Interview with WHBC Architects

Wen Hsia Ang and BC Ang are the two halves of WHBC Architects, a young studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As they explained in their presentation at the recent National Architecture Conference, they regard architecture as an exercise in problem solving. Each project demands a singular idea that can define and carry it. To attest to this philosophy, their website catalogues their projects according to simple sketches: if they can’t draw a single sketch to explain the core idea of a project, then the idea isn’t strong enough.

I had the pleasure of interviewing them after their conference presentation, and found much in common with their passion for ideas, craft and the making of buildings.

durian compoundDurian Shed, Negeri Sembilan

Thank you for your lecture, it was very engaging.

Wen Hsia: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Even though I was familiar with a number of your projects, the discussion of your thinking behind them offered new insights. Can you describe your work in its geographical context, whether you see it as particularly Malaysian?

BC: We believe geographical boundaries are man-made, so we relate first of all to the climate, which is pretty similar in Malaysia, Indonesia or other Asian countries. But on another layer, when you look at the construction context in Malaysia we have a combination of migrant and local workers. These different kinds of craftspeople make a big difference to the design. The climate, the people making the buildings and the people we are making them for all influence us. For us, there is no Malaysian design per se.

WH: Yes, we are always constrained by our tropical climate, the budget and the way our buildings are made. Certain materials may be cheap in Australia, but expensive in Malaysia. We do a lot of our projects in concrete because in Malaysia it is cheaper to build with concrete than steel or timber.

BC: Labour is cheap in Malaysia.

That was my next comment actually. Labour is cheap, concrete is cheap because it’s essentially just dirt, but steel is expensive.

BC: Yes, we have a labour-intensive culture, of building with wet works, reinforced concrete frames, bricks and mortar. This culture has existed in Malaysia for thirty to forty years and is cheaper than doing for instance a steel building.

As an Australian architect, I’m envious of the possibilities inherent in that culture. Here, the labour component of a project may be 60% of the construction budget, so we make decisions that use less labour but more materials.

WH: Yes, this affects our design decisions, but the other way around.

BC: We use concrete whenever it is appropriate as a way of responding to the Malaysian construction industry. Even when we are doing our early design work, we are already thinking about who can build it, which craftspeople have the skill to do it. If they are not available, we might have to relook at it…

WH: We might have to simplify some of the details, so the details evolve with the job. We have to think about how the builders will work and try and adjust our designs accordingly.

At last year’s national conference, Yosuke Hayano from MAD Architects in China discussed the challenge of building very large, highly technical buildings with old-fashioned construction techniques and labourers. Does this issue affect the way your ideas find their way into your projects? Do your ideas sit in the details or, knowing that the details aren’t necessarily going to be executed the way you want, in the bigger picture?

WH: That’s a very interesting question. We like our design concepts to be very strong. If our idea is strong enough, even if the details are not what we expect, the idea can carry the whole weight of the project.

BC: We like to be very pragmatic. On any project no matter its scale, the important component for us is still to have a good idea that solves a good problem. If our project can solve that problem, we go into the project with our eyes open, knowing that execution might not be as good as we really want it to be. We believe that doing good things is more important than crafting them perhaps.

WH: We do believe that all buildings should be well executed, and we try to be very particular about that aspiration, but in order to achieve it then we have to really think about how the building is going to be carried out and then work backwards.

So we struggle with exactly the same issues, no matter which country we are practicing in! Sometimes a project comes along with a very low budget and you know that you are not going to be able to execute it to the level of craftsmanship that you would like, so you make design decisions that can be achieved by a lower quality of craftsperson on site. It’s not ideal, but it’s a job and you do it…

WH: As long as the idea is achieved, that is something that we cannot compromise.

BC: If a project comes to us and we are just supposed to build the building, without adding any value or solving any problems, then there is no point doing it.

Do you say no to many projects?

WH: Yes, yes we do.

Is it hard to say no? It takes a lot of confidence to turn down a project…

BC: (Laughs) Even after we start working on a project, if we find it not working out then we will just have to move on.

That’s great. One of Glenn Murcutt’s pieces of wisdom that has always struck with me is that the future of our lives as architects is defined more by the projects we reject than the projects we accept.

WH: Exactly, yes.

dog hotelDog Hotel, Negeri Sembilan

What I think is interesting about your work is that there is actually much more than pragmatism, there’s also whimsy and humour. Like the skylights in your dog hotel, why wouldn’t a dog want some skylights? Is this a conscious process for you?

WH: (Laughs) Well, we love to have some sense of humour in all our projects. We tend to not take ourselves too seriously. We try and have fun with our projects.

