CHANG YONG TER

Architecture Design

Chang Architects

https://www.changarch.com/

Chang Yong Ter founded Chang Architects in 2000, right on the cusp of the new millennium. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, starting with winning the URA 20 Under 45 award in 2004 followed by a multitude of other achievements. Although 17 years have passed, Yong Ter’s passion for design continues to burn as bright as ever. Testament to his sensitivity as an architect, Yong Ter and his wife recently founded the Wondrous Light Children House, an activity centre for preschool children that focuses on the development of the senses rather than just a traditional education.
  • Education

    B.A. ARCHITECTURE, NUS

  • Founded company in

    2000

  • Previous Jobs

    TANG GUAN BEE ARCHITECTS

  • 1st Office

    HIS BEDROOM

  • Team Size - 1st Office

    0 HIMSELF

  • Current Office

    MORSE ROAD

  • Current Team Size

    01

  • 1996

    Graduates from NUS with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture. Joins Tang Guan Bee Architects as a full-time employee.

  • 2000

    Chang Architects is founded.

  • 2004

    Selected by URA to be showcased in 20 Under 45: A Selection of Works by Under-45s.

  • 2006

    Moves into current office in Morse Road.

  • 2012

    Completes Namly House.

  • 2013

    Wins the President's Design Award for Design of the Year.

  • 2017

    Completes the Wondrous Light Children's House.

  • 2019

    Completes Cornwall Gardens.

A Practice of Humility

By Tan Zhong Yang, 19 August 2021

How did your previous architectural experience working under Mr Tang Guan Bee when you first graduated influence your subsequent works?

I was with Tang Guan Bee during the second part of my internship, and before that I was with ADDP (ADDP Architects). ADDP is a different practice and has a different culture, so when I went to Tang Guan Bee, there was a sense of liberation, in the sense that the office was less structured. The focus was very much on design. After that, I went back to school for my Year four and Year five.

After graduation, I didn’t really start work. I was hoping to do some other things—anything except architecture! I knew that once I dived into architecture, it would be for the rest of my life. So I was doing odd jobs. I spent quite a bit of time doing flower arrangement.

Did you seek out any particular master to learn from?

Not really. It was set up in an industrial place at Pasir Panjang, so it was just a warehouse of dried flowers, more for mass production to be sold in retail. It’s not like ikebana (Japanese art of floral arrangement); it’s something where the more flowers you put in, the better! (Laughs) But I tried my best to make it nice and artful. So I did that up until October.

You graduated in May, right? So you did flower arrangement for a few months?

Yes. Then the school started to call me because they were doing surveys on employment rates (in architecture firms). (Laughs) So I sort of pulled down their employment rate. After a while, my parents were grumbling, because I was not doing a proper job. Then I bumped into Mr Tang again, and he told me, “Don’t waste your time. Come and join me.” So I joined him, and it was a very eventful five years over there.

Was there a large difference in your experience as an intern and as a full time employee?

When I went back (as a full-timer), I had become a slightly more mature person with a different outlook on life. The responsibility was also heavier because you’re no longer an intern; you’re expected to have a bit more knowledge about construction and the like. So I went in with quite a different mindset. But the culture at Tang Guan Bee was the same as before. Ling Hao (of LingHao Architects) was there as well—he was there when I was an intern and was still there when I returned as a full-timer, so it wasn’t that much of a difference in terms of the office environment.

Was Tang Guan Bee a small firm? How many employees were there?

At that point of time, there were three architects: two QPs (Qualified Person), and a third person—who was based in KL—who helped to draft. There were many interns; for most of the time, there were more interns than architects.

Did these experiences have a significant impact on your approach to design, or your outlook towards life in general?

The culture that I absorbed during my time under Tang Guan Bee had a great influence in how I approached my subsequent works. Mr Tang didn’t have a table, so he would be walking around and talking about anything but architecture. Most of the time, it would be gossip about his architect friends. But we actually learned a fair bit about the industry from these conversations, because the topic would always go back to architecture. This approach imposed upon us the fact that we were full-time designers; that architecture was a 24/7 affair instead of just a nine-to-five job.

