Architecture walks a fine line between art and commerce. When a designer starts their own firm, it’s expected they’ll be able to take on the business side of things without a drop in artistic ambition or quality. While that’s not always possible, Kuala Lumpur firm WDA Architects has its own approach to the conundrum.
“The system we’ve set up is actually very different from most architecture firms around the world,” says WDA Architects’ Managing Director Hanc Wang.
“Say I identify a particular partner or associate that I believe is very capable, very independent. I then create a team for them, with its own client base and its own working ecosystem. They get their own fees.”
“I decided to camp in Singapore to study apartment design, or what I call multiple residential design, and bring back some of the ideas I found.”
In this way, Wang has already created eight sub-companies inside WDA Architects. “I believe the only way to grow a business is to have many little bosses,” he says. “Staff think differently when they’re employees, so to change their mindset, make them a boss.”
Among those selected for this kind of promotion are a mixture of the driven and ambitious, who are allotted bigger teams, and those that prefer working at a slower pace and as such are given smaller projects.
“I’m fine with that,” Wang says. “At the end of the day, they’re now leaders themselves. They have their own little companies and a stronger sense of ownership in the business. That’s why I believe they’ll stay with WDA for a very long time.”
It’s a grand design from someone much more comfortable at the drawing table than in the boardroom. Wang, an architecture graduate of Australia’s Curtin University, co-founded WDA Architects in 2010, at the beginning of his career.
“It was a very humble beginning,” Wang says, of a firm that’s now responsible for a project portfolio worth US$2.6 billion. “I was only 28 years old at the time. I’d only just received my certifications. And there I was setting up my own firm. It was quite a brave decision at the time, but I was determined to do something I could call my own.”
The first two years of WDA Architects were quite tough on Wang and his business partner, Keng Ng. “We couldn’t manage to secure any big projects,” he admits. “We were quite disillusioned.”
But Kuala Lumpur is a bustling, growing city, brimming with architectural opportunities. Before long, a breakthrough presented itself. “We managed to land a condominium project in Bukit Jalil,” Wang recalls.
The well-to-do area had been growing ever since the 1998 Commonwealth Games saw the National Sports Complex built in the area. “Because it was our first project, we really threw ourselves into it. We were drawing a lot of new ideas,” he says.
To the pair’s surprise, what eventuated managed to create what Wang calls a “new trend for condominium living in Malaysia”.
“Of course, I’m not shy to say that, because I traveled to Singapore almost 20 times during that period, so I had learned a lot from Singaporean condominium design,” he says.
“I’d been to Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, but I still felt that Singapore was the best place for me to learn. I decided to camp in Singapore to study apartment design, or what I call multiple residential design, and bring back some of the ideas I found.”
WDA Architects adapted those ideas to the Malaysian market and found success quickly. “We did pretty well,” Wang says. “I’m quite happy to say that the Malaysian market started to embrace new things.”
The Klang Valley region, where WDA Architects’ headquarters had been established, was at that time a fast-growing township full of architectural opportunities and a younger generation inclined to accept newer concepts.
“We started bringing all sorts of new ideas to the market,” Wang says. “That’s when WDA, our little firm, was blessed with many projects.”
In 2023 alone, WDA Architects has managed to procure another US$431 million worth of projects, with another US$216 million on the way. The company also made this year’s BCI Asia Awards’ annual Top 10 Architects in Malaysia list.
“It’s all because of our hard work and dedication to introducing new concepts to the market,” he says. “We’re quite market conscious.”
“We’re one of the most talked-about architectural firms in the country, and many developers are chasing us to work with them.”
Despite WDA Architects’ success, Wang insists the firm is relatively small. “We have about 40 staff now. In Malaysia, that’s considered medium-to-big. Of course, in Singapore that’s a small firm, but we’re expanding.”
The company’s expansion isn’t coming through an increased headcount, however. “It’s more in terms of how efficient we are and how we work. Times have changed.”
Which is why Wang introduced his sub-business policy, which affords WDA Architects heightened agility as well as a greater breadth of ideas and approaches.
