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“It’s time for architects to science up”: Theodore Chan

When Theodore Chan, Senior Director of CIAP Architects was 14 years old, his elder brother asked him to design and build a fence for a house. “I designed a very simple picket fence, worked out the measurements, then I bought the timber, nuts and bolts, and built it myself. My brother was very happy with it,” Theodore laughs.

Theodore Chan, Senior Director of CIAP Architects

“I thought this is what architects do – except they design buildings rather than just a fence.” Little did either of them know that this school holiday project would set Theodore on a pathway to one of Singapore’s leading architecture firms, CIAP Architects.

Theodore went on to study architecture at the National University of Singapore and after he graduated, he started working with prominent and avant-garde architect Tang Guan Bee. “I learned a lot of things from him,” he recalls. He spent the next 11 years training with SAA Group, a leading architect firm in Singapore.

“I learned the ropes of the industry during this time,” he reflects. In 2000, Theodore was offered the opportunity to join a fledgling company – Consultants Incorporated Architects + Planners, which was to become CIAP Architects.

In practice for more than 30 years, today Theodore is Senior Director at internationally acclaimed CIAP Architects, which has been instrumental in the design and implementation of many award-winning development projects in Singapore.

From 2012 to 2015, Theodore also served as President of the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA), where he developed the curriculum for the Architectural Practice Course and the National Standard of Competency for Architects.

However, splitting his time between the SIA and CIAP meant relying on business partner Tham Tuck Cheong and their strong team of young independent architects. “I was very fortunate to be supported by my partner Tuck and our team,” Theodore remembers.

A focus on health

A pivotal moment for CIAP led to the company’s strategic focus on healthcare architecture in Singapore. “We’d just completed the Singapore American School, a premier international school, when a committee member introduced CIAP to an investor who was wanting to build a private hospital. That project was Mount Elizabeth Orchard Hospital & Medical Centre,” he says.

Today this is one of Singapore’s most established and renowned hospitals, sitting in the heart of the Orchard Road shopping district and boasting first-class facilities and 30 specialties.

Fast forward 30 years, when the next opportunity to develop another private healthcare facility arrived – the client confidently commissioned CIAP to design its next seminal building, Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital & Medical Centre.

“It’s probably the most luxurious hospital experience with more than 300 beds, stylish interiors and world-class medical services,” Theodore explains. CIAP is currently redesigning Mount Alvernia Hospital and has completed Outram and Yishun Community Hospitals.

In Singapore, a community hospital provides medical services for patients who require extended periods of care after discharge from an acute care hospital and often feature Facilities often include rehabilitation gyms and therapy areas. Conceived as a ‘hospital in a garden’, Yishun Community Hospital is a CIAP project that is a personal favourite for Theodore.

Creating a place that’s so calm, where people feel comfortable enough to say their prayers, is so rewarding.

Constructed by Shimizu Corporation, the project won several awards, including a SIA Honorable Mention Award in 2015. “For long-stay hospitals, there needs to be a difference, so we’ve infused nature, greenery and natural ventilation into the facility. It feels relaxed and almost looks like a holiday resort,” Theodore chuckles.

“Science shows that the presence of daylight, nature and natural airflow will help in patient recovery.” CIAP is currently constructing the National Skin Centre and the National Cancer Centre in Singapore. Referred to as a ‘sanctuary of healing’, the National Cancer Centre includes a ‘Place of Hope’ as well as a state-of-the-art proton therapy facility.


“There’s a specific structure and methodology in designing hospitals,” Theodore says. “You need a lot of expertise and experience, and we’ve built a team of very capable young architects who have the smarts for implementing these projects.

“We hope to penetrate more overseas markets,” Theodore adds. In fact, CIAP is presently developing the Asia Cancer Centre in Manila, Philippines.

Innovation and design

For CIAP, the craft of designing bespoke buildings needs to be integrated with a layer of innovation and technology. “Engineering and science will play a bigger role in our profession in the future,” Theodore explains.

“Beautiful objects need meaning. We’ve always prided ourselves on not doing things frivolously. Everything we do must be meaningful. There must be a reason for every component we put on a building or design.