So architecture was seen as a lifestyle rather than a job?

Yes. Sometimes he (Mr Tang) would nag, because I was single during those years, and he would tell me to get a girlfriend with good taste.

Do you guys still keep in touch?

He’s now in a nursing home, and it’s quite a hassle to visit him because of the Covid situation. But I managed to visit him a few months ago.

How did your education in NUS shape your experience?

Most of us went into architecture without knowing what architecture even was, especially during our time. I was at the orientation program before we decided what course we were going to enrol in, and there was a JC (Junior College) student who asked, “what kind of engineer is an architect?”

The arts scene during that period was also very undeveloped. So when I went into Architecture, my Year One tutor, the late Mr Whang Tar Kuay, caused a shift in my mindset. He had a great influence on me. He got his degree from the University of California, Berkeley, where he met Frank Lloyd Wright. He was already very elderly when he was our tutor in Year One, so he had a lot of experiences to share with us. He was the one who first sparked my passion for architecture.

In those days, the tutors at NUS were specialists in their various fields, so we really learnt a lot and it was very diverse. You had tutors who specialised in fine arts, the history of architecture, landscape architecture, services, structures and the like. So those five years really opened up my worldview. Architecture was a very balanced course because it developed both your left and your right brain. We had a good mix of students with different backgrounds; we had classmates from the commerce stream, the science stream, and the arts stream, and it was interesting to see how they addressed different topics in their own way.

How was your thesis a turning point for you?

When I was in Year Four, we were tasked with a project called The Healing Centre. The brief was given to us a month before the next term started, so we had a whole month to look into what we wanted to pursue. There were different options like TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), yoga and the like, and we were supposed to choose the vehicle for the program. I chose Yoga and went to look for courses on Yoga in the Yellow Pages to understand more about it. I found a free course that focused on meditation, not so much on Hatha yoga; there was no stretching at all, it was pure meditation. I also learned about the entire philosophy of yoga. From there, it was another shift in my worldview towards the more non-physical aspects of life. When I did the yoga project, I brought in some Hindu philosophies. My tutor at the time was Doctor Painal Indov, she was an expert in Hindu and Southeast Asian indigenous architecture—she actually wrote the encyclopedia on the subject. I had a lot to gain from her experience.

I chose her as my thesis tutor. The topic for my thesis was space-time causation, and through it, we sought to question the origin of our physical form and the physical world that we are in. Until now, I’m still searching for the answer to that. (Laughs)

So how did you tie that back to architecture?

For the thesis, you need a vehicle to demonstrate what you’re trying to express. Mine was a very mundane program—an Indian Centre of Commerce. Within that complex of spaces, I tried to incorporate some Hindu philosophies.

When you started Chang Architects on your own, did you have a mentor or people that helped you? How was that experience?

It wasn’t planned for, because when I joined Mr Tang, I planned to work for him for the rest of my life. It was a simple aspiration in life, to work for a master. In 1999 the recession came, and the practice was affected.

At that point of time, a former classmate approached me and said that her sister was looking for an architect to do A&A for a semi-detached house. That was the time when I decided to come out on my own. A few months after I struck out on my own, another classmate approached me and introduced me to another client. With these two projects, the practice took off.

So it was by chance, in a sense?

Yes.

Was your relationship with Mr Tang affected as a result of leaving his firm?

Of course! I was the last architect left in the office. At that time, Randy (Randy Chan of Zarch Collaboratives) was trying to set up his practice, and he was looking for a space. Eventually, he rented a space at the same office, and eventually took up and completed some of the projects that were stalled. So there was someone to oversee the projects that had been left behind. Of course, Mr Tang was sad for me to go. I also felt sad, but things have to move on. He was very encouraging. It was a happy conclusion to my chapter as an employee at his firm.

