Women In Architecture : Part 3 – Building more than a relationship

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This is the third of our series of four articles about women in architecture in Sarawak; in this issue we focus on women who are in practice with their husbands. Much has been made about the recent success of architect-couples; Billie Tsien and Tod Williams; Scofidio and Dillier; and Koning and Eizenberg as seen in this recent article in the New York Times –

“Like partners in any other architecture firm, married couples design together, make business decisions together, meet with developers as a team and travel to building sites in tandem. Interviews with some couples suggest that it can be tricky. There are the perceptions of the outside world to contend with: the idea that men are muscular masters of tectonics, and women, glorified interior decorators. There are the strains of heavy travel and long days while working and living together, and the potential for design arguments to escalate into marital power struggles.”

INTERSECTION met with four local architect-couples (represented here by the wives) and talk about the issues, benefits and lessons learnt from practising together, building more than a relationship.

I : Intersection
YH : Lai Yuen Heong
MC : Megan Chalmers
SC : Thang Suh Chee
Suan: Lam Choi Suan

yun heong

I : Where were you working before you started working with your husband?

YH: Separate offices in Brunei, then later at Arkiskape in Kuching.

Suan: We started working together way before we started “working”. We were in the same project group during the first year of Uni.

MC: United Consultants, working part time on Curtin University in Miri and part time in my own Landscape Design company, Ecoscape.

SC: We had part-time jobs in different offices during University. We have been working in the same office since graduation.

I : Were there any concerns about working together in the same office? (some firms do not engage husbands and wives in the same office)

YH: We do not have concerns about this as we were appointed for different projects and have stayed on separate projects since.


Suan: We avoided working together during our internship because we thought that the time apart would do us good. Now, it feels that we have been working together forever, although it has been only 5 years in practice.

MC: Originally I had concerns about switching off from work when we were at home. We made a point not to discuss work at home unless it can’t be helped. It seems to have worked OK.

SC: Not initially but there were concerns when our responsibilities (and disagreements) built up. But as years go by, we know how to complement each other more and things are working well.

I : What are the differences / advantages of this working arrangement compared to working with another practice?

YH: It is good for the project to be viewed from two different perspectives.

Suan: …and because you know each other so well, you are maybe more in tune to each other’s ideas, and because we have seen and experienced the same things – we have similar points of reference.

MC: I think that the project benefits from being reviewed by two people. We make it a point to know each other’s work so that we can offer comment, or assist in a presentation for example.

SC: We knew we will set our own practice one day, so it was a very good experience to be exposed to different office practices, it was a good learning process for us.

Min: How is it different now?


Suan: Now that we practice together, urgent matters can be resolved anytime at home or at the office. Breakfast and lunch can be our meetingtime, therefore our breakfast is exceptional long, 3 cups of coffee is standard.

I : Did you set up a division of work and responsibilities? Explain how and why?

YH: No. We are just different, naturally covering different areas.

SC: Not verbally but our own strengths lead up to different responsibilities, for example I take charge of office personnel and work allocation.

MC: The works seems to have naturally divided up over the years. I don’t have Part 3 so as the submitting person Chuan has more responsibility and usually deals with the contractual matters and authorities. The bigger clients usually prefer Chuan to attend meetings etc, but I will usually do presentations.

Suan: We work in much the same way – I work on the smaller projects, interior design, detailing and contract management while Tze Yong works on master planning and design concepts. If either one of us is in a rush, one will help the other since we keep track on each other’s projects all the time.

I : Do you have your own clients?

YH/SC: Yes.

MC: Yes, all the landscape projects are mine. Usually my architectural clients are small…the larger projects come in via previous work or Chuan’s contacts.

Suan: Our clients like to see both of us working together….don’t really know why.

Min: Could it be because you complement each other?


Suan: I think so, the clients like the idea that there are two architects working on their project, they think that all aspects of the projects will be covered.

I : Who makes the final design decisions, is it democratic or dictatorial?

YH: We discuss and seek each other’s opinion; we discuss the options, the benefits. But the project architect makes the final decision.

SC: Yes, we do the same thing; we consult each other on our projects but the one running the project makes the final decision.

Suan: At the beginning, each of us would fight for own design, after some time we learn to discuss, negotiate and argue in a constructive manner – with an outcome. We now work to our strengths and interest.

MC: It depends on the projects; landscape projects are mostly my design although Chuan will input if there are architectural features. For architecture projects, the design concept often comes from Chuan, which I will then develop. Large-scale subdivisions are usually Chuan’s, I get involved when it comes to the more detailed design.

I : Can you tell us about your best collaboration?

Suan: Top secret! (laughs)

Min: Does it involve having children?

Suan: You are a mind reader.

MC: For us, it is the Ryvanden house @ Kasuma, the initial idea came out while we were on holidays…(so much for not mixing work with family)… I developed the design and then Chuan did most of the architectural details and handled it on site, while I looked after the landscape.

YH: For us, it would have to be a project without a real client and one where there’s a lot of architectural discourse.

MC: Park II was another successful collaboration with a good balance of design and site work between the two of us.

I : Is it difficult to separate work from family? How do you do it?

YH: No, there was no boundaries set,….we do bring work home, but rarely.

Min: ..but sometimes it is not work that is brought home, it might be a bad mood…

YH: If one of brings home a bad mood or a design problem; one would give the other space to sort it out or we have a chat about it. We share other interests besides architecture, so these take over when we get home from work.

MC: It’s hard not to bring your bad mood home if you’ve had a bad day…but I guess at least if your partner knows what happened and they can forgive your moods more easily.

SC: Yes, this happened with us as well, but now that we have Eunice – it rarely happens because she provides a welcome distraction at home.

Suan: We can’t discuss the work at home; our kids find ways to interrupt us.

MC: We try not to discuss work at home. When we are on holidays and go out of our way to explore and photograph buildings, the kids roll their eyes and complain.

Suan: …we learn as we go, I feel that we are getting better at it.


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This CPD will examine the roles and responsibilities of the Architect under the Housing Development Act (Act 118 Peninsular Malaysia 2007) and the Sarawak Housing Ordinance (1993) and related regulations. It will cover an overview of the two sets of laws in force in West Malaysia and Sarawak and point out the major differences. A brief outline of the certification process under the housing acts and ordinances and the management of quality in relation to this certification is reviewed. Managing common defects and complaint is also considered.

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