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The irrepressible spirit of Hong Kong practice

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Words:
Helen Castle

How is China’s economic slowdown affecting architecture in Hong Kong? Architects from three practices, specialising in different sectors, describe how they are seeking new opportunities while grappling with business challenges

Hong Kong holds a unique position as an international hub for architects in east Asia. It has 910 RIBA chartered members – the greatest number in any region outside the UK. The RIBA’s Part 3 course has 68 Hong Kong-based candidates this year.

Hong Kong is strategically located at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta in southern China. It has one of the world’s largest service economies, characterised by free trade and low taxation and its status as a Chinese special administrative region (SAR). It has strong links to mainland China and the wider Asia-Pacific area.

Architect Betty Ng defines the Hong Kong spirit as irrepressible, one of ‘rigour, positivity and entrepreneurship’. But how has architectural practice fared since the pandemic amid geopolitical shifts and the economic downturn in China?

Four RIBA members provide their unique insights into the Hong Kong practice context: Dennis Ho, director at Arup and design lead for east Asia; Betty Ng, founder and director at Collective Studio; Gavin Erasmus, senior director at Farrells; and Angeliki Koliomichou, associate at Farrells.

Arup director Dennis Ho is the firm’s east Asia regional design leader for architecture, urban design and landscape architecture and leads the East Asia Urban Innovation Unit.
Arup director Dennis Ho is the firm’s east Asia regional design leader for architecture, urban design and landscape architecture and leads the East Asia Urban Innovation Unit.

Adapting to a new economic environment

For Dennis Ho, who chairs the RIBA Hong Kong Chapter and leads Arup’s east Asia design studios, the impact of China’s slowing economy is incontrovertible. For the next couple of years, the outlook is ‘unpredictable’. The greatest effect is on architects who were ‘doing a lot of commercial projects in China’. The downturn in the Chinese property market has been caused by the oversupply in housing and retail and a tightened regulatory environment. This has subdued demand, squeezing developers’ balance sheets.

In Hong Kong itself, Ho explains: ‘The property market is quiet, house prices are not increasing, even though the Hong Kong government is releasing land. Developers are not interested in purchasing land parcels at the kind of prices the government are expecting.’

Despite the dampening of the commercial sector, Ho attributes Hong Kong with a ‘very active market’. China’s construction industry is expected to grow by 4 per cent between 2024 and 2027. This is supported by investment in infrastructure projects in transport, energy, water systems and new urbanisation as part of Chinese government’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021–2025).

This investment in infrastructure and urbanisation is reflected in what Ho describes as the Hong Kong government’s ‘progressive and aggressive approach to promoting its integration with Shenzhen, which is just across the Shenzhen River from northern Hong Kong.

‘A big area, now referred to as the Northern Metropolis, is being designated as the future innovation and technology district of Hong Kong,’ he says. ‘The government has signed agreements with international organisations to bring high-end industries to Hong Kong, such as health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, AI and big data.’

This strategic plan is also aiming to take on Hong Kong’s main economic competitor in the region, Singapore.

Ho, who led on a major masterplan for the Hong Kong Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park, is seeing further enquiries emerge from the initiative, such as that from a well-known global pharmaceutical company.

The Northern Metropolis requires a sensitive, sustainable treatment. ‘It’s an area of natural beauty on the river, surrounded by mountains and hills,’ he says. ‘It raises important questions as to how you create this balance between what we're going to build in the future while protecting the local ecology.’

Ho led Arup’s Taikoo Green Ribbon project, winner of the Advancing Net Zero competition organised by the Hong Kong Green Building Council for a net-zero carbon commercial tower in Hong Kong.
Ho led Arup’s Taikoo Green Ribbon project, winner of the Advancing Net Zero competition organised by the Hong Kong Green Building Council for a net-zero carbon commercial tower in Hong Kong.

Ho collaborates closely with senior colleagues at Arup across south-east Asia. Seeking opportunities together, they provide ‘an all-in-one offer to clients, creating added value to the project with integration of architecture and engineering expertise’. They join forces on projects requiring expertise in climate resilience, water-related sustainability, renewable energy and transport infrastructure.

Another area of substantial government investment in Hong Kong is public housing – the government has a 10-year housing strategy plan to build 440,000 units. Though the cost base for designing public housing has previously been low, it is an area where Arup believes it can bring added value. With its digital team, it is developing a special methodology for modular integrated construction (MIC). This new offsite approach could be an opportunity to reduce costs and increase the speed of construction. It could also improve the sense of wellbeing for residents, making public housing more appealing and successful by improving sustainability, internal arrangements and communal facilities.