What were some of the initial teething issues that came with setting up your own firm?

It was very smooth because with Mr Tang Guan Bee, I was doing almost everything. So there was no change when it came to doing things on my own, except that it was a different setup in a different office.

You’ve won a lot of accolades—both as an individual and as the principal of Chang Architects. Would you say that these awards were turning points for the firm?

When I started my practice, I just wanted to do good works. I didn’t care about entering competitions or winning awards. Along the way, a lady friend from URA approached me because she was in charge of the 20 Under 45 and was looking for young architects to feature. It was more for the sake of helping her, so I decided to sign up for the program. There were some auditions involved, so they visited the sites and I was selected. I didn’t think much of it at first, but it actually helped me a lot! It helps a lot with publicity to be listed among the 20. I’m very grateful for URA and also for Lay Bee (Yap Lay Bee) to have thought of this to promote young local architects.

Would you say that it’s important for architecture firms to strive for these awards? Or do you think that you would have done just fine even without them?

These awards definitely really helped. No amount of advertisements that you pay to a magazine or publisher can equal the recognition that you get from just one award. It is invaluable.

As the principal of a one-man firm, what are some of your responsibilities? Do you delegate work to freelancers, or do you prefer the control that comes with doing everything by yourself?

It wasn’t planned to be a one-man firm. I normally go with the flow and see if more projects come. Eventually, I got an assistant. Of course, I would only pick up jobs that are within my means at that point of time; projects that could help me to grow. It’s very possible to plan your workload and stay within your means; being small also means that you’re very nimble. I wouldn’t take on master-planning or condominium projects, those would be out of my scope.

It wasn’t planned to be a one-man firm. I normally go with the flow and see if more projects come
... being small also means that you’re very nimble.

What are some unique difficulties you have faced since setting up Chang Architects, as opposed to working for someone else?

The problems and challenges I faced at Tang Guan Bee and on my own were very much the same. The biggest challenges would be setting expectations on the client’s side. The technical problems can be solved quite easily, but it’s the human aspect that’s more tricky. So EQ plays quite a large role in this area.

In the same vein, what are some of the more difficult experiences you’ve had with clients?

It’s not that the more challenging clients to deal with are bad, but it’s that they don’t understand what you’ve been doing in terms of the design language. Those are the more problematic clients. Sometimes when I show them perspectives or even a physical model, they cannot visualise the eventual outcome. Those are the ones that you have to educate along the way.

How do you break it down for the lay people who don’t have knowledge in design?

You have to expend more time and effort to explain why things are done in a certain way. On the other hand, for the clients who are in sync with your language, they will instinctively understand the outcome you’re going for.

What were some of the factors that could have led to the success of Chang Architects?

I think that I’m down to earth and passionate about what I’m doing. I also try to be very conscientious and understanding of the clients needs. They have to be the first priority.

I think that I’m down to earth and passionate about what I’m doing.

Would you say that you have a distinctive style that clients specifically seek you out to achieve?

I’m not so sure about that. For every project, I don’t set out to achieve a specific design language. It very much depends on the client’s brief and also the context of the site. Those are things that influence the design outcome.

For every project, I don’t set out to achieve a specific design language. It very much depends on the client’s brief and also the context of the site. Those are things that influence the design outcome.

Do you choose the projects you undertake, and if so, what are the factors involved in whether you accept or reject a particular project?

I have no grounds to choose a project, unless I’m the developer! So if there’s an enquiry that comes in about a certain project, normally I’ll meet up with the client to understand the client as a person, and to see whether we have the chemistry to work together, because it’ll be a long affair to embark on the project together; so the chemistry plays a big part. The other criteria would be the brief and what they’re looking for in the design. Are they looking for some refreshing ideas, or are they looking for something that’s already been done before?

So if it’s something a bit more cookie cutter, maybe you’d think twice about accepting it?

Yeah, they can look for architects who are better with such designs.

