions that prohibit insurers and reinsurers covering the transport of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products; how a Greek exit from the euro could throw contract law across the EU into chaos; the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope with 3000 antennas spanning Australia and South Africa; and gadgets in your car that log not only your driving behaviour but reveal your whole personality…

Why don’t UK contractors work abroad any more?

The British engineers who led the building of the industrial age played a prominent role in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony. But his inclusion of those globe-trotting Victorians belies the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, UK contractors have almost completely disappeared from the world stage in the last 20 years, retreating home to the safety of familiar contracts and supply chains and lavish, low-risk PFI building programmes. They have remained resolutely domestic even after four years of recession, the dwindling of those PFI programmes and despite booming markets around the world – where, according to UK Trade & Investment, clients are crying out for British expertise. So what are they scared of? And why don’t any of the risks of overseas contracting seem to faze their European rivals? For Construction Manager’s October cover feature, I spoke to contractors of varying levels of adventurousness, and one very baffled German who can’t understand why they’d squander the advantages of language, legal systems and brand recognition bequeathed by those Victorian ancestors.

Multiple risks

Question: What do Mongolia’s mining boom, $225bn of deep-water drilling in Brazil, the rising threat of terrorism in Asia, European financial regulations, cyber-risks, Qatar’s growing SME sector, and the difficulty of predicting natural disasters in Australia and New Zealand all have in common?

Answer: They are all insured through Lloyd’s of London, and I covered them all for the news section of its relaunched Market magazine in June.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Indian construction boom

I spent January researching and writing a 12,000-word report on India for Building magazine’s White Paper series. One of the world’s fastest-growing economies, India appears unstoppable. While foreign investors continue to flock to its Special Economic Zones, domestic demand from its 1.2 billion citizens is more than sufficient to maintain GDP growth well above the global average. But to live up to its potential, the Indian government knows it must invest billions of dollars on every aspect of its infrastructure – under the Five Year Plan just finishing, it spent $500bn, and it has set out a further $1trn of projects in the next. This feature, published in Building the same week, offers a snapshot of what’s going on.

More adventures in concrete

If you’d like a tour of Europe’s most sustainable building, look no further than the summer issue of Concrete Quarterly, which I edit for the Concrete Centre and publisher UBM.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s new Swiss HQ is the only building in the world to have met the exacting standards of both the US LEED environmental rating scheme and Switzerland’s own Minergie – chosen because they were the toughest the client could find. Six different types of concrete went into the structure, and even if  it’s unlikely to win any high-flown architectural awards, I think those exposed concrete finishes have a certain charm. Also in this issue: Vodafone’s bonkers-looking new office in Oporto, and a gorgeous aircraft museum in Krakow that’s like a paper aeroplane made out of concrete…

How the world might not end

If you think green building is a niche topic, head down to Ecobuild. It’s not only one of the largest events in the UK, but the largest in the world focusing on sustainable construction and architecture. More than 50,000 people came to ExCeL in east London for Ecobuild 2011 – and when I was there, most of them were trying to fit into the conference hall where Brian Cox was speaking. But there were a great many other contributors over the three day programme, with a very diverse range of views and interests. I edited a blog on the Ecobuild site in the months leading up to the event, which meant I got to talk to them about all sorts of things including why climate talks fail, the truth about eco-cities in the desert and why Christmas houses might not be a total sustainability nightmare…

“We must be seen to be co-operating with the authorities at all times”

As this article went to press, there were 680 people held at gunpoint in the Gulf of Aden: the crews of 30 merchant ships hijacked by Somali pirates. It may be weeks or even months before their ransom is negotiated, and they know there is little hope of rescue. For the 20,000 ships that sail the Gulf of Aden every year, kidnap by Somali pirates is a constant and growing threat. The world’s navies do have a presence here, but there are only around 40 warships attempting to patrol an area of ocean one-and-a-half times the size of Europe. To stem its heavy losses, the insurance industry is attempting to establish what has been billed as a “private navy” to guard commercial shipping – unprecedented, controverisal and extremely complex under international and maritime law, as I found out in this article for Insurance Times.