A conversation with Arqº Nuno Malheiro da Silva


A conversation with Arqº Nuno Malheiro da Silva

'I'm a fan of partnerships and I think Portugal needs companies to come together to create larger groups, so that we can be competitive abroad [...] and we can conquer other markets'

Tell us about yourself and FOCUS GROUP.

I chose to do my degree in architecture and, while I was still in 12th grade, I started working in the studio of architect Frederico Valsassina. Throughout my degree I worked in other architecture studios and, at the end of my internship, I was invited to do a project, but the studio where I was working wouldn’t accept it. So, I decided to open my own architecture company with a partner, at the age of 23. In the meantime, as well as working in architecture, I was running a technical installations engineering company that belonged to my father and which I ended up buying. In 2001, I set up a civil engineering company with another partner, António Barroso, to complete the range of services on offer, and then I proposed to my partners that we bring all the companies together under one group, to gain size, be more competitive and internationalize. So, expanding into other areas of activity, we founded the FOCUS GROUP at the end of 2004. At the time of the crisis in 2009, our salvation was that we had already started the process of internationalization, in Cape Verde and Romania. In 2014 we realized that it was difficult to be competitive in all areas and we focused on those where we can make a difference, which are Architecture, Planning and Urbanism and Landscape Architecture.

What sets you apart?

The name FOCUS GROUP comes from a methodology used in marketing, where people from different areas come together to look for a solution to an issue. That’s what we do when we develop a project. Although we no longer develop the engineering areas in-house, we turn to partners who allow us to maintain the concept and offer an integrated service. In Betar’s case, by chance, it was the other way round, because the first job we did together was a tender in which the client, a consortium of construction companies, invited us to do the architecture and landscape architecture projects. Betar took over management of the project team. It went very well, and we’ve already been invited by Betar for another project. We are always available for collaborations like this and to involve Betar in our projects.
What sets us apart is that clients feel that we are trustworthy and that they can count on us to overcome problems and find the best solutions. We do a lot of urban planning projects and we have a lot of experience in housing, hotels, offices, health and education buildings… and in a specific area which is sports buildings: we were involved in stadium projects for the 2004 European Football Championship in Portugal (Estádio da Luz and Estádio do Algarve); the 2014 Football World Cup in Brazil (Estádio de Fortaleza); the 2016 Olympic Games Complex in Rio de Janeiro; and the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar. This is a rare and very positive experience.

Lengthy licenses; lack of investors; low values in public tenders… a housing crisis…

The housing crisis is the result of a lack of supply. There has been a brutal disinvestment in new housing construction; much of the existing housing has been turned into local accommodation and the arrival of foreigners has created a luxury market to which some real estate developers have directed their offer. There needs to be more public supplies and incentives for the private sector to build in the necessary segments.
Licensing is another problem, and the new legislation won’t solve it. Some measures are good, but others are a disaster. If we make prior communications and start building without an approved license, we run the risk of the City Council interpreting it differently and embargoing the work. On the other hand, tacit approval, which had disappeared because of corruption, is back. A project may not be evaluated within the deadline to be automatic approved.
The issue of low prices in public tenders is the height of political nonsense. They all preach that salaries must be increased, but often the only award criterion is the lowest price. This is only possible for companies with low salaries, which means lower quality. It’s like comparing a Renault Clio and a top-of-the-range Mercedes: they both have wheels and an engine, but they’re very different. The price criterion leads to lower wages, creates unfair competition and undermines the principle of quality.

What goals do you have in mind for FOCUS GROUP?

I’m a fan of partnerships and I think Portugal needs companies to come together to create larger groups, so that we can be competitive abroad. Portugal has a very small scale and if we don’t get together, we’ll hardly be able to conquer other markets. We lost a project in Saudi Arabia because the client really wanted to work with us, but ended up hiring Jacobs, which is a global giant, because it gave them another guarantee. It wasn’t because they were technically better than us, they’re not. For international projects, size makes all the difference.
We’re still committed to Portugal, we’re consolidated in other markets, but I don’t take out of the equation the possibility of teaming up with other companies to gain scale abroad. That’s our focus.

This interview is an integral part of Revista Artes & Letras #163, april 2024
Partially automatic translation from portuguese: some expressions may differ from their actual meaning.

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