SIM BOON YANG & CALVIN SIM
B.A. ARCHITECTURE, UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
Previous Jobs (Calvin)
AKITEK TENGGARA, DESIGN PRINCIPAL AT NIKKEN SEKKEI INTERNATIONAL
B.A. ARCHITECTURE, UNIVERSITY OF OREGON & UNIVERSITY OF LIVERPOOL
Previous Jobs (Boon)
MICHAEL HOPKINS & PARTNERS IN LONDON, PROJECT DIRECTOR AT ALFRED WONG PARTNERSHIP
Founded company in
SHOPHOUSE BASEMENT IN GEYLANG
Team Size - 1st Office
SHOPHOUSE OFF MOHAMED SULTAN ROAD
Team Size - 2nd Office
Team Size - 3rd Office
RED DOT BUILDING
Team Size - 4th Office
Current Team Size
Current Office (Thailand)
Current Office (China)
HUANG PU DISTRICT, SHANGHAI
Boon graduates from the University of Liverpool with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture.
Calvin graduates from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture and returns to Singapore, where he joins Akitek Tenggara. Boon begins working at Michael Hopkins & Partners in London.
Boon returns to Singapore. Eco.id is founded by Boon and Calvin.
Moves into office in Mohamed Sultan Road.
Carol Chng joins Eco.id as Director.
Completes Metropolitan Bangkok, Thailand.
Opens office in Shanghai, China. Ecoid wins the President's Design Award from the Naumi Hotel, Singapore.
Opens office in Bangkok, Thailand. Receives the Highly Commended Award at the World Architecture Festival for the Ivy Bound International School in Bangkok.
Moves into current office in Henderson Drive.
Completes Bawah Reserve, Indonesia.
Going Beyond the Bounds
By Amber Sim, 19 August 2021
Why did you decide to leave your previous jobs to start Eco.id?
Boon When I was studying architecture, the idea of running my own studio was a clear ambition, and the path towards that requires that I work for experience—first in London then in Singapore, before I found the right opportunity and timing to start up Eco.id Architects.
Calvin Starting a company has always been on the back of my mind; so even in school, in university. It happened sort of by chance when somebody offered us to do a project. The client offered to do a project, but the condition was that I had to set up a company to do that project, so because of that we set up the office.
How did the two of you decide to start a company together?
Calvin I met Boon when we were both in Officer Cadet School in the army. Boon was always a creative type, but I never knew that he would do architecture. So it came as a surprise to me later on, years later, when he said “Oh I'm going to be doing architecture in Oregon”. And then of course, I spent six months diddling around not going to school yet, so I was half a term behind him, but we eventually went to the same place.
Boon Because our educational paths were in parallel, were very similar, and having met in the army, there were never any overt plans, but the idea of practising together was something at the back of our minds; it was never planned in a kind of strategic way, it happened naturally.
Do you think your experience studying and working overseas was formative in how you run your business now?
Boon Definitely. I think one’s education and time away from home are formative both from a personal point of view but also in the work I do. It isn’t so much the physical or technical nature of what I learnt from work, it is a combination of, obviously, exposure to a much broader arena of arts, architecture, creative fields, in the places I’ve been to, but also interactions with different cultures because the practice of architecture is always contextual; so it is the context of a specific location, cultural response. And in the work we do now all over the world, that kind of subtle training in dealing with different cultures has been very relevant. We apply ourselves in many different ways depending on location, client, personality, and I think my time away was definitely useful in setting us up for this kind of work.
Calvin Well I think it gave us a different sort of viewpoint on how design is done. But I think the entire experience of studying elsewhere in the US and the UK really made the difference in how we approach our projects.
I think the entire experience of studying elsewhere in the US and the UK really made the difference in how we approach our projects.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started your business?
Calvin I think the challenge was paying ourselves. (Laughs) In the early days we were anchored with one hotel job and several house projects, so as most people who start an office would be doing—a lot of residential work. But then eventually once we had one or two projects already under our belt, then things started to take off. So it wasn’t really difficult.
Boon When we first started our work, we were always looking for an ability to pay ourselves. I would say the business side of the practice is not something you learn in school right, so it is unfortunate. Being a doctor, lawyer, architect, the university never prepares you for the reality of the business part of it. And that’s the most difficult. It may be anything from how you write a contract between you and a client, how you collect payments, how you plan cash flow to be able to pay yourself and staff. So those were very difficult things you learn as you move along in work.
So those were the kinds of things you just had to pick up along the way?
Boon Yes, yes.
And, at that point, did you have a conscious idea of the direction that you wanted your company to take, or was it something that slowly evolved as you got more jobs?
Calvin We had some long term plans to grow the company organically. I think we have done some of that, although I don’t think we have been completely successful in opening offices overseas. But I think we hit most of the KPIs.
Boon I think we are trained in a certain way, I would call it the modern school of design. And personally, I would consider myself a modernist through and through. But of course, modernism as an architectural language is plural, and that’s evolved. For example, when I first started working for a firm in London, they were high-tech modernists of the late 80s era, and that type of design instilled in me now a very disciplined, process-driven solution to architecture. But when I came back to Singapore, that stylistic vocabulary wasn’t applicable; it evolved. But still, the ethos of rationality leading to aesthetics and proportions is still very relevant, and still informs our work to this day. I would say that it has evolved through time, but there is a fundamental sort of foundation of modernism that guides our design.
