How Hong Kong-born architect duo are bringing cutting-edge construction to the masses

Harvard School of Design graduates Rick Lam Yin-cheuk and Eric Ho Lick-fai are building goodwill through social projects that benefit the local community

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 4:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 4:00am

The name gives it away. Architecture Commons – or architecture for the common people – is the raison d’etre for Harvard School of Design graduates Rick Lam Yin-cheuk and Eric Ho Lick-fai. The Hong Kong-born architects founded their practice in 2013 with a view, says Lam, “to actively do social good in balance with our larger architecture ambition”.

While social projects are not the studio’s only focus (its portfolio includes educational and residential work) there’s a pattern to projects that include a prototype organic cotton farm in Shanxi province; a solution to protect Sri Lankan houses from tsunami; and the development of an orphanage in Thailand. As architects keen to partner social enterprises – sometimes on a pro bono basis – they’re probably in the minority within the profession, but the partners are set on exploring uncharted disciplinary territories via research and experimentation.

“We didn’t want to use our names [for the business name], or to design just for the elite, as we see ourselves more as a platform to bring design to a larger mass,” says Lam. “We don’t really think that a higher cost leads to better design – cost is just another constraint that needs to be understood and used to our advantage.”

The latest completed project for Architecture Commons is the Federation of Youth Groups/Hong Kong Jockey Club Social Innovation Centre in Wong Chuk Hang, a co-working space for incubating creative social businesses that opened in January. There are about 10 start-ups in the 8,000 sq ft space on the 11th floor of a former warehouse, but there’s room for a total of 90 people: 40 on hot desks in the co-working space, and 50 in the pint-sized individual offices.

Its design was based on the premise that social services “need a new face”.

“It’s conservative,” says Lam. “We think that young people can use their creativity to give the whole sector some new spirit.”

Light was key to the “young vibe” Lam wanted to achieve, but as an old industrial building with a low ceiling, deep beams and few windows, this presented an obvious challenge. “We overcame it by installing an undulating ceiling made of stretch fabric [the Barrisol system]. This gives the space a playful feel, while its peaks and troughs reflect the light,” says Lam.

Another inherent design feature – a pair of giant steel-framed doors, each more than three metres wide – were retained to separate the co-working space from the event space, and refinished with IdeaPaint, a dry erase whiteboard paint, to encourage scribbling while brainstorming.

The space is anchored by an undulating “spine” fashioned as one continuous piece of furniture. “It changes from a desk to a sofa to lockers to shelving, like a ribbon that connects the whole,” says Lam. “This helps to demarcate pockets of space on the outside, to give more privacy, which I think is important in a co-working area. Different people work differently – some people like to be exposed, some like to hide, so we provide for that.”

It’s made primarily of plywood and plastic laminate, with fabric for the sofa, painted in different colours to indicate the five key sectors of social services (health, inclusion, education, elderly and environment).

The project was completed for less than HK$6 million, and Lam was pleased that the 300 people who turned up to the official opening were adequately accommodated. “It shows we got the functions right, so that the people working there feel comfortable. The internet is stable, the lighting is good, so it really facilitates the work of the people who will use it.”

Another social project, completed in 2015, was an upgrade of parts of the Outdoor Training Camp at Sai Kung, another Federation of Youth Groups/Hong Kong Jockey Club project. “It was pretty run down,” Lam says of the facility built in the 1980s, “and it needed updating to what kids of today like to do.”

A film studio was created for the making and editing of video and an indoor archery room installed. But the focus is the outdoor component, featuring a barbecue courtyard and the addition of rooftop and terrace gardens.

“The new canteen serves 400 to 500 people three meals a day, so apart from requiring a lot of fresh food, it also generates a lot of food waste,” Lam says. In addition to planting a range of edible crops, the landscape design incorporates an innovative compost system called Eco-Polygon, whereby black soldier flies eat the organic waste, their larvae feeds fish in a pond, and the fish waste is then used in aquaponics for growing vegetables – which end up back in the canteen, where camp participants are taught cooking.

“Kids learn that food doesn’t come from a supermarket,” says Lam.

For the interior, the architect chose a palette of grey with an accent lime colour. This was to avoid competing against the greenery and sea views outside, as seen through the facility’s panoramic windows. “Considering the toll from the waterfront humidity,” adds Lam, “we were careful to pick durable materials that are easy to maintain, such as porcelain tiles, rubber flooring and plastic laminates.”

Another of Architecture Commons’ community projects, fully designed but not yet funded, is a renovation of the Mother’s Choice home on Kennedy Road for expectant young mothers. The Class 1 historical building used to be a barracks, and was last renovated about 10 years ago – a long time given the toll Mid-Levels’ humidity takes on an old building. Though the refurbishment will be austere, few contractors are willing to take it on, says Lam, who has done the design on a pro bono basis.

“There is no road leading to the building – everything has to be carried in manually using a staircase on the hill,” says Lam. Plus, the budget is tight – less than HK$2 million.

Still, someone has to do it, he reasons – and hopes there are enough like-minded people within the community to make it happen.

“I really admire the Mother’s Choice mission,” Lam says. “[Teenage pregnancy] is a social issue Chinese people don’t like to address, but it’s out there nonetheless. Despite pressure from society, they are holding up their heads and doing this – I really want to see this realised.”