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Inside the Designer’s Studio With Ken Yeang

As part of the recent Design Green! Skycourts & Skygardens exposition, renowned architect Ken Yeang was invited to present his work and participate in a lively Q&A session at the National Design Centre in early September. Here’s an excerpt from the candid session, hosted by architect Jason Pomeroy.

Inside the Designer’s Studio With Ken Yeang


October 1st, 2014

Top image: Ken Yeang (left), Jason Pomeroy (right)

Jason Pomeroy: If I wasn’t an architect, I’d be a…?

Ken Yeang: I really dislike the stresses in the life of an architect – an architect’s life can be so absolutely demanding. There are four reasons (and more) why an architect’s life can be very stressful and miserable.

Firstly the business of being an architect is very much a ‘cash-flow driven’ business. The trouble with being an essentially cash-flow driven business is that as very few clients will pay the architect fees in advance (and if ever on time), the poor architect has to do the work first before he gets paid. Then there is often that the time-lag before when the architect submits his invoice and when he actually receives payment. Getting the cash on time when needed becomes dependent on how fast the architect can work. If he doesn’t do the work fast enough, he won’t get paid in time for him to have the money to pay bills and expenses at the end of the month. But then if the architect works too fast, the quality of his design may suffer because he has not been able to think and spend enough time to conceptualise and to develop the ideas when designing – which then makes the architect as a designer feeling seriously unhappy about the outcome.

Secondly, the life of an architect is very ‘delivery-intensive’. By this I mean when you run your own architect’s business, you become aware that everyday there will be at least half a dozen or even more things that the architect just must deliver on time and deliver on that day. And if he don’t deliver on time and on that day, someone’s going get really annoyed with him – for example he may have to call a tender, or give a letter of award, or complete a design for a presentation, or sign a contract or whatever. Being a daily deliver-intensive business just adds to the day’s stresses.

Ken Yeang

Thirdly, no matter how well organised or efficient an architect may be, he will find he is constantly having to ‘fight fires’ – by this I mean it is very much a crisis-ridden occupation whereupon often something will unexpectedly happen or go wrong which is absolutely no fault of the architect – such as the project’s urgently needed imported material gets stuck in the port, or somebody gets hurt on site, or the contractor makes a huge mistake (and he’s in tears because rectification will cost a lot of money) and so forth. When something like that happens, the architect simply has to immediately set time, money (at the expense of doing something more profitable elsewhere) and his energy aside to attend to the crisis and to find solutions because if the architect doesn’t resolve it and address the matter immediately, the problem may exacerbate. Fighting frequent and unexpected crises just gives additional stress to the poor architect’s life.


And fourthly, the architect is often given impossible deadlines to meet. All of us are just incredibly tired, because many would have spent the past few nights slaving away to deliver a project’s design and presentation material…

All these reasons (and more) simply makes the architect’s life incredibly stressful and miserable, so what could be the options for the profession?

The architect might consider going upstream or downstream. He might consider diversifying upstream such as becoming an architect-developer or some other hybrid. Where the architect makes say, ‘x’ profit on his fees for a project, the developer makes a thousand times ‘x’ over what the architect makes. Sure the developer takes financial risks but these risks can often be mitigated such as through joint-ventures or through pre-agreed deferred payments or by pre-selling before financial commitment, etc. These became clear to me after I attended business school classes.

I learnt how to do the financial analyses for a development project, whereupon I said to myself, “My goodness, I have been diddled for a huge part of my professional life!…”. Its not so much, ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, but ‘all work and no pay makes Jack a dull architect’.

Spire Edge
Spire Edge

Ken yeang
Ken Yeang receiving Jason Pomeroy’s latest book, Skycourts & Skygardens: Greening the Urban Habitat

If you are an architect-developer, you will understand what a developer does to make the project profitable and successful. It all starts with the project’s ‘financial model’. If you are an architect-developer, you do the financial model in-house (which is not difficult to do), and then the financial model becomes the controlling design brief that’s the basis for design – rather than spend an awful lot of time trying to eke the design brief describing the expected product and budget out of the client, or worse trying to guess what the client really wants.

Then when you start designing as the architect-developer, you don’t have to do a whole set of beautiful perspectives to sell your ideas to the client, because you are already the client and you at the onset already know what the project is going to look like in your head, what the layout is going to be, what the details are going to be, what sort of materials you are going to use. And then if the client asks you to look at different layout options for the site or different builtform configurations if the initial design does not look right to them, then very quickly, say in a few minutes since your are your own client, you can make a decision there and then rather than redo the entire presentation. In this way, you get to the market faster. The entire product production, development and delivery process becomes accelerated. And so this is one of the many ways in which being an architect-developer can be beneficial to the real estate development process.

And so I would recommend, to those of you who are still students – to think seriously now about what happens when you graduate and become an architect. You need to be truly committed and dedicated to the craft to be able to withstand the above factors that make the architect’s life stressful and miserable. Worse, you may find that when there is a recession, clients will try to push the architect’s fees down, and then when the recession is over, the fees remain down (joke).

And so there are many other ways in which an architect can diversify (that is, if you wish to diversify). You can for instance be an architect-supplier – I was told that the largest supplier of facade curtain walls in the Philippines is an architect. So the architect can diversify either upstream or downstream – if you wish to seek an alternative life to being an architect you can be (as mentioned) an architect-developer, or be an architect-builder (I.e. Provide design-and-build services), or be an architect-supplier, or you can be an architect-entertainer (and I met one the other day who is a singer and TV personality) or whatever! You can be a hybrid – take what you already do as an architect, and see what else you can do with it. But remain an architect only and only, if you are absolutely passionate about designing and passionate about the art and craft of architecture, because the architect is essentially a craftsman. The craftsman goal in life is to be a ‘master of his craft” – such that he may for instance, do the same craft day in and day out, but each time he does it again, he tries to do it better than before.

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