How do you balance your designs with practical concerns like costing and buildability?

Those are very important criteria as well. From the onset, you have to take these into consideration into your design, to make sure that it is affordable and buildable.

So is it a little intuitive, in the sense that you instinctively have a sense of what can or cannot be done, based on the constraints given by the client?

Yes.

How have your non-architectural passions and commitments influenced your designs?

I think that I’m always being consciously, or subconsciously influenced by these factors. I think it happens all the time. I personally like music, but I’m not good at playing music, even though I was a drummer in my school days. So when I talk about music, I feel like it’s really akin to frozen architecture—it has rhythm, it has beats, it has a melody, and it has a clear beginning and ending. But it’s hard to fully verbalise how these thoughts and these influences can be translated into architecture.

when I talk about music, I feel like it’s really akin to frozen architecture—it has rhythm, it has beats, it has a melody, and it has a clear beginning and ending.

Can you tell us about your favourite project that you’ve worked on?

There are quite a number, but most of the time, my favourite ones would be the ones that are able to redefine typologies in an interesting way. Once you set the intention to do something different, that becomes a motivation for me.

Do you have any specific projects you can elaborate on?

Among my earlier projects, I would have to choose the Elok House. It transformed how intermediate terrace houses were designed in the way it brought the kitchen all the way to the front, when it’s usually located at the rear of the house along with other utilities. We actually had to do this because of site issues. There was a huge retaining wall, so the ventilation was bad. So the logical strategy was to bring it to the front so that it gets plenty of ventilation and light.

So you transformed it into a centrepiece of sorts?

In intermediate terraces, there’s normally a lack of natural day lighting and ventilation, so it was also logical to set back the main space from both boundary walls so that you get light from both sides. In this way, you don’t feel like you’re living in an intermediate terrace as much.

What’s your favourite work of architecture?

There are many! As students, most of us loved Tadao Ando; most of his works are still inspirations up till now. Frank Lloyd Wright was another of our idols. I also admire Peter Zumthor’s approach to materialism and how soulful his spaces are.

Have you been to any of these projects in person to check them out?

For Tadao Ando, yes, but for Peter Zumthor, not yet.

What would you say some of the highlights of your journey were? It could even just be a small moment that resonated with you.

Most of the time—these were when there were changes made during construction—when you discovered an issue and the client allowed for a change; those were the moments that were turning points for the project. Because of these changes, there was a different, but better outcome at the end of the day. There were moments like this in some of the projects.

Other times, I have gotten enquiries about potential clients who ask for free proposals. My answer to them is always no. Interestingly—because I was quite persistent in my response—they called me up a few times, but I still persisted. Sometimes, they would ask for a sketch, but I’d still say no. The most I have done is a short write up about my vision for the project. Surprisingly, the client liked it so much that he decided to hire me as the architect. I feel that, as architects, we have to be principled and avoid doing free proposals as much as possible. If the whole industry undercuts each other, then it’ll only make it worse for future architects.

I feel that, as architects, we have to be principled and avoid doing free proposals as much as possible. If the whole industry undercuts each other, then it’ll only make it worse for future architects.

On the flip side, was there a time when you thought of quitting architecture and doing something else?

That thought never came to me because there was no other option for me besides architecture. I could maybe do flower arrangement. (Laughs) In fact, earlier on, I was doing some odd jobs, like working as a receptionist between my A-levels and National Service. But jokes aside, I find that it’s really meaningful to be an architect, because whatever you do has some influence in people’s lives. I think that’s the driving force behind why it’s worth spending the time and effort to do a great job.

I find that it’s really meaningful to be an architect, because whatever you do has some influence in people’s lives. I think that’s the driving force behind why it’s worth spending the time and effort to do a great job.

In that vein, do you still keep in touch with some of the clients from past projects? I assume that you’d have worked very closely with some of them over a long period of time.

Yes, some of us are still in touch. I will still attend to some of them whenever they need help.

