Designers often say that working for themselves is harder than trying to please a client. That was certainly the case for architect Keith Chan, although the challenge of satisfying his own brief was compounded by another problem: tight finances.

“The design phase took two months, which for such a small space was very long,” says Chan of his 500 sq ft office and weekend hangout in Sha Tin. “And the project was a little over budget.”

It may have cost just 10 per cent more than expected – low in comparison to many renovation projects – but, he says, that is still a lot when you have “no money”.

Although obviously an exaggeration, that lack of cash has become a selling point for Chan’s company, Hintegro.

Top of his penny-pinching agenda was a cement floor. “I wanted to use self-levelling [epoxy] but the labour cost of doing that was too high,” he says. Cement underfoot for the whole unit cost about HK$10,000, although it came with inevitable cracks on the surface.

Chan also saved by building furniture from cheap materials. His entertainment unit is made of shelves covered in metal sheeting and supported by raw bricks. “The whole thing cost a few hundred [Hong Kong] dollars,” he says.

There was more cost-saving involved in the creation of a central, four-seater work desk made from Ikea drawers and plywood. “I wanted to show that you can make good basic things inexpensively,” says Chan, who took the time to choose a wood grain he liked. That set him back HK$3,500, but it’s not just the low cost that makes him proud. “It functions well and everyone likes it,” he says.

Other thrift-inspired measures included LED lights (“I can recoup my costs in three to four months from lower bills”); tiling that extends only half way up the walls of the bathroom; and rustic cabinet handles sourced over the internet and bought in Shenzhen. “They were two yuan [HK$2.50] each; if I’d ordered them from the United States they would have been US$7 each,” he says.

Not surprisingly, compromises were crucial, the largest being designing a layout with a public work area, a private conference room and a chill-out zone, leaving no space for his own office.

“I would have liked my own space but it’s better with the central desk because we can talk and interact, so the atmosphere is good,” he says.

The meeting room can also be used for dinners at weekends, when Chan enjoys the space with his girlfriend, and for mahjong parties, one of which drew 20 people. A wardrobe in the conference room, a sofa bed and small kitchen mean the couple can feel at home when everyone leaves. In fact, his girlfriend says she prefers his shower to her own at home because it’s roomier.

Creating a comfortable work environment was important for Chan to showcase his lifestyle to clients. “I love to enhance people’s living style,” he says, “and I wanted them to see my way of living.”

He adds that despite scrimping in some areas he spent top dollar in important areas, including on his collection of designer chairs in the conference room. “I also deliberately hired a good painter,” he says. “I wanted to show what good workmanship is like.” Style is negotiable, he adds, but quality work is not.

That is further demonstrated by the drawers in his “library”, each of which was installed on a different type of track. “You have ones with a soft close and the traditional clunk, clunk clunk ones,” he says.

So is he happy with what his savings have given him? “If I’d had more money I’d have built a very tall library with leather shelves,” he says, quickly coming to his senses and admitting that he doesn’t actually own enough books to fill shelves stretching to the high ceiling.

“When a designer designs for himself, the result is never perfect,” Chan admits. “We always think there must be a perfect solution and never stop trying to achieve that. But there comes a time when you need to stop.”

Entrance To achieve the desired look for the feature wall, Keith Chan discarded six in 10 bricks because they were flawed. The bulb cost HK$550 at Minimal (1/F, Rise Commercial Building, 5 Granville Circuit, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2369 2328). A concrete floor was laid throughout the unit except for the bathroom; the patterns were created by water absorbed through the cracks.

Main office The plywood desk (see Tried + tested) was designed and made by Hintegro (20/F, Block B, New Trade Plaza, 6 On Ping Street, Sha Tin, tel: 3689 4604). The pendant lamp (HK$599) and chests of drawers (HK$429 each) came from Ikea (various locations; Chan’s contractor, Forever Fortune (HK) (14/F, Yue Fung Industrial Building, 35 Chai Wan Kok Street, Tsuen Wan, tel: 2997 7418), built the shelving for HK$45,000. The second-hand desk fan was bought on eBay for HK$300 and the black leather work chairs cost HK$1,890 each from Sofa Sale (2/F, Tung Kin Factory Building, 196 Tsat Tsz Mui Road, Quarry Bay, tel: 2541 1230). 

Meeting room Chan’s chair collection sits around a table (HK$4,000) designed by Hintegro and built by Forever Fortune. They consist of, clockwise from far left, a Wishbone chair (HK$7,500 from Lane Crawford, Pacific Place, Admiralty, tel: 2118 3398) a Copine Chair (HK$2,299) from Comin’ Living (7/F, Cheung Hing Industrial Building, 23 Tai Yip Street, Kwun Tong, tel: 3107 1133), a No 42 chair (HK$2,899) also from Comin’ Living, a Result chair (HK$3,000, second-hand on eBay) and a Marius stool (HK$33) from Ikea. The pendant lamp (HK$599) also came from Ikea. The sliding doors separating the room from the main office were designed by Hintegro and made with plywood panels by Forever Fortune for HK$25,000.

Kitchenette Forever Fortune built the kitchenette for HK$7,500.

Sofa bed (top) The sofa bed cost HK$5,190 at Sofa Sale. Zinc metal sheets (HK$30 per square foot) used for the shelving beneath the television and elsewhere in the unit were sourced by Forever Fortune. A Star Wars light saber sword was bought years ago from Toyzone (16/F, Causeway Bay Commercial Centre, 3 Sugar Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2882 6850). The plywood fuse box on the wall (HK$1,500) was designed by Hintegro and made by Forever Fortune.

Bathroom Subway tiles (HK$4 each from Luen Hing Lung Building Material, 39 Mok Kong Road, Mong Kok, tel: 3427 8388) reach halfway up the wall. The top section is cement applied on top of concrete. The toilet-roll holder (HK$299), in the shape of a bomb, came from Franc Franc (2/F, Hang Lung Centre, 2 Paterson Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 3427 3366). The Laito wall lamp (HK$780) came from Homeless (29 Gough Street, Central, tel: 2581 1880), the basin (HK$990) from Ikea and the mirror cabinet (HK$1,500) was designed by Hintegro and built by Forever Fortune.

Mini furniture These miniature pieces of famous furniture designs came from Page One ( years ago.


Quick on the drawers To show potential clients that basic, inexpensive materials and items can be used to create good-looking kit, Keith Chan of Hintegro (20/F, Block B, New Trade Plaza, 6 On Ping Street, Sha Tin, tel: 3689 4604), built a work island using pieces of plywood for the top and chests of drawers from Ikea (various locations; for supports. Four chests (HK$429 each) were needed for the desk, which cost a total of HK$3,500 to build.