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Principles Adopted by Builders

Understanding clients' cultures proves profitable. Asian clients not the only group embracing design.

Not everyone can pronounce "feng shui." A Western tongue can easily mangle the principle that often guides the interior design and decorating of Asian homes with promises to provide a healthier, happier atmosphere. But real estate agent and feng shui master Ji Dong says the heavy migration of Asians to the GTA in the last decade has taught many builders the value of learning to speak in this new language. As a result, a system that was once viewed as foreign has become an example for builders on how taking the time to understand the needs of multicultural clients can prove profitable and enlightening.

"At first the builders didn't understand," the Oakville-based Feng Shui Realty Group agent explains of initial attempts to determine if developers were supportive of the custom. "They would ask me, `What are you talking about?'" he recalls with a laugh. But in the six years since he came to Canada, Dong says, many builders have begun to use feng shui principles in their homes without even thinking about it simply because they've seen that they are appealing to consumers of all races and backgrounds. Hugh Heron, president of Heathwood Homes, agrees. The Asian experience in the 1990s taught builders that there was great value in catering to the various cultures in the city, he says.

According to Heron, it was the number of potential buyers from the Asian community that initially forced builders into considering cultural expectations. "If you were in an area where you thought that would give you a market edge then you would do it, even if that meant the expense of bringing in a feng shui specialist," explains Heron. He adds that there have been many positive permanent effects of that experience, including better interior design and a willingness to discuss the needs of other cultural and religious communities. That initial foray into Asian culture is now viewed by many as the reason why requests for kosher kitchens, bidets and higher-powered kitchen fans will no longer cause a builder to do a double take.

"I think it's a good exercise for a builder to go through," Heron muses in reflecting on the early 1990s. "We've almost accepted feng shui as a way of living. "We've come to recognize that there is a mosaic, particularly in Toronto and those of us who don't understand, we try to talk to the people who do understand." And it is not just house builders who have learned that lesson. Condominium builders were similarly educated at the time, says Linda Mitchell, vice-president of highrise marketing for Monarch Corporation. She notes that if a multi-storey building doesn't designate a fourth floor, chances are a feng shui specialist helped the developer make that decision. In feng shui, four is an unlucky number.

And while Monarch does now include a fourth floor in some of its buildings, Mitchell admits that in many ways feng shui continues to reign. "We know in the back of our minds the feng shui ideas and sort of design it that way unintentionally," she says. "It affects everything from the models to the sales office." Mitchell points out that the company, through its market research department, is just as interested in learning about other cultures in the population where it's building. But, she adds, developers should not make the mistake of creating a building that is too focused on one community. "You don't want to just hit one group and ignore the others." And with so many cultures in the city, why has feng shui been the one design principle that has so quickly penetrated into the mainstream? Dong says the reason is two-fold. "Clients from the Hong Kong mainland are a big buying group. They have a lot of purchasing power, but also the cultural east-west exchange is a very popular idea now. Westerners are looking to yoga and tai chi and feng shui. "He adds that he sees no signs of the trend changing. "In the feng shui calendar, 2006 to 2012 are years of change and enlightenment," Dong says. "You can't go to a higher level without understanding each other first." Heron agrees. "Immigration is a positive effect on this country. (As Canadians) we take the best of wherever we come from and make it the norm here in Canada. This is no different."

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