“Architecture is a tough profession. The economics are getting tougher and the markets that are currently really active, the BRICS [the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa], are extremely competitive.”
That’s the opening gambit from one of Asia’s leading architects, 52-year-old Hans Brouwer. However, despite the fairly jaundiced outlook, and the fact that this is a man who has experienced the hell of bankruptcy, he appears happy and relaxed when we meet.
Last year, one of his designs, The River, a 265-metre-high masterpiece, won Best Luxury Condo development at the Thailand Property Awards, and in the last 10 years Hans has been steadily racking up the plaudits. His work has graced the front cover of Wallpaper magazine, and his company, HB Design, now has three offices in Singapore, Bangkok and Phuket. They have 20 skyscrapers under construction or due to begin imminently in India, totalling over 13 million square feet of saleable area.
No wonder he’s happy and relaxed, then; despite a hectic schedule, Hans’s company is going from strength to strength.
Born to a Thai mother and a Dutch father living in Hong Kong, Hans was schooled in Switzerland and opted to begin his university years there. He then transferred to the University of Southern California for the remainder of his degree
“Architecture just seemed the most interesting thing to do. I was really good at geometry, maths and physics, especially 3D geometry,” he tells me.
“After almost dropping out in my first year, I needed to catch up. I learnt that you’ve got to really invest everything into it. Then, when you are successful, you feel really good about it.”
After graduating, Hans applied for a job with world-renowned architect Norman Foster, but the reply – inviting him for an interview – was delivered to his parents’ address. They failed to inform him for the best part of two months, by which time Hans had accepted a job with London firm, John R Harris.
“I went home for Christmas and my mother said: ‘This letter has been lying around for a while’. It was Foster & Partners’ response. I called them up and asked if the interview was still available and they said yes. I interviewed and got an offer.”
Within a year, Hans, then aged 26, was in Tokyo working on the Millennium Tower, an 840-metre-high, 170-storey tower to be constructed on water for a competition entry.
“It was 1989 and we were working on a fantastic building; Japan was in a bubble and when you’re in it, it’s fantastic.
“Japan has an incredible culture of quality, craftsmanship and responsibility. A cleaner on a construction site takes his or her job seriously, there’s a homogenous sense of duty and responsibility; it made working there wonderful.”
Hans left Japan in 1992, just as the market collapsed, and went to work on the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Germany.
“It was a new type of tower based on green thinking – the first high-rise building to be designed from the ground up with energy-saving measures. I was made a director for the project because I could speak German. It was fun, but the client was very tough; Germans speak their mind. The project had experienced numerous delays, so we only had a year to get all the design and documentation done. I started off with a team of 12 but by the end of the year we had 60 on board.”
Learning the hard way
Hans made a success of the project, so why, after close to eight very fruitful years with Foster & Partners, did he leave?
“It was 1994; I was 33. I thought I’d like to try on my own. I didn’t have any dependents, I had some savings and I thought if I don’t do it now I might never do it. I talked to Norman and said I’d like to take a year off. He said if it didn’t work I could come back.”
Hans intended to head straight to Hong Kong where his brother lived. But that journey ended up taking ten months.
“I wanted to see the Pyramids in Egypt, so I went there first. Then I was looking at the map and saw that Jordan is right next door, and Syria. Why was I just doing a three-week holiday? I ended up on a 10-month backpacking expedition to the Middle East, India, Nepal and Burma and eventually I showed up in Hong Kong to become an architect again.”
However, Hong Kong proved a rude awakening for Hans as he had few contacts to help get his new business off the ground.
“Even though I’d designed some fabulous world-class high-rise buildings in the past, no-one was going to give me a tower just because I’d worked with Norman Foster. Instead I’d get a fit-out for a small shop. I started out doing interiors; I had some really good clients.
“Unfortunately, the only system I knew for running an office was from Foster & Partners where you had huge budgets and lots or people on a project. Fees were different too – where Norman would get $10 for a project, I’d get $1. I didn’t factor in that a project could finish in May but they wouldn’t pay until September. It was a harsh welcome to the real world. ”
Hans is candid about losing his nest egg and effectively going bankrupt in two and half years. He self-effacingly admits that he learnt a lot from the experience and it helped to create the architect he is today.