The ethos of rationality leading to aesthetics and proportions is still very relevant, and still informs our work to this day. I would say that it has evolved through time, but there is a fundamental sort of foundation of modernism that guides our design.
Earlier Boon talked about the difficulties of getting acquainted with the business side of your practice, and with marketing being a big part of that, how did you go about getting new jobs and clients at the beginning?
Calvin (Our first job) was purely on a referral by an old classmate. The first couple of jobs were basically just by referrals.
I think the running of the business is sort of instinctive to both of us, but I did learn a lot of things because I worked at Akitek Tenggara, and I worked at Nikken Sekkei, and those working experiences sort of shaped how I would run a company.
Boon The step that we have to take when we leave the security of employment and go into private practice is something that is very uncertain. You leave on the back of maybe one or two very small residential jobs with no certainty of how the next job is going to come. I recalled that we came out to do a hotel project that was substantial enough to have given us some degree of security for maybe a couple of years, but the reality is that the job stalled, and in its place, we had other small residential projects that came in; and over time, one job done well leads to a recommendation to the next job.
So, again, in our type of work, we can’t advertise. By professional regulation, you cannot advertise for your services, and it comes by way of referrals; if you do one good job, you get the next job. That was really the way we grew. Obviously, now that we are a far more established practice, our speciality—particularly in residential and hospitality, which is hotels—means that we get references from operators, from clients, for this type of work.
Do you recall the first big job you had? How did Eco.id grow from there?
Calvin That was in Indonesia, in Manado. It never got built eventually because of the Asian crisis in 1996, but then we moved on to other things like the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok, and the W in the Maldives.
I think in the business, there is something called luck as well. So after we finished the Met (Metropolitan) Bangkok, we found that people liked it, and so we had a lot of inquiries, especially for hotels.
Another thing they don’t teach you in school is the interaction with clients and how that part of the business works; how did you eventually learn to compromise your skills and expertise with the clients demands?
Calvin As you know we are quite specialised in doing hotels, and when we work on hotel projects it’s not really what you want; there are a whole bunch of other people that need their wants to be met. So the first one is the client who is paying for the construction, and then you have the operator, and on the operator’s side there are guys who do branding—in terms of the brand identity of the hotel—guys who do ops and all that. I think that the entire process is really collaborative, you have to take everybody’s opinions and then come up with a solution for the design. So it's not really what you want, but what the project requires.
Boon Yes. I think first of all, clients come to you for your skillset. So if they think that they like our type of work—that is more modern, more minimalist, sort of, whatever it is—that’s the starting point. But obviously, clients have their own idiosyncratic demands that sometimes we don’t always agree with. Hence I think part of our profession is developing this EQ and the communication skills to be able to satisfy some of the client's wishes, to guide them towards what we think is a better solution, and there is no clear pathway to that.
It is kind of a fuzzy logic approach where ultimately you have an end game where you want to make sure something is built rationally, beautifully, but still practically; and as a good architect, you have to juggle all those pressures. I think at some point, if you do that well, a client would be satisfied with the result.
Part of our profession is developing this EQ and the communication skills to be able to satisfy some of the client's wishes, to guide them towards what we think is a better solution, and there is no clear pathway to that.
Now that you are a much more established company, with over 70 employees across offices in Singapore, Thailand and China, does a part of you miss working with a small team?
Calvin Well I think the teams are still small. Each team is maybe 10, 12 people, and I think that working conditions are quite optimal and quite intimate because you get to speak to people directly. We don’t play golf, we don’t really market; most of the work comes by referrals still. We’re kind of both still deeply involved in the design process. We’ve established a sort of SOP on how to work—especially with the overseas offices, how we send work out to them, and how we guide the design.
Boon Yes, so as we grow larger, it is really because we take on a new nature of work: Larger-scale projects, multiple locations, require us to have a broader footprint to be able to service these jobs, and part of that game is that you have to then devote time to management.
Calvin is a very good big-picture manager, and I think getting that infrastructure managed well is as important as the actual work we do because if you don’t have your resources organised well, you cannot service these very high demand jobs that take two to three years to unfold. And back to this question of do I miss it—yes. I think ultimately, we still love having a hand in design. I think as we settle management properly, and that is running smoothly, we are then able to devote time to what we do best and what we love to do, which is actually to get involved in design. I think now I find that I can spend more time working on concept design while knowing that the team is in place to be able to execute it smoothly and to implement it.
I think as we settle management properly, and that is running smoothly, we are then able to devote time to what we do best and what we love to do, which is actually to get involved in design.
Was the process of expanding overseas difficult?
Calvin It’s not easy but you need to know people in those countries you want to open an office, and there must be a particular reason why you want to do that. So for example, we opened a small office in Macedonia because we had hoped that this office would eventually service the Middle East, and the guys there were very professional in terms of the people we hired. In general, they were well trained, well schooled, and they all spoke English. And then we also had a contact in North Macedonia who could help us run the place.