“We now have the technology and digital tools for evidence-based design. It’s time for architects to science up. My team has the AI and programming skills, and it’s time for them to step up and put the science and technology into our mantra.”

My team has the AI and programming skills, and it’s time for them to step up and put the science and technology into our mantra.

What does Theodore mean when he talks about evidence-based design? “Let’s say there’s a sun shading device on a building; eight out of 10 architects won’t be able to tell you what percentage of shading there will be on the facade,” he explains.

“But with evidence-based design, the science will outline the specifics of what it can do, so it will cut out 82.3% of sun between June and July.

“This is the focus for CIAP moving forward. We’ve recently started a small innovation department called CIAPAI. We’ll apply technology and science to all our healthcare buildings and all the architecture that we’ll be designing in the future. Evidence-based designs are the new norm for design thinking.”

Integrated digital delivery will become a growing trend in Singapore construction, says Theodore, with digital technologies used to integrate all processes and stakeholders throughout the construction life cycle.

Pandemic planning

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team at CIAP has started considering the optimal design for hospitals to manage through these times. Ventilation, staging areas, contactless facilities, open spaces and triage appendages are all features that can be incorporated into hospital design in the future.


This includes flexi-spaces, which operate as a public facility during non-pandemic times, but can easily be turned around for additional wards and medical facilities in a pandemic situation.

The pandemic’s impact on architecture extends beyond the healthcare industry, and Theodore shares his views. “Architects will start looking at home design and integrating home office components within a house,” he predicts.

“There’s going to be a lot of downsizing of office space with smaller work areas because there will be fewer people working in offices. Interspatial areas will also need to be bigger to accommodate social distancing. There will be a time of recalibrating designs, which will require the work of architects. We’ll be ready for the challenge.”

Power partners

When it comes to CIAP’s integral partnerships, Theodore has a unique opinion. “A project team is like a band,” he explains. “You have the drummer, lead singer, guitarist, bass player and keyboard player. But a band is only good when it can vibe together. It’s the same with the project team. There’s an understanding and professional rhythm with contractors and consultants that makes the partnership successful.”


The company’s partnerships with Penta-Ocean Construction Co and Sumitomo Mitsui Construction Co., Ltd. demonstrate this perfectly. “We’ve done so many projects together – they know what we want and we know what they’re capable of,” Theodore reveals. “That helps reduce misunderstanding and reworking.

“We’ve undertaken three mega projects with Penta-Ocean, including the Mount Elizabeth Novena luxury flagship hospital. We’re very happy with their performance. Likewise, we’ve developed factories, automotive car showrooms, residential and all sorts of developments with Sumitomo Mitsui Construction Co., Ltd.. It’s a very symbiotic relationship and we have done a lot of great work with them.”

Team-based ledership

This dynamic and innovative company adopts a similar style with its approach to management. “As a medium-sized practice, we’re very lateral with little office hierarchy,” Theodore says.

“Our management is open and receptive to suggestions and ideas coming from the staff. We’re like a family or a group of friends sitting down and talking through ideas.

“As Senior Director, I try to be accessible and consultative. As a steward, which is the word I like to use, rather than leader, it’s imperative to look after your staff and develop and nurture talent among the young and promising. This is because they are the future. When they succeed, you succeed.

“I’ve always held this belief, which explains my continuing involvement with the board and Institute of Architects in professional training and design education initiatives.” When asked what the CIAP team enjoy most about the work they do, Theodore answers easily.

“The realising of the project. When you walk into a finished building, you see its details and how people are enjoying the facilities. I think that gives you a high that few professions can offer. It’s a physical thing. That building will be there after you die. It’s a legacy. That’s what we like about being architects – we can see our contribution.”

But it can also go deeper than this. “With the Yishun Community Hospital, we were trying to develop a place of calm infused with daylight and nature. During one of my visits after the project was finished and the hospital was operating, I saw a family praying in the garden on the fifth storey of the hospital. There were birds and butterflies and insects around them as they prayed,” Theodore remembers.

“I was very moved by that. Creating a place that’s so calm, where people feel comfortable enough to say their prayers, is so rewarding. Seeing your building used in the way it was intended means everything.”

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