Ho’s passion for urban design, sustainability and technology was ignited by 15 years working with Richard Rogers in London. He is keen that ‘new opportunities should emerge for architects, as they adjust to designing new types of technology-related projects’.

Left to right: Collective’s directors Katja Lam, Juan Minguez, Chi Yan Chan and founder Betty Ng.
Left to right: Collective’s directors Katja Lam, Juan Minguez, Chi Yan Chan and founder Betty Ng. Credit: Kevin Mak of 1km Studio

Finding opportunity in the cultural sector

As a small-to-medium-size practice with a staff of 16, Collective has not been significantly affected by the economic turmoil in China’s real estate sector. The effect has been a secondary one with property developers in Hong Kong affected by the wider global market. Although several significant of its Hong Kong projects were delayed, these are now coming to completion. They include: designing the architecture, interiors and landscape for the podium of 83 King Lam Street; the facade and landscape design for 11SKIES Rooftop Garden: and the interior design of Christie's Asia Pacific Headquarters.

Practice founder and director Betty Ng attributes the practice’s rising profile and current stability to its roots in the arts. It’s a sector that has proved resilient because of its emphasis on ‘people’s wellness and the growth of culture in society’. Ng and her three co-directors draw on a wealth of international experience in the cultural sector, having worked at OMA and Herzog & de Meuron.

This expertise is significant as Hong Kong’s compactness and density means there is scarce demand for one-off houses or house extensions – such a mainstay of small practices in the UK.

For a small design-orientated practice like Collective, the completion of these bigger projects represents an important step change. It had already gained a reputation as, ‘architects in the art world that create unique and distinctive exhibition designs’ like the 9,000m2 space for Shanghai Biennale. This has paved the way for these larger-scale spaces. The commission for the interior design of the Christie's headquarters was aided by Collective’s experience in the arts and workplace design, but also retail design, in which it also has a strong track record.

  • Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong.
    Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong. Credit: Kevin Mak of 1km Studio, courtesy New World Development Company Limited
  • Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong.
    Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong. Credit: Kevin Mak of 1km Studio, courtesy New World Development Company Limited
  • Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong.
    Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong. Credit: Kevin Mak of 1km Studio, courtesy New World Development Company Limited
  • Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong.
    Collective’s podium design for 83 King Lam Street, Hong Kong. Credit: Kevin Mak of 1km Studio, courtesy New World Development Company Limited
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As Ng explains, the interior design of retail ‘is a natural fit for Collective, given our experience in exhibition design and displaying objects and artwork; it lends itself to thinking how you experience merchandise and circulate within a space’. Having already worked for fashion brands in the US, Collective has recently completed the design of JOYCE, a longstanding luxury boutique in Hong Kong. The studio has also transferred these skills to restaurant design.

Despite its rising profile and healthy cashflow, the current level of fees remains a challenge. This is, to an extent, a matter of clients’ understanding of architects’ services, but also competing practices. Having been in tenders with large firms, which are willing to cut their fees by 50 per cent to win a project, she regards ‘underbidding as an intrinsic problem in our industry’. She points out that architects’ fees have not increased for the last 25 years. She refers to a fee rate that was recommended as the result of a member survey by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA) in 1998. The recommended rate was ‘higher than we have now in 2024’.

  • Collective’s design for Agora, a Spanish restaurant in the original prison cells of historic Tai Kwun, Hong Kong’s colonial police station and prison.
    Collective’s design for Agora, a Spanish restaurant in the original prison cells of historic Tai Kwun, Hong Kong’s colonial police station and prison. Credit: Kevin Mak of 1km Studio
  • For the 14th Shanghai Biennale (November 2023 – March 2024), Collective designed 9,000m2 of exhibition space across 3 levels.
    For the 14th Shanghai Biennale (November 2023 – March 2024), Collective designed 9,000m2 of exhibition space across 3 levels. Credit: Artwork: Orbital Reflector; scale model: Trevor Paglen
  • Collective’s interior design for JOYCE’s flagship store in Hong Kong, opened in September 2022.
    Collective’s interior design for JOYCE’s flagship store in Hong Kong, opened in September 2022. Credit: Kevin Mak of 1km Studio
  • Collective’s facade and landscape design for 11SKIES Rooftop at Hong Kong International Airport, opening in July 2024.
    Collective’s facade and landscape design for 11SKIES Rooftop at Hong Kong International Airport, opening in July 2024.
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The business of architecture

With a 70-strong staff in Hong Kong, Farrells has an established reputation for working on large-scale projects. These include mixed-use and integrated transit-oriented developments as well as landmark cultural complexes and masterplans. Hong Kong’s Metro Transit Railway Corporation (MTRC) is a longstanding client. Farrells also recently delivered the M+ Museum of Visual Culture in Kowloon with Herzog & de Meuron. It is currently working on the Hong Kong Museum of History and Science Museum, a psychiatric hospital and a district court both in Hong Kong and various masterplanning projects in Shenzhen.

