HAVING in-depth conversations - that is how architecture firm Formwerkz Architects picks its clients, and why clients hire them.
Alan Tay, one of the 4 partners, recalls one such conversation. "I like asking clients why they come to us," he says. "One told me that unlike other architects who like to show their portfolio of works, we don't do that. Instead, we chatted for 2 hours and sealed the deal."
He adds: "We want clients that we can engage with. They are the ones who will actively participate in the design process to get the end result they want. That's where our strengths lie."
Another partner, Gwen Tan, chimes in: "The user is more important than us showing what we have done before. Conversations are what makes each project special, as clients feel they have a big stake in it."
It is a winning formula that the 23-year-old firm has constantly relied on. "Regardless of whether it is a home or a commercial project, we always talk to the clients. Understanding their needs early will lead to more meaningful projects and allow us to differentiate ourselves," says Seetoh Kum Loon, a third partner.
Berlin Lee rounds up the quartet. The firm started when Lee received an interior design commission during his university days. What began as a side gig led to bigger and more commissions, and the 4 found it made more sense to work together as a team.
Their years of friendship mean that all egos are left at the door as they work towards the same goal.
The firm is known for designing unconventional houses, meaning that the designs are not for their own sake; rather, they come about from their approach of giving the clients what they want.
Tan says: "Often, we ask clients about their aspirations and how their lifestyles might change over the years, and we design for the house to evolve accordingly."
While the typology of the project may not be new, the end result is something that can be unexpected.
Take, for example, a pet crematorium in Kranji. From afar, all that one sees is a single tower set amid lush greenery. Inside the cremation hall, timber slats line the wall and the space is naturally lit with a skylight.
Tay says: "Pet crematoriums are not new, but they are usually in utilitarian spaces. We see a gap in that, and that allows us to take a different approach - to bring grace to a ritual."
The project won the firm an award at the recent Singapore Institute of Architects' Architectural Design Awards.
Tan says upfront that the firm has no specific style, and what they want to do is to contribute positively to the built environment. "It is the impact we are after, especially for commercial projects, and we want to make those more accessible to the public."
Going beyond architecture
In the last several years, the firm has found the need to go beyond practising architecture, branching out into interior design and experiential design.
While Tay and Seetoh lead Formwerkz Architects, Tan heads the firm's interior arm, Studio iF, while Lee is one of the founders of Afternaut, which looks at branding, spatial and experiential design.
We want to divide and conquer," Lee quips, adding that becoming a one-stop for all things design-related makes it easier for clients too.
With the firm growing bigger and commissions getting more complex, it only makes sense to start specialised arms.
"Especially when we started moving beyond houses, you can't be doing big and small jobs concurrently and efficiently," says Tan. Her team showed what bungalow-style living could be like in apartment blocks when they designed the showflats for luxury residence Jervois Mansion.
Studio iF and Afternaut's redesign of Choa Chu Kang Public Library turned the space into an interactive one for discovery, education and sharing, rather than a place for borrowing books and passive learning.
Challenging the status quo
While each studio has its own specialisation, the common theme among them is the drive to "tap design to make things and life better", says Lee. "A lot of things have stayed the same for too long, and we want to fix that."
Tay says: "Whether it is in architecture, interior design or creating a product, the process of what the office deems worthy of working on is the ability to reinvent certain conditions. We start by looking at what's not working."
The process involves, again, deep conversations with the clients and users.
Lee cites the example of their work for Traders Hotels in China. The client planned to have 100 hotels over a decade and wanted a solution for reducing cost and time spent designing every new property.
Together with Formwerkz Architects, Afternaut worked on how they could reinvent the business hotel.
Based on research, Afternaut found that business travellers valued functionality, familiarity, practicality and assurance. The teams took these factors into consideration and created a design, build and operate model that the client could apply to all future properties. They introduced new features like sleeping pods for guests who need a space to rest before checking in, and a date and time ticker tape in the lobby.
The Traders Hotels project is now on hold due to Covid-19, but Lee says the idea can be translated to other typologies too. "We can convince clients to rewrite briefs that have never been changed."
With over 2 decades in the business, the 4 partners say that while working on new typologies still excite them, it is how far they can push with current ones that really drives them.
Lee says: "When we sell ideas to clients, some like it, but there are those who are afraid to implement them because they have not been done before. But once they see the results and the feedback that they get, they tell us 'Let's do more' and that is the real exciting part."