BC: We have fun if the clients are good. With most projects, with the pole house and dog hotel, we become good friends with our clients.

WH: We know that we only have so much time, if we waste time on a project that we’re not happy about, then we can’t do really good work.

Yes, and then you start getting a reputation for doing bad work and all of a sudden more opportunities for bad work come to you.

BC: It’s like a vicious cycle.

telegraph pole houseTelegraph Pole House, Langkawi

You are partners in life as well as in business. Do you have complementary skills; do you share the roles on a project?

WH: It is actually quite good; we complement each other because we are two very different people in terms of architecture and in terms of thinking. The way BC thinks is quite German.

BC: We think in nationalities, I’m German or Japanese, very logical.

WH: And I’m more French (laughs), more intuitive and passionate. If I don’t like something, I’ll just come out and say what’s on my mind. We started working together seven or eight years ago and found very early on that we can be completely honest with each other. In Malaysia, people can be quite shy. But we have a partnership that works well because of our honesty with each other. We can tell each other off, I can tell BC that his scheme is really bad.

BC: So we have a fight about it (laughs), but then we get over it.Sometimes we both try to work on a design for one project, and will come out with different proposals. Whoever has the best idea leads the project, or whoever gets on best with the client.

WH: It changes from project to project.

Having been in practice together for a while now, do you know what you want for your future? Do you want your practice to stay the size it is now or grow? One of the issues with a small practice is being limited in the scale of projects you can take on.

BC: We are happy with the scale of our office now, just the two of us, but I disagree, I think a two-person office can do a very large project, but only one at a time.

That’s interesting. There are some strong similarities there with fellow Malaysian architect, Kevin Low. Has he influenced your approach at all?

BC: Yes, Kevin influences us a lot; he used to teach us both at school. I also worked with him at GDP Architects [a large Malaysian architecture office] before he set up his own practice. So yes, Kevin does influence us but the context of where he operates and where we operate is the same

Is the architecture community close in Malaysia? Is it knitted together across the whole country or if you’re practicing in Kuala Lumpur you don’t really know what’s happening in other cities?

WH: I think everyone does influence each other…

BC: But we are very quiet people so we don’t really go out and mingle. What’s more important is the craftspeople, the materials and the climate: they are the same problems that all architects in our region will face.

As you were saying earlier, it’s important to have the right craftspeople on a project. This reminds me actually of Low’s approach to construction, where he has developed an attitude where errors in construction are not necessary bad, and shouldn’t be replaced and covered over.

BC: I don’t entirely agree with that. I believe that you can’t start with the attitude on site that there are going to be errors. If you start with that attitude you will breed complacency. The industry will not improve; it will keep deteriorating.

How are your relationships with the builders and craftspeople on site established then? Do you deal only with the head builder, or deal directly with each trade?

BC: We normally engage each trade separately.

Is that typical?

BC: No, it’s not very typical. We used to practice by engaging the main contractor, and they would have their own sub-contractors. But then we started finding that the preferred sub-contractors would be busy and we would get someone less competent instead. This created whole kinds of trouble on site, so we started engaging directly with the trades.

WH: We request our clients to trust us while we are doing their project, and we trust our builders as well. In order to build that trust we need time to do the project our way. If a client can’t give us that trust, they will have to go to someone else.

So you are closely involved in construction, not just as observers?

BC: We don’t manage the site, but we are closely engaged in it. When we draw, say, concrete formwork using 8 x 4ft sheets of plywood, this equates roughly but not exactly to 2.4 x 1.2m. If we draw our lines at this distance apart, the builders have to spend their time cutting 20mm from every sheet that comes to site. So the builders speak to us about the materials they are using and we are able to save a lot of time, resources and money. Simple things like this engage us in the construction process. They allow us to change things to make building our designs easier not harder.

WH: This conversation doesn’t just happen on site, it happens while we are designing as well. When we design we are quite clear of the ideas that we want to have in our projects, but we are relaxed about the small things.

So we finish where we started: architecture is an exercise in problem solving. The central idea, as represented by the simple sketches you make for each project, is most important.

WH: Yes, that’s right.

Thank you both very much for your time.

house in chempenaiChempenai House, Kuala Lumpur

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.

Images sources:

  1. Durian Shed, WHBC Architects. This and subsequent images courtesy of the architect.
  2. Dog Hotel, WHBC Architects.
  3. Telegraph Pole House, WHBC Architects.
  4. Chempenai House, WHBC Architects.

The lifestyle is bitchin’

The 28th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

28. The lifestyle is bitchin’

the fonz

We currently run Mihaly Slocombe out of our spare bedroom. Our dining room, which is located at the front of our house, has one wall lined floor to ceiling with our architecture books, and doubles as our meeting room.