What would you say was the lowest point in your career?

Some of the low points would be the times when the client doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing. As an architect, I have to be very persistent, because sometimes, you instinctively know that the changes requested by the client are not going to be improvements, and would instead make the scheme worse. These can be turning points in a project, so I’ll often try to avoid that from happening. It did happen before—those were the times when I couldn’t help, and the client had their way. In the end, it didn’t turn out as well as I had envisioned. Sometimes, the client is unable to visualise 100% of what’s in your mind, even though you know what the outcome is going to be. Because of that, they have a different impression of the final scheme, and it’s hard to change that even if you show them perspectives or 3D renderings.

How do you think the architecture industry in Singapore can improve?

I think that we are pretty advanced in some ways, especially in how we use new technologies to enhance the way we practice and to make us more efficient. But I’m more concerned with the quality of design, and how refreshing our designs can be. It has to be cutting edge; that’s my concern. To set yourself apart from your competitors, you have to be creative.

Nowadays, because of social media, ideas can be copied very quickly, and you can be influenced very easily with Instagram and Pinterest. To be original is very hard nowadays, especially for youngsters who grew up in the IT age. Whereas for my time, we only had hardcopy magazines and by the time we received them it would be a few months after the project had completed, so we could forget about copying it. At Tang Guan Bee, we were not allowed to bring magazines into the office, because he didn’t want you to design with a magazine at your side. He would be nagging for months if you did that. So that’s my concern; because these days, it’s getting tougher and tougher to be original.

In that case, would you say that young architects in Singapore are not daring enough in terms of pushing the envelope?

I don’t think it’s a matter of being daring, but whether you are able to take yourself out of the realm of social media, and to have your own ideas that come from within. That’s getting more and more challenging.

What do you think about the working culture of architecture in general, relative to other industries, especially with regard to long hours and the like?

I think that the nature of the work we do requires rigour; in terms of thoughts, actions, and putting the details into actual plans. It really requires a lot of effort and time. This, I think, cannot be avoided, especially if you want to do a good job. There is no short-cut.

Where do you see the architecture industry in Singapore going in the future, maybe in a decade from now?

I think that it’s a little related to what I mentioned earlier, about how creative we can be. I’m very concerned about how children are raised nowadays. It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening since 15 to 20 years ago because parents have never really understood what’s needed for the development of a child when they’re young.


For children between four to seven, they should be playing most of the time. They should not be sent to enrichment class after enrichment class and given instructions on how to play. That will really stifle their imagination and their curiosity to discover things on their own. If children start to read and write at too young an age, it will affect their lifelong learning. They should be allowed to play and initiate their own play. Through play, they can learn about physical spaces and their own body, their hands and their legs. What happens from zero to seven years can have a lifelong effect on the child. The problem is that very few parents and teachers understand that.

The senses of a child, especially the sense of touch, need to be developed during that time. They need to be touching natural, raw materials like wood and sand. They need to play in the mud. They cannot be looking at their iPhones and iPads all the time—there is no interaction with the physical world. These senses are developed between those years, and when that happens, they’re ingrained in the body. After you grow up as an adult, you’ll have a better idea of how to design, because you have these senses in you. But once you don’t develop that, you’re not even able to discern between different types of wood, for example. If you’ve been only exposed to plastic when you’re young, that’s even worse, because plastic is very finite whereas timber is alive, it has texture. Different pieces of wood and different parts of the wood feel different. You have to develop that sense in you. I just feel that children nowadays are lacking in this area. We need *kampung *children, but we don’t have kampungs for children to grow up in, because in Singapore, everything is so urbanized.

I guess the closest thing we have to fill this need would be the playgrounds or void decks?

Yes, and even playgrounds are normally made out of plastic or fibreglass instead of wood. The ground is normally made of synthetic material. It’s not sand, mud, or soil. That’s a big worry for me.