Farrells senior director Gavin Erasmus leads on contractual and design management and technical specification in the office, and concurs with Ng’s view on fee levels. ‘With fee stagnation, costs going up and PI insurance increasing, practices are scraping at the lowest commercial level,’ he says. ‘The highly competitive market at the moment means it’s a battle for survival.’

Beneath the challenges around margins, other issues are also bubbling, squeezing practice, says Erasmus. ’The way that we do business is exposing architects to more and more risk.’

Some of the issues are contractual – ‘generic specifications in contracts where you can't specify a product for fair competition purposes are leading to complexities beyond the delivery stage,’ he explains. ‘There is an obligation to deliver to the end without any recognition of time or duration. Constant commenting and iteration are inherent problems in the process. With design-and-build contracts, issues of double jeopardy can arise where you're liable to the client on the one hand, while you are also working for the contractor and get tangled in risk outside our area of service and control.’

He hopes that the development of a new type of NEC contract, used on government projects, will help address these issues, ‘whether it is appropriately sharing some of the risk or obtaining reasonable time frames on the assessment of issues or where projects are extended for very long periods’.

  • Gavin Erasmus, senior director at Farrells in Hong Kong.
    Gavin Erasmus, senior director at Farrells in Hong Kong.
  • Angeliki Koliomichou, associate at Farrells in Hong Kong.
    Angeliki Koliomichou, associate at Farrells in Hong Kong.
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The situation is compounded by technological changes. Farrells is now using BIM, Revit, 3D parametric software and AI. Practice associate, Angeliki Koliomichou, an NEC and CIC-certified BIM coordinator, explains the significant shift for MTRC projects. ‘The workflow is now changing with clients, consultants and contractors working on pilot projects, where everything is cloud-based,’ she says. ‘The government is financially supporting the training for qualified staff for BIM and NEC contract certification.’ This also means that, for all parties, there is a ‘learning curve’ that adds time to projects.

Erasmus recognises that BIM provides a more efficient and collaborative way to work when it is fully coordinated across design and construction, though where it is ‘uneven, it can lead to challenges’, particularly as ‘you don't have one party necessarily in control of a model from inception to completion’.

The legal framework has not kept up with the technology, he argues. ‘It is difficult to understand when you use new AI models and software collecting data how it is going to be used in the AI libraries and affect copyright. What are the risks in terms of IP for the client? Could it lead to architects falling outside a contractual liability?’

  • Farrell’s masterplan for redeveloping the Dongjiaotou district in Shenzhen.
    Farrell’s masterplan for redeveloping the Dongjiaotou district in Shenzhen.
  • Farrells’ render of the redevelopment of Kwai Chung Hospital (Phase 2), a 1,000-bed psychiatric hospital in Hong Kong.
    Farrells’ render of the redevelopment of Kwai Chung Hospital (Phase 2), a 1,000-bed psychiatric hospital in Hong Kong.
  • Farrells’ render for District Court at Caroline Hill Road in Hong Kong.
    Farrells’ render for District Court at Caroline Hill Road in Hong Kong.
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Squeeze on fees: the impact on the wider profession

For Erasmus at Farrells and Ng at Collective, the squeeze on fees is not only affecting the viability of individual practices as businesses but also the wider profession.

Both Hong Kong and Singapore are experiencing a brain drain. A middle band of architects are leaving the profession, unable to secure the kind of income they would expect as highly qualified, multifaceted professionals.

Ng points out that ‘the Singapore Institute of Architects recently published a guideline, a core blueprint for architects to talk to their clients, to give a clearer understanding of liability’. This was at the instigation of a group of young architects. As she says: ‘It is brilliant because they basically said it out loud – that there are too many practices quoting excessively low fees and that is the reason why we can't pay [more].’

The global and the local

Many of the pain points of Hong Kong-based architects around risk, regulations and fees are universal to architects worldwide, exacerbated by the economic environment. However, the advantage of Hong Kong’s unique geographical location continues to provide opportunities with the emergence of new sectors driven by investment in infrastructure, urbanisation and new technologies. For Ng, running a practice with three women partners out of four also presents a unique chance to drive a pioneering path by taking the first Asian-rooted, women-led practice to an international level.

 

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