China Vanke chairman Wang Shi doesn't fit the stereotype of the wheeling-and-dealing Chinese property developer. Soft spoken, deferential, and exceedingly fit for 57 years old—he has climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents—Wang comes across as a polymath who sprinkles his conversation with references to American psychologist Abraham Maslow's “hierarchy of human needs,” Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, and the latest green building technologies. With short, cropped hair and a square jaw that lends him a strong resemblance to film director Zhang Yimou, Wang has appeared in television commercials for companies such as Volkswagen, Ping An Insurance, and Motorola, earning millions of dollars that he has given to charity.
He's also a favorite among China's architects, a factor that helped his company earn this year's Best Client award. "I think we are very lucky to work with them," says Li Hu, partner at Steven Holl Architects, which designed Vanke's new headquarters under construction in Shenzhen. When Li and Holl presented their "horizontal skyscraper "design with a single building floating over public space, Wang understood the concept immediately, likening it to an American research station built on stilts that he saw on a visit to the South Pole.
Wang's passion for good design sets him apart from the pack of Chinese developers. "We want to engage ourselves in simplicity," explains Wang, who counts Tadao Ando among his favorite architects.
That philosophy has paid off handsomely. Since 1988, when it built its first housing development in Shanghai, Vanke's presence has expanded to 20 Chinese cities. In 2006, the latest full year for which earnings are available, the company made a $211 million profit on sales of $2.4 billion.
Thanks to its emphasis on quality and good design, Vanke has become one of the best known Chinese brands among Chinese consumers. Its Rancho Santa Fe luxury villas in Shanghai are in huge demand by expatriates and well heeled Chinese. Its Fifth Garden complex in Shenzhen, which earned an award last year from the Urban Land Institute for its integration of modern and vernacular design, sold out upon opening and has seen its property values soar by more than 50 percent in its first 18 months.
Unlike most developers, Vanke manages the properties it builds, which removes an incentive to cut corners on construction. "The company wants to build a good reputation and ultimately, a good brand through the quality, design, and architecture of the projects," says Diamanta Xu, a senior analyst with property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle's Shenzhen research team. To accomplish that, Vanke employs an army of 400 in-house architects who work closely with consumer research teams to come up with designs that take into account homeowners needs. "We set the tone and philosophy and let the professionals do the rest," explains Wang.
For its Experience Center in Shenzhen, Vanke chose Urbanus, a local architecture firm that is developing an international reputation for innovative design. Housed inside the company’s architecture research center near the company's current head offices, the Experience Center offers a multi-media, interactive experience that allows visitors to wear devices to see how it feels to be pregnant, or move around a kitchen in a wheelchair, a clever way of showcasing the company's customer-oriented approach to design needs. "He is thinking about going one step beyond all the other developers," says Yan Meng, a partner at Urbanus.
Vanke also distinguished itself from its competitors by deciding a couple of years ago to start offering fully finished homes. Today, most housing units in China are still sold as empty shells, leaving it up to buyers to provide the plumbing, doors, and flooring. Wang estimates that Vanke can reduce construction waste by two tones per household by doing all the finishing work in advance. "We try to focus more on going green and being environmentally friendly," he says.
Vanke is also the first Chinese company to move into prefabricated housing. That's quite a bold move in a country where labor is abundant and still relatively inexpensive, but Wang believes it's important to start providing a consistent standard of quality in his housing. It also fits with the company's mission to be more environmentally friendly. Wang is aiming to build 4 percent of the company's houses with prefabricated materials by 2012, resulting in large savings in electricity, water, and timber used during construction. Energy gains alone could amount to the equivalent of 12 days output from the Three Gorges Dam.
Wang’s green credentials are genuine, says Li of Steven Holl Partners. "He's been to two poles, to the highest mountains on seven continents. Anyone who has done this would be very concerned about the environment," says Li, who notes that Wang insisted that the company's new headquarters achieve a LEED platinum rating. "He knows how much a difference architecture can make."
Wang also believes in making good design available to all segments of society. Vanke is working with Urbanus on a low-income housing project for migrant workers in Shenzhen. Its design is derived from a style used in Fujian province for more than 800 years known as the tulou, round communal buildings capable of housing hundreds of families. It fits with Wang's belief in corporate social responsibility and his desire for Chinese architecture to reflect local elements.