“It was a wake-up call. Design is design but running a business is something else. You’ve got to be much more aware of the cruelties of the world and build in contingencies and anticipate worst-case scenarios. Since then, I’ve never gone back to the bank, never missed a payroll and we’re still here. Cashflow is something I’m now extremely aware of. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve never missed a payroll; we’ve got 50 people in three different countries and it’s working.”
A second chance
After the firm crashed, Hans moved to Singapore to be with his girlfriend, now wife, and started up again from his second bedroom. This time he used architecture students and paid by the hour when he needed extra help, only committing to an office three years later after his daughter was born.
Hans’s business began to grow, but a chance meeting in 2005 propelled HB Design into the architectural stratosphere.
“I met a guy called Nigel who ran a company called Raimon Land and he was looking for a project in Phuket. He had a lovely site on a hillside overlooking Kata Beach. We met and clicked; he liked the way I did stuff and had confidence that I could deliver the project. Despite HB Design being relatively small, we got the job for the Kata project, The Heights, which was 52 units on a hillside. It was me and three guys working out of Chip Bee Gardens. At the same time, Nigel was trying to convince the board to go for some bigger projects, including Northpoint, a 48-storey building with twin towers, and invest more.
“Two months later he said ‘You’re on’. There was a certain amount of disbelief. It was such a big project we were surprised when we got it. That came through and then five months later we pitched for The River which was to be a two-million-square-foot, 70-storey building in central Bangkok. All of a sudden we went from three, to five, to 15 people on the back of a guy who just said ‘I think you can do this’.”
Now that the business has hit its stride, Hans’s ambition is to make HB Design independently successful and less reliant on him.
“I had an interesting conversation with a very good friend of mine who has an established business. He asked me what happens at the end when I retire. I always thought that I’d just close the door and walk away, but he questioned why I’d do that after spending so many years building it up.”
With this in mind, Hans has brought in partners and offloaded some of the identity of the company.
“Hopefully when I’m 60 if I don’t show up in a meeting it’s OK because HB Design is HB Design; it’s not about me. It’s something you have to work towards and ultimately it will help me to be continually involved in a practice that has its own dynamic, but I’ll no longer need to hold the steering wheel.”
Hans’s tips for succeeding in Asia
Do what you love. It’s a long journey if you don’t.Learn how to work with people and enjoy the process. Most businesses require collaboration, especially architecture. If you’re not a people person, learn how to be one. Acquire skills of communication and collaboration. Watch your money. Be mindful, not frugal. Understand the dynamics of running a business. It doesn’t have to be complex. Understand that there are aspects you don’t have any control over, like client payments. Anticipate those.Make sure you have work/life balance. I didn’t have it in the beginning at Foster’s but it became more important when I got married. Nowadays, I generally leave at dinnertime and I don’t tend to work weekends. In Southeast Asia, relationships are more important than in the West. It goes beyond thinking solely about a contract and seeing your business partner in the confines of that. You’ve got to make an effort to go out for dinner, have a drink. If you want to get paid, I’ve found it never works by saying, “Hey, it says here payment within 28 days of invoice”. You have to use the relationship to explain that you have cash-flow problems, that you have mutual trust and that you need the money. Trust and relationships are everything. All our business is repeat business.
Hans’s Career History
Joins architect firm John R Harris after graduation
Moves to renowned architect Norman Foster’s company, Foster & Partners
Is made an associate at Foster & Partners
Moves to Tokyo with Foster & Partners to work on the Millennium Tower
Leaves Japan and project manages the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Germany
Leaves Foster & Partners and travels around the Middle East, India, Nepal and Burma
Establishes HB Design in Hong Kong
Files for bankruptcy
Moves to Singapore and establishes HB Design’s Singapore office
Opens another office in Phuket
Gets his big break working on The Heights project in Phuket for Raimon Land
2009 & 2010
Northpoint is awarded the Best Condominium, Eastern Seaboard for consecutive years at the Thailand Property Awards
Wins Best Luxury Condo development for The River at the Thailand Property Awards