There is comfort in this arrangement, a threat to productivity no doubt, but a pleasure nonetheless. The commute time is exceptional – I can’t even begin to imagine where in my life I would find the two hours it used to for me to get to and from my old workplace. I never have to prepare my lunch in the morning, leftovers are reheated or jaffles are toasted as I feel like it. Working late if necessary isn’t a hassle as I can do it from the couch, all my resources still accessible but slippers on our feet.

The hours I work are flexible. Between three of us, we collectively work 9 FTE days a week. If I have to I can shift my days and hours around to attend workshops, visit remote sites, or take days off. I can match our practice work with teaching, other projects and, most importantly of all, parenting.

Our two year old son sees more of both his parents than most children and, in return, we have the joy of always being around. We have lunch together and Oscar works with his Daddy a few times each day, studiously playing with my phone while sitting on my lap, my arms wrapped around him to reach the keyboard.

The lifestyle is bitchin’.

Image source:

  1. The Fonz. Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, copyright Associated Press.

The architect is a Renaissance Man

The 27th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

27. The architect is a Renaissance Man

renaissance man

The daily life of an architect is far from linear. We must multitask across many activities, zigzagging between projects, project phases, skills and languages. I have never understood the interest in working for a large architecture practice, where each project is assigned a team, where teams are often restricted to single project phases, where individuals are employed to execute the same task over and over and over again.

Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance Man, an architect and urban designer and sculptor and painter and poet and inventor and builder. What an era and country in which to have lived, when the world’s artists were able to apply their abilities across so many media! The modern architect working in a small practice is no different. We are problem solvers and creative thinkers and craftspeople and scholars and leaders and businesspeople and politicians and polyglots.

The job is exciting, every element of it multifaceted. We draw by hand and in the computer, make physical and digital models, write fee proposals, town planning applications and specifications. We sit at a desk, visit showrooms and factories, and inspect construction sites. Some tasks are more enjoyable than others, but the discordant rhythm of them all keeps our minds engaged and our spirits fulfilled.

The architect is a Renaissance Man.

Image source:

  1. Vitruvian Man. Hal Robert Myers Photography, copyright Leonardo da Vinci.

Architecture practice is an emotional rollercoaster ride

The 26th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

26. Architecture practice is an emotional rollercoaster ride

big dipper

When we worked for other architects, life was pretty simple. We worked on the projects our bosses gave us, and when they dried up for whatever reason – client review, town planning, tendering, budget collapse – we worked on the new projects our bosses gave us. The glaringly obvious truth that we failed to anticipate when we started Mihaly Slocombe is that the boss’ life is not so simple. When a project dries up, so do our fees and so do the things that keep us busy.

A month ago, we were up to our eyeballs in work. Juggling our nine active projects that all needed attention was very stressful and a task we only barely managed. But then within a matter of weeks, two projects finished construction, one finished documentation, one went into town planning, two paused until we received land surveys, two paused until we received client feedback and one died due to an irreconcilable budget and brief. We were left with nothing to do.

Watching one project after another grind to a halt – at least as far as our contributions were concerned – was even more stressful than having too much work to do. We had a terrible month of invoicing that, to add insult to injury, was coupled with a terrible month of expenses. And suddenly, we had to fabricate things for us to do.

Thankfully, our drought was short-lived, barely three weeks long, as half of our paused projects quickly woke up again. But the enduring lesson is troublesome: despite our best efforts at spreading out our projects so they’re unlike to all dry up simultaneously, it still happened.

Architecture practice is an emotional rollercoaster ride.

Image source:

  1. The big dipper. Photo Everywhere, author unknown.

Business is not a dirty word

The 25th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

25. Business is not a dirty word

garbage patch

Architects have long held the unflattering reputation as being poor businesspeople. This is probably rooted in truth, and all the more unfortunate because of it. The equation is simple: we may start our architecture practices because we love designing, but the only way we can keep doing so is if we are good at business.

There are three areas of business activity for which we have developed (and continue to develop) appreciation and skills.

We must manage our time. We need to budget how long it will take us to complete a project so we don’t end up diluting our fees so much we could have earned more flipping burgers. Typically, we earn $40 – 50 an hour on a project, gross. This is probably half what it should be, and a source of constant reflection. Budgeting our time also helps us meet our deadlines and keep our clients happy.

We must manage our finances. We need to keep a track of income, salaries, overheads and cashflow. Knowing how much we earn and spend helps us structure future fee proposals to better cover our costs and profit. Knowing when we earn and spend helps us avoid a dangerous boom and bust financial cycle.