Boon, you were saying how Calvin is the one who is good at management. Through your years together, how did you learn to separate the duties between the two of you?
Boon We have a very unusual toggling of roles, and when you get Calvin’s point of view, you can see if there are two contradicting points of view, or whether they align. But in the earlier years, Calvin was a very good designer, and I was the one who was a lot more focused and stressed by cash flow, delays, and so on. But as we got larger, I started to get into design more, and I like design, and Calvin played a very big role in reorganising the company structure and how the teams operate for efficiency. We never really discussed, “Okay, next year you do this, I take over this role;” it happens organically, and I think that is just the fact that we have been working together for such a long time.
Calvin We have different teams, different clients. Generally, there is not a lot of overlap, although there is, but in general Boon would cover more India, Middle East, where I would do more China.
Were there any conflicts along the way?
Calvin We are both still here. (Laughs)
Would you say being based in Singapore provides any unique advantage to your scope of work?
Boon I think it brings a lot of advantages. Like I say, the biggest issue we struggle with is the cost of doing business here and manpower, and it means that we have to mitigate it; it means that we have to now look for people who are better trained and higher-skilled, and then manage other resources that we deploy in other countries. For example, either through freelance work or through satellite offices.
Calvin I think that people look to Singapore as being efficient. You are well connected, you supposedly know what you are doing, and so generally I think Singapore gives you a fairly good starting point to do your business. Although that advantage of being a Singaporean or a Singapore-based company is slowly being eroded away because a lot of other countries are catching up. But we have a slight advantage I feel, being more exposed here.
I would say most of your business is overseas, is that because there are more opportunities or is it a preference?
Calvin I think with what we do, it has been more overseas because in Singapore not many hotels get built, although recently there have been quite a few. Because we have been working so much overseas and getting a lot of referrals from hotel operators, we sort of neglected the Singapore market, so as such we haven’t done as much in Singapore.
Is being able to travel to so many different countries the most rewarding part of your work?
Calvin Yes, of course. So during Covid-19 it has not been rewarding at all. (Laughs)
Boon Definitely, yes. I think it's interesting. In some ways, someone else would find it very difficult and inefficient. Everywhere you travel to there is a new way of thinking, a new solution from scratch. But for us, that is what keeps us very inspired. We are doing work everywhere from South America to Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia; they are so varied, and that is what makes our life interesting and our work interesting.
We are doing work everywhere from South America to Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia; they are so varied, and that is what makes our life interesting and our work interesting.
What do you think is the most challenging part of running an architecture practice in Singapore?
Calvin I think the most challenging part is really just managing people, and, or managing young people.
Speaking of young people, what advice would you give to young designers who are looking to start their own practice in Singapore?
Calvin I think you really need to be very passionate about what you are doing. You need to have the skill sets, you need to have the ability to handle people, meet clients, and finally, some luck as well.
Boon I think it is really getting to grips with the other aspects of practice and not simply design. As a young designer, you come out and you have the confidence with your design skill set—that’s very clear. But you have to equally develop a very realistic sort of attitude to running it sustainably, and what I mean by that is that everything from your organisation, your staffing, your job planning; you have to be very clear about acquiring those skills so that your practice is sustainable and that you can actually pay yourself a salary and get the ball rolling to build a practice.
I think you really need to be very passionate about what you are doing. You need to have the skill sets, you need to have the ability to handle people, meet clients, and finally, some luck as well.
Does that experience come from interning, working, and gaining experience at established firms?
Boon Definitely. I think a lot of young architects graduating, coming out, want to get the experience to get licensed, but very often they are siloed in a particular area of work. In a very large firm it may be just doing one thing, and I think sometimes working for a smaller firm lets you be exposed to many layers of practice and design, dealing with clients, presenting, communicating, and I think many young architects are lacking parts of those skill sets that allows them to be complete.
Looking into the future, in terms of your foresight for your company, do you have any further plans to expand or do you simply look towards the next project?
Calvin I mean personally I would like to expand the company a bit more. But I have not had that conversation with Boon yet about whether we would like to grow much bigger or not. But I think there are places we would want to go and set up offices. Yeah, so we’re not done yet.
Boon We are quite old fashioned in the sense that nowadays, people are looking for the next bound to grow. I think currently we are on a very old-fashioned path where if we are able to secure high-quality projects, high-value projects, up the value chain, and do it well, that is something that is still our modus operandi. And that growth is organic.
But it is pleasurable because the idea of let’s say, opening a new office to secure more work just to grow the company just to get the size up, it may be one way, you know, if someone is very ambitious, that may be one way to get very large. But I in some ways don’t aspire to that anymore. I find that now being more efficient, productive, keeping the team very tight, things are running well, the fees are good; that gives us more pleasure because we can then enjoy high-quality work, and that is really my personal aspiration. And obviously now, it’s really grooming the next layer of our staff to start to be able to step up and sustain the practice beyond simply the bosses—me, Calvin, and Carol.
Now, it’s really grooming the next layer of our staff to start to be able to step up and sustain the practice.