“That’s why the company I built has become one of, I would say, the trendsetters in Malaysia,” he says. “We’re one of the most talked-about architectural firms in the country, and many developers are chasing us to work with them.”
Greatness Takes Time
From Millerz Square to Hugoz Suites to the i-Park industrial park, WDA Architects’ designs – from concepts to finished products – cut fine figures against their Malaysian backdrop. Wang and the company’s designs are brought to life by a group effort with partners such as Exsim Group, Inovar Contracts, Taghill Projects, Nestcon and even Jotun Paints Malaysia.
“When you’re building a relationship with work partners, it takes time. It’s not easy. You’re trying to focus on the company’s purpose and get everyone to share the same vision for the future, and some of your partners need that time to show their worth. At the same time, you need patience,” Wang says.
“Some may be with you for 10 years, some for only five. But clients, consultants, contractors, suppliers, they’re all very important. They’re all a part of your business’ ecosystem; you can’t live without them.”
That’s why Wang says it’s important to treat everyone equally. “You can’t shortchange people because without them, the business doesn’t work. That’s why I have a group of friends and partners who’ve been with me for a decade,” he says.
“We all help each other and we’re constantly working on our relationships. We always have the same team and we always deliver.”
One benefit of having such long-term allies is that communication is boiled down to a shorthand. “You work with them every day, so they know how you operate,” Wang says. “That saves me a lot of time so I can focus more on how to deal with the bigger issues.”
Opportunity in a Crisis
One of the biggest issues in recent memory was the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused suffering all over the world. Wang says he wasn’t content to simply suffer in silence.
“I believe that in a crisis, there’s always a hidden opportunity. You just have to know where to find it,” he says.
WDA Architects’ silver lining was in industrial projects. “There was big demand for warehouses, and we managed to do very well there,” he explains.
“I won’t be here forever, and I want the company to stand on its own, not just because someone knows me.”
At the same time, the downtime caused by lockdowns allowed its staff to self-train and upskill. By the time normalcy returned, they were ready for anything.
“I myself ended up writing a small book called WDA: The Next Chapter,” Wang says. “I built this company, I’ve headed it up for almost 12 years, and in that time we’ve completed almost 20 projects worth billions. It’s natural I’d start thinking about the next phase.”
To Wang, the next chapter involves further empowering his staff to be able to one day take the top spot. “It’s not about me so much anymore. I’ve already done what I need to do,” he says. “I need my staff, who are really my friends at this point, to step up.”
When onboarding new members into the WDA Architects family, Wang is careful to keep the next generation in mind. “I need to inject new blood into the company. Young people embrace new technology so fast. It doesn’t really matter how much practical experience one has anymore; if you can work faster and harder with new technology at your disposal, that’s important.”
This forward thinking is the reason behind the company’s name. “Originally it stood for Wang Design Architecture, but I let that go over time,” he says. “I won’t be here forever, and I want the company to stand on its own, not just because someone knows me.”
Wang often tells his team that one day, WDA Architects will be theirs. “The company belongs to them, it’s built on their hard, innovative work. To me, WDA actually means ‘we define architecture’,” he explains.
The Final Design
As modern Malaysia’s new face evolves, from the KL City Center to Bukit Jalil, WDA Architects’ designs will help define it, no matter who’s at the helm. For Wang, a legacy of strong design will trump business success any day of the week.
“A lot of my clients say to me, ‘Hanc, you’re no longer a designer. You’re a businessman,’” he says.
“I beg to differ. I love design, and I try to juggle my time between the management part and the design and architecture work. Ultimately, I still prefer architecture because that’s the discipline that made me who I am.”
In fact, in Wang’s eyes, WDA Architects is less business and more architecture, and no matter who follows in his footsteps, he believes it will remain so.
“I admit management is not my preferred way to spend time, but I have no choice. I have to handle the HR department, I have to oversee the finance department, I have to look after the marketing team,” he says.
Standing back and beholding the final design, it’s clear that the architect of WDA Architects – a 12-year odyssey that’s helped redefine what architecture can be in Malaysia – has never wavered from his roots.
“What I really enjoy most is architecture. It’s my fundamental,” he says.