I noticed that you previously designed a school (the Wondrous Light Children’s House)—can you walk us through how your philosophy towards how a child should be brought up influenced the design for that project?

In that particular centre, the students spend a lot of time doing physical things, because to them, play is very hard work. When they watch adults at work, it’s like play to them! For example, when they push something heavy, they need to lean their body more, compared to when they push something lighter. By doing that action, they experience this and it becomes ingrained in the body, so when they grow up and study physics, they can understand the principles better, because they’ve experienced it first-hand.

The activities in the centre are very much play based. For example, the toys they use are things like mango seeds, rubber seeds, or tree bark. These are all open-ended toys. There is nothing like Lego, because Lego is very finite, and every piece is standard. The children play with wood blocks that are irregular in shape, plucked from the tree or from the ground. We take it, polish it, and that becomes a toy for them. So every piece is different and they have to respond to the irregularities in each one. The kids can play with a piece of cloth for hours—it can be water, or a canopy; it can be so many things. Every time they play with the cloth, it has a different meaning to them.

When children are brought up in this kind of environment, they tend to be very open minded and very imaginative. Sometimes, we have children coming to the school from the mainstream kindergartens during our holiday programs. When they come in, they ask, “where are the toys?” And when we show them the toys, they ask us, “how do we play?”. They’ll be stuck and wait for instructions.

We keep talking about lifelong learning; I have to emphasise that it starts from zero to seven. That’s the time when the curiosity of the child is aroused, and we have to keep that instead of stifling that.

What about from seven onwards?

From seven onwards, it’s where we start to develop their feelings. From zero to seven, that’s when we develop their willpower—their will to do things as a baby, to stand up and to run. This willpower will enable them to fulfil their dreams when they are older; they will have the willpower to execute it. Most youngsters nowadays have a lot of dreams, but they lack the willpower. That’s why we have this term called Cao Mei Zu (草莓族 or Strawberry Generation). It’s pretty sad, but that’s what’s happening, and very few people recognise this problem.

Why do you still take part in competitions for large projects like SCAPE and the recent Founder’s Memorial, knowing that your chances are significantly lower on account of being a solo practice?

Being small, you have to be selective when you take part in these kinds of competitions. If the brief says that the final design will be selected based on merit, instead of the size of the company, then I will participate, because I believe that they will fulfil this selection criterion. The programs for these kinds of projects are rare and they are normally very interesting, so it’s a good exercise for design skills of a different nature.

So it’s more like an exercise in self-development?

Yes. Whether or not you win the project is secondary. But for the Founder’s Memorial, as a Singaporean born and bred here, I felt that it was my duty to take part. This will be a place for Singaporeans, so I thought—who else can tell the story better than a Singaporean? So it was a calling to at least take part in the proposal.

What are your views on architecture competitions? Do you feel that participants who take part but do not win are being unfairly compensated for their time and effort?

When we decide to enter a competition, the goal is of course to get the project and the commission. But we have to be realistic and understand that there will only be one winner. So we have to be mentally prepared for the outcome.

Do you feel like the government or BCA should at least impose some sort of minimum fee that has to be given to all entrants?

I think that that really depends on the capacity of the developer or organisation. But as architects, we do have the right to choose whether or not to take part or not, and we have to face the consequences.

Moving on to more recent happenings, are you working on any projects right now?

I’m doing a couple of residential and office projects.

Has this pandemic period been a challenging time? What significant changes has it had on the operation of your firm?

Not so much, except that progress has been slowed down, because of the lack of workers.

I assume that costs of construction have also gone up?

Yes. The cost of material and labor have both increased. The pandemic is affecting everybody, so clients understand, and they take it in stride.

Do you have any future plans for the company? Would you consider expanding to the size of a small firm, maybe four to five people, or moving to a new office? Or are you happy with the direction that it is going in right now?

Normally I will go with the flow and expand organically. When there are more projects, I will hire more staff, rather than hiring more staff and having to wait for projects, or praying for the big projects to come. I’d rather do my best with whatever I have on hand at the moment.

