An Interview with Architect Travis Hanks & Shirley Shen, Founders of Haeccity Studio
Haeccity Studio is a Vancouver based full-service design studio operating at the intersection of art, architecture and planning. The name is borrowed from philosophy where haecceity denotes the discrete and defining characteristics of a thing. Founded on the conviction that architects can enact meaningful change, Haeccity Studio is dedicated to exploring the defining qualities of each design challenge, making each endeavor unique in its engagement with its environment, community, and culture.
What sparked your interest in architecture and interior design?
Shirley: I went to high school in Hong Kong, where amazing architecture was all around me (I lived in one of the densest neighborhoods in the world) but it was I.M. Pei’s Bank of China tower that inspired me to go into the profession. At 17, I tried to intern for him but he didn’t have an office in Hong Kong so I ended up working for two weeks at Sherman Kung & Associates (the local partner that worked on the tower). All I did was draft some bathrooms, but that was enough to confirm that architecture was what I wanted to do.
Travis: In high school I was more interested in painting and the arts. I went to architecture school somewhat resigned to pursue a more practical vocation. It was really at Virginia Tech that I really fell in love with architecture – in the craft of it, how things went together. I soon found myself inspired by architecture’s ability to make connections between art, philosophy, and the barns and vernacular buildings I saw around me in rural Virginia.
How did you begin your career as an architect/designer?
Shirley: I studied at McGill and MIT. The schools themselves shaped my thinking but the cities of Montreal and Boston also left strong impressions on me, which over time have manifested in how I think about urban development and placemaking. My two years working in New York for Peter Gluck & Partners, an architect-led design-build practice, informs my approach to collaboration with contractors.
Travis: After earning a BArch from Virginia Tech CAUS, I went to work for Wesley Wei in Philadelphia. I had interned at firms in Virginia and Berlin, and even worked in construction during school, but it was really in Philly that I started to galvanize those different experiences into an idea about what an architectural practice could be. The work was very hands-on and rooted in a refined sensibility toward materials and construction. It was years later when I returned to school at MIT where my path would first intersect with Shirley’s.
How did you go about starting Haeccity Studio?
Travis: It was years later when I returned to school at MIT where my path would first intersect, briefly, with Shirley’s. We would reconnect a few years later in New York, and a few more years before we started talking about a partnership. It’s funny how a “young” or “upcoming” firm can actually have a very long backstory of how they came to be.
Shirley: We started working on competitions on our dining room table, and after a few years of moonlighting on Haeccity, we decided to take the leap.
How would you best describe your design principles and philosophy?
Travis: I think it’s fair to say that we are modernists and urbanists. Modern in the sense of the “tradition of the new,” where we are always balancing those aspects of human habitation that are consistent and unchanging with material expressions and modes of production that are of our time. Urban in the sense that we are always considering the project as an intersection of forces and processes that run through the building and extend far beyond the physical limits of the site.
Shirley: We often tell clients that we don’t have a singular style, that we try to approach each project with no preconceptions. But I’m starting to think that working with local materials and striving for custom details with a medium-low budget does generate a style of its own.
What’s most important to me, at this stage in my career, is making some sort of impact on people’s lives. For single-family projects and renovations, it’s about guiding the client through a complex process that will take longer and cost more than they imagined, and have them come out the other side saying “that was worth the wait and expense, and was even fun at times”. For multi-family projects, it’s about a benefit to society, whether it’s providing housing that’s slightly more affordable, more sustainable, or durable.
I think as a female, POC owner, I also have to work harder to find ways to make the world more equitable and accessible to the next generation of female POC.
What do you find the most challenging and most rewarding part of the job?
Shirley: In the early years of the business, it was trying to do all the admin and business development work on top of the “actual” work. And trying to do that with no roadmap or mentor. We ended up forming a collective, informally dubbed the Young Architects Group, which was a collection of small firms that had all started around the same time. We got together about once a month to talk about what software we used to make invoices, track hours, etc. and we took turns presenting our work to each other. It was a great source of mutual support (and a way to expense beer). Now, seven years later, we still feel like we just got started, but it’s been rewarding to see what we built both project-wise, and internally as a business.
