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Behind the façade: Sani Chang

An expert in building facade design, Sani Chang thinks of himself as a skin specialist of the construction world. “In the 1990s, we saw the emergence of specialist building consultancies to meet the demand for larger and more complex projects, which required skills beyond those of traditional construction companies. These developers aspired to great things and a higher standard of excellence. This is how the facade consultancy business came about,” he explains.

“Filling the gap between architects and structural engineers, we design the building’s skin whether that be with elements of steel, aluminium, stone or glass. We often joke that we’re shallow designers because we operate superficially. Nonetheless, a building’s skin is one of its most distinctive aspects, and a brilliant facade is more exciting to look at than bland tunnel linings.”

Sani Chang, Managing Director of Building Facade Group HCCH Consulting
Sani Chang, Managing Director of Building Facade Group HCCH Consulting

In support of the tourism and hospitality boom in Singapore, within the past three years BFG has completed seven tourism and hospitality projects, including the Hotel Mercure on Stevens Road, InterContinental Hotel at Robertson Quay, Crowne Plaza extension at Changi Airport Park Hotel and RWS Hotel at Jurong East.

Building on his extensive architectural and facade background, over the past 22 years, Sani has honed his knowledge and experience in the design and procurement of facade systems internationally. Tired of the top-down corporate structure and the industry’s slow recovery following the 2008 GFC, in 2010 Sani and his colleagues decided to take a risk and launch their own consultancy practice, the Building Facade Group (registered as HCCH Consulting in Singapore).

“We started a small office in Singapore with three employees who spent most of their time waiting for the phone to ring,” he laughs. “Nevertheless, we knew that after so many years in the industry, we were good at what we did. This was our chance to prove ourselves, rather than shelter under the corporate umbrella. So, at the age of 49, I took the bold step – I put my money where my mouth was.”

“We knew that after so many years in the industry, we were good at what we did.”

A decade on, BFG has grown into a specialist consulting practice that offers world-class technical expertise in facade engineering to clients across Asia. As Managing Director, Sani is proud to say the Group quickly earned a reputation for excellence, reliability and quality, which in turn generated loyalty among repeat customers.

“I will always remember the first cheque we ever received – I still have a copy of it. Nothing brings you down to earth like having to prove yourself to naysayers, especially in that first year,” he recalls. “It’s hugely rewarding for us to win a project over a larger and more established corporation, especially when they might have offered a higher bid. After years of doing the right thing and giving our best to our clients, being recognised for our consultancy rather than price was an enormous achievement.”

Sani says competing against large, multinational engineering companies with limited capital is a challenge the company still faces. “Establishing ourselves in Indonesia and Malaysia would’ve taken a lot less time if we had deeper pockets back then. But in retrospect, it might have been a blessing in disguise that we moved cautiously and valued our capital more. It taught us to keep a keen eye on our finances and pick the projects that mattered the most,” he observes.

“With clients throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, we now compete with big businesses while still retaining local staff and a distinctly South-East Asian flavour. I am also extremely lucky that my partners and senior staff are very experienced in the same business and provide the technical vigour and hard-working ethos that is the foundation of a good consultancy.”

BFG works closely with building owners, architects, engineers, general contractors and specialist facade contractors to deliver creative and practical solutions. “As a key member in the facade design industry, we are known to be fair, competent and an honest broker. Supportive partnerships are the backbone of any long-term sustainable business,” explains Sani. BFG has built a powerful portfolio by working with influential clients such as CapitaLand, YTL Corporation, OUE, and RMZ Corp.

“Each completed project adds to our knowledge base and portfolio, and presents the opportunity for repeat business. While we can’t take on every project, the ones we do take on help us build strong partnerships as we deliver on our promise to provide a streamlined and less stressful process than you’d expect when dealing with a large engineering company.”

A human touch

Sani is all for the digital revolution, but he maintains that some things must still be done by hand. “The building design and construction industry has somewhat stagnated over the past decade as it moves on a 10-year economic cycle,” he explains. “The technological changes that have occurred since 2008 are yet to fully penetrate the building construction industry, which still relies heavily on bricks and mortar. No matter how much computing power we have, the need to be hands-on in design with your heart and mind is difficult to automate entirely.”

BFG is responsible for the Singapore’s landmark MediaCorp Campus. A standout with its flowing stainless steel panels, its smooth exterior takes on an ever-changing appearance by reflecting the changing skies. Standing at 77 metres tall and 240 metres long, the 12-storey state-of-the-art building has essentially been turned on its side – home to corporate offices, recording studios, television and radio broadcasting facilities and a 1,500-seat theatre.

With rising populations and workforces, particularly in Asia, Sani believes it would be contradictory to reduce manpower and increase automation in the construction industry. “The traditional architect in me advocates that we cannot simply create masterpieces digitally – it still requires heart, sweat, tears, occasional inspiration and a professional touch,” he argues. BFG remains heavily involved in the later stages of construction, offering advice and technical review of materials, engineering accuracy and design.

“We hope to excite the building design sector and make it obvious that good design doesn’t automatically come from increased digital computing capacity,” Sani notes. “We want our industry partners to understand that combining brains, hard work, common sense and an artistic outlook, builds beautiful environments that we’re proud to leave behind for future generations.”

Building a strong future

Sani and his BFG partners have built their company on an extensive understanding of development concepts, budget planning, material availability, design principles and building maintenance. “What we sell is good advice. It’s the kind of advice you can’t Google because it’s based on years of first-hand experience and, ultimately, it’s friendly advice that leaves our clients eager to call us again,” he says.

“Finding staff with the right competency and personality is a challenge, but it’s what sets us apart from the rest. Our senior staff lead by example in sharing their experience and executing best practices both within the company and in dealings with clients. Many people may believe a senior executive has less to do because you can delegate. But no, you must lead by example. When you enjoy your work, it shows. There is no better form of leadership.”

Sani continues, explaining that a lack of properly skilled young people entering the construction workforce presents a serious problem. “Graduates are not keen to specialise, and hands-on experience in facade design is a vital criterion for us. Over the next few years, one of our goals is to find young people who are interested in our work, who have the skills necessary to succeed, and who are willing to earn their place as a senior leader at BFG,” he says.

“In the long-term, we are hoping to enhance our regional influence by establishing an office in the Indo-Chinese sphere of either Vietnam or Thailand. This will mitigate the risk of seasonal demands in specific countries and establish our reputation as a facade design specialist throughout the region.

“At the end of the day, people will remember how you made them feel when working with them, not exactly what you did. This is the advice I live by,” says Sani. “At BFG, we want people to remember our contribution. So, we put great emphasis on making a lasting positive impression by developing loyal partnerships and creating buildings we’re proud of.”

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