I’d rather do my best with whatever I have on hand at the moment.

When you hire new staff when a new project comes in, will the arrangement only be for the duration of the project?

I view hiring staff as a long-term relationship, because the staff need to understand how you operate as a designer and architect. So I don’t think that temporary staff are a good solution, because the team has to be closely knit.

If you could travel back in time, what’s one piece of advice you’d give your past self? Would you have done anything differently?

Normally, decisions are made at a particular point of time under their own circumstances and with a certain frame of mind. If I were to go back, I would have made the same decisions; I don’t think I would do otherwise. So I have no regrets.

If I were to go back, I would have made the same decisions; I don’t think I would do otherwise. So I have no regrets.

What would you say to someone who is considering starting their own architecture practice?

I think the question you have to contemplate is the intention and motive behind starting this practice. What is the driving force and the desire to start the firm? You should not be seeing it as a job, you should be having higher aspirations and higher intentions. So the root question is always: Why?

So what was your answer to this question?

I wanted to push myself as a designer and architect, and also to do my best to come up with interesting and inspiring spaces for the end users.

What is your dream project?

This dream sometimes changes. (Laughs) Currently, the children’s centre (Wondrous Light Children’s House) is in the upper floors of a shophouse, so it doesn’t have a grounded space. I’m really hoping for a place that is close to nature, or to have nature within that complex, so that children can have access to nature, or even live with nature.

Would that be in Singapore? If the sky’s the limit, would you prefer to have it in some sort of far-flung location instead?

Our vision for the centre was to create a platform for like-minded parents who want to have their children raised in this kind of pedagogy and environment. So I hope to do it in Singapore because if we do it overseas, that will not benefit locals. We don’t have kampungs in Singapore—I mean, we have Kampung Buangkok—but it’s not ideal, and it may go at any time.

So it’s about giving back to the community?

Yes. In Malaysia, they have kampung kids; in Indonesia, they have plenty. But it’s only in Singapore that we don’t have places like this for children.

When I was in my first year in NUS Architecture, I did a precedent study on the Namly House that you designed. Can you tell us a bit more about the inspiration behind the project, and how it came to have this very distinctive form?

When the client first approached me, he wanted a concrete house. That was a puzzle to me because when I was an architecture student, we were told that concrete houses were not tropical, and that it would be very hot inside. That was the requirement he gave, and it sent me thinking. He invited me to his house in Penang, where he had a retirement house already built. He wanted me to get a feel for the setting and his lifestyle. So I went there and stayed for a few days; he actually treated me to durian because he had a durian plantation. Before he gave me the full brief, I had a durian feast!

He wanted a house with a lot of paradoxical requirements. For example, he wanted it to be open yet closed. So it took me a while to put everything together and to be able to meet those requirements. The brief was actually the driving force behind the unique design. Without the brief, it could have ended up as a very mundane design.

This project helped me realise that concrete has to be of a certain thickness when it’s built as a structure. Because of the thickness of the material it’s able to block out solar rays, since it has to be at least 150mm thick. By the time the heat penetrates halfway through, it will be night, so the concrete has time to cool down by the next morning. So in that sense, concrete becomes a very good insulator.

So the shell itself heats up, but the inside remains cool, especially with the cross ventilation?

Yes. The client told me that the ground floor is perpetually cool throughout the entire day, so it worked in practise.

That’s good to hear. Finally, do you have any words of advice to the young designers out there?

I always say to listen to your heart and design with your heart. Even when you think, think through your heart, not just your brain. Work through your heart. Your heart has the correct answers, but when your brain uses logic to analyse, there will be other thoughts that are distracting and influence your judgement. Most of the time, the accurate answers come from the heart. If you tap within, you will normally get the right answers. It’s about practice. Keep going and tap within.

I always say to listen to your heart and design with your heart.

That’s about it. Thank you so much for your time!

You’re most welcome!

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