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Architectural firm LWK & Partners wants people who can reshape cities

Founder Ronald Liang and Director Ivan Fu aim to widen scope of services.

To be a successful architect you must always ask yourself: “What comes next?” That is the view of Ivan Fu, director of LWK & Partners, which has produced a prolific and diverse array of commercial and residential buildings in Hong Kong and on the mainland, including The One in Tsim Sha Tsui – Asia’s tallest retail complex.

The company has completed around 200 projects since 2011, when it acquired a design institute in Shenzhen with a Grade A licence that allows it to practice all over China and to sign off on projects.

This important part of the architectural process placed the firm streets ahead of its competitors. “We went into China in 2000, and by 2007 we came to realise that if we didn’t get hold of a design institute Grade A licence, we would only be doing the front end of the work and not able to follow through,” Fu says. “That would limit our ability to survive against the competition.”

In Hong Kong, the signing-off authorisation is with the individual, but in China the authorisation is with the design institute. This is needed in order to get the stamp that allows drawings to be sent to the government. It is difficult to acquire this authorisation otherwise – “Close to zero these days”, Fu says. 

Managing director Ronald Liang established LWK & Partners in Hong Kong in 1985. After growing the practice here, he became actively involved in mainland projects, but felt restricted after a few years practising there. “We asked, what’s next? We were a foreign company there and could not cover the full spectrum. Frustration was our motivation,” Liang says. 

“To ensure we have a competitive edge, we have to focus not only on architecture, but we have to become a one-stop shop. We need to go upstream, because architects are continually being pushed downstream. Before a city is formed – at the urban planning stage – architects are not generally involved. We want to grab a piece of that pie.”

Liang says that for LWK, conservation is a big part of the process of rebuilding an area. Before something can be demolished and rebuilt, it is essential to map the whole street in order to retain the character.

Fu says the firm is interested in reshaping cities and intends to widen its spectrum and scope of services. “This type of consultancy – architecture – is only one portion of the project. You need funding and finance, project management, materials acquisition, facility management and more. An architectural team looks after about 25 per cent of that process, and of that 25 per cent, only about a third of it is actual architecture. We need to expand our scope of work to increase our survival level.”

LWK has around 600 employees, but is looking to increase its pool of talented individuals to achieve its ambitious goals. In return, it offers good opportunities for progression. And age is no barrier; the company is proud of its record for promoting on ability alone. “All our directors are fairly young,” Liang says. “If you’re good enough, you can always go to the top here.”

Fu adds that they are looking for passion, positivity, energy, creativity, commitment and vision.  Younger staff are frequently asked for their opinions about the way senior management run the company. This is done through two youth chambers: one that represents all five of the company’s branch offices and one in Hong Kong. They comprise employees in their 20s and early 30s.

 No subject is off-limits and no agenda restricted. Criticism is seen as necessary in order to progress. Fu says a lot of the synergy comes from the blend of different backgrounds and ideas within the company. “If everybody here thought like me, this office would not be where it is today.”

One of the most valuable assets younger staff members bring to the table is their knowledge of new technology. Fu says LWK is at the forefront when it comes to incorporating the latest industry equipment and knowhow. 

“We embrace new technology,” says Fu, who recalls the “painful experience” of using set squares and fax machines at the beginning of his career.

LWK was a pioneer in moving to a paperless office. By 2005, they were also one of the first batch of companies using the advanced system BIM – on which they risked a lot of money even though there was no guarantee it would work. 

Now the company does state-of-the-art 3D printing and has set up a separate company dedicated to the technique. One way they have been using this technology recently is in the preservation of old buildings. “We went to Burma and worked with the development council and the heritage trust to help protect the city’s heritage before it is completely modernised in about 10 to 15 years and all the national treasures have gone,” says Fu.

Employees took photos of buildings at various angles and – using photometry – created a model that meticulously replicated the details and the true colours and textures. It means architects will be able to design structures by amending, altering and adding, rather than completely demolishing and producing something that may not be sympathetic to the existing or historical environment.

LWK is currently working on a heritage project in conjunction with the Hong Kong University and its collaboration with the government to preserve the city.

In Hong Kong, a lot of old buildings were demolished before the mapping was done, and if you wanted to rebuild them old photos wouldn’t help because they don’t give you the right scale, but photometry does. It’s like a building survey, but a far more intelligent one. It’s simple to operate – everyone can take photos – and there are a lot of possible applications,” Fu says.

Heritage projects do not always make money, but Liang says that is not the point. “Sometimes we commit ourselves to projects that are worthwhile to the community, but not necessarily commercially viable. We are very fortunate that we have reached the size we have and are able to do this. 

“We are architects; we like to retain something that is worthwhile. It’s a bit of spiritual enhancement. We can’t just focus on making money every day.”

Growth plans

Ivan Fu and Ronald Liang share five ways to succeed in architecture 

Collaborate “Share your experiences globally, such as with joint ventures with overseas architects – this is a concept quite new to architects, but the world is getting smaller and sharing is essential.” (Liang)

Embrace technology “It’s changing so rapidly, you have to keep up. It’s making life in the industry easier and faster.” (Fu)

Help the community “Social responsibility is a big part of being an architect (or it should be).” (Liang)

Trust the youth “They have the energy and the creativity.” (Fu)

Balance your approach “Look at things from different angles, this industry has many layers.” (Liang)