Finally, we must manage our public profile. The most lasting and meaningful marketing lesson we have ever learnt is this: do good work, then put it where people can see it. What’s so important about this lesson is its two halves. Doing good work is critical, but it’s not enough. We need to be good designers and we need to be good sellers. An extension of this insight, and the second most meaningful marketing lesson we have ever learnt is this: more is more. Marketing is a both / and scenario, an additive numbers game. We spread our work as far and as wide as we possibly can in the hope that of every 100 people who see it, one will give us a call.

Business is not a dirty word.

Image source:

  1. The Great Hong Kong Garbage Patch. Journey to the Plastic Ocean, copyright Tracey Read.

Architecture is slow

The 24th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

24. Architecture is slow

litle turtle

In our university days, a project took precisely 12 weeks: no matter how resolved it was, come the end of semester we presented, were judged and moved on. In practice, 12 weeks is a blink of an eye. Hill House, our first project, took us six years to complete. Basser House and Farmer House took us three. Howard Street is an ongoing labour of love, five years old and counting. The musician has an enviable relationship with her art: design and feedback are simultaneous. Architecture is the opposite… slow.

The slowness of architecture has a few notable effects on architecture practice.

First, it is no coincidence that architects are considered young until at the very least we’re 40 (the digital maestros of Silicone Valley are considered ancient once they’re 30). It’s remarkable that the great Oscar Niemeyer continued working until his recent death at the age of 105, but maybe it was just because it took him so long to get started.

Second, it takes decades to explore, test, refine and perfect new ideas. A steel door handle detail we designed for Farmer House in July of 2012 is only now being fabricated. It may be many months until we use the idea on a subsequent project, and many years until we resolve it to a point that we feel sufficiently comfortable to use it with abandon.

Third, the growth of our practice matches the pace of our projects. We established Mihaly Slocombe in 2010 and are only now reaching the end of our first round of built projects. We have a graduate working with us part time now, which represents a 50% boost in personnel. We’re very busy, but in no need of further expansion at the moment. This is a glacial growth rate when we compare ourselves to a friend of ours who started a yoga studio not long after us – she is already in the process of opening her sixth outlet.

Fourth and perhaps obviously, architecture requires patience. The approach required to be a successful architect has a lot in common with long distance running. Every step must be considered in the context of dozens of kilometres, every ounce of exertion measured against the hours of running still to be done, every moment of pain acknowledged as advanced payment for the glory that awaits at the finishing line.

Architecture is slow.

Image source:

  1. Little turtle. Mr. Wallpaper, copyright Ines Martinez.

Architecture is old fashioned

The 24th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

23. Architecture is old fashioned

james bond

The 21st Century is a brave new time to be an architect. The digital revolution is having as profound an effect on us as it is everyone else. Parametric tools are rewriting the way buildings are designed; BIM is rewriting the way they are documented; social media is rewriting the way we connect; and the cloud is rewriting the way we communicate. But for all that, architecture is old fashioned.

We still need to be people people to thrive. Of the 53 project enquiries we have received since starting our architecture practice, word of mouth has generated 58% or 31 of them. Even more tellingly, word of mouth is responsible for 82% of the 22 projects we have undertaken. In other words, while our website, online portals like Houzz, television slots and the Australian Institute of Architect’s Find an Architect service provide us with a decent proportion of our project enquiries, they are not very successful in converting them into commissions. Trust remains an irreplaceable factor in helping clients choose us as their architect.

Our clients are in some sense much more than clients: they are partners. They feed us our inspiration, provide direction, support and feedback. They are as integral to the success of a project as we are, and they are not alone. We have to engage with surveyors, town planners and engineers too, each of whom can be a obstacle or a gateway. We must know how to help them buy into our direction for the project and become as invested in it as we are.

Then there is what we do: we draw and we make models. We use the computer a lot, but pens, tracing paper, card and PVA are still the tools we use to design. It’s as though we have been hardwired to gain satisfaction from the energetic loop that runs from mind to hand to paper to eye to mind. Digital technologies interrupt this flow, but a quick sketch is as natural as speaking.

Finally, there’s the pot of gold that waits for us downstream. All our research, design and documentation efforts are channelled into the production of a set of drawings that tell a bunch of blokes with drills, saws and sanders how to put things together. Blogging may only date back to the 1990s, but bricks and mortar go back millennia. Our involvement with materials and relationships with builders has an affect on us that other creative thinkers lack. They tie us to the history of a place and culture, anchor us in the ongoing legacy of the built environment.

Architecture is old fashioned.

Image source:

  1. James Bond. Passion Without Limits, author unknown.