Travis: The most challenging part for me has always been understanding the (often conflicting) agendas of various stakeholders and participants in the process. It can sometimes feel like there are so many different forces pulling a project in different directions that the input of the architect is irrelevant. The reward comes in those instances when we are somehow able to harness those competing forces toward a common goal. When that happens, it can feel as if the building is designing itself, and the cumulative solution is therefore self-evident.
What does a typical day as an architect look like for you?
Shirley: Coffee. It always starts with coffee. Now that we’re working from home, we simply go upstairs and suddenly, we’re at work. Emails take up 80% of the day. Meetings 10% and informal discussions the remaining 10%. At precisely 5pm, we stop work because that’s when our nanny goes home. One of us cooks dinner while the other plays with our kid. After said kid goes to bed, we sneak upstairs again to do things like fee proposals and respond to interview questions.
Travis: There has definitely been a COVID shift – both in our immediate environment and the more intimate connection to home and family, and also the way we interact with clients, consultants, and staff. More screen time is dedicated to activities outside of production, so we have to work harder to find ways to break up our routine – switch rooms, a quick walk, coffee break on the patio… These quotidian changes cause subtle shifts in our perspective on architecture too; instead of being influenced by travel or while traversing urban environments, we’re more likely to notice the shifting of light through a window, or an unnoticed plant that gains prominence in our newly contracted worlds…the immediacy of spatial experience.
What’s been your favourite project so far?
Shirley: I really enjoyed the process and end result of the Armoury District Apartment. We lucked out with great clients and a great contractor. The end result was better than we could have achieved on our own, because of the unwavering commitment of the client to their vision, their artistic touches, and the resourcefulness of the contractor (Stokk Construction). I’m not afraid to say that some of the best parts of that project were not our idea.
Travis: For me the Comox project felt like a culmination of many of our design ideas. While it may not have been our most elegant architecturally, it was definitely one of those projects that had a lot of pressure moving against it, and at times it very nearly died. The fact that it came together as an expression of all those parameters was very satisfying.
What is a common client misconception?
Shirley: Clients often don’t understand the process of working with an architect, so it’s good to have a “pitch” that’s accessible to nonprofessionals. Clients respond better to renderings than anything else. You might think that you’ve conveyed an idea verbally, or through plans and precedent images, but 3D renderings will always reveal misconceptions. Show the truth in your renderings, because you don’t want to find out clients are not on board when it’s too late.
Travis: The Owner-Architect-Builder triangle is something we’re introduced to very early in Professional Practice courses. We take it for granted as an oversimplification of our process. But owners have never heard of this, and builders have likely never thought of those relationships in that way. Lately, I’ve found it to be a pretty useful starting point to communicate reciprocal relationships in a project and discuss the idea of mutual responsibility to the process.
What are some things you’ve learned throughout the years as an architect?
Shirley: Communication is key – with your partners, your team, the client, and the public.
Running a business is about much more than design. You have to be passionate about people, about the nitty-gritty, and about what you’re really hoping to do through architecture. Define your vision so that you have something to work towards, instead of just letting whatever project comes your way define your career. Pace yourself so that you don’t burn out, because it can be frustrating and unfulfilling a lot of the time.
Travis: One thing I am still learning is how to embrace the chaos. Architecture in many ways is about ordering, but projects are fluid, not fixed, and constantly changing up until the last screw or dab of paint. These changes often feel frustrating, but being adaptable and embracing this fluidity as part of the design process ultimately leads to better, more complete outcomes.
What advice would you give to young architects and designers?
Shirley: Travel far and wide; experience as many cities and buildings as possible. Continually work on improving your communication and collaboration skills. Don’t be afraid to advocate for things that are “outside” of architecture – politics, policy, etc. – because it’s all interconnected.
Travis: Listen well to those around you – not just mentors and supervisors, but trades, day labourers, sales reps, users – there are so many unique perspectives on the built environment that we can learn from. I have often found insight after reflecting on things I had heard but completely dismissed at the time.
The future of Chan Architecture
Shirley: There are two projects we’re working on that I’m very excited about. One is a renovation of faculty offices at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. The other is a new church building that will house community spaces and affordable housing units.
Travis: I think it’s a natural conclusion that we will take on larger and increasingly complex projects as our portfolio and our capacity grows, but I have learned to temper my ambition for expansion. I’ve found that we generally get the projects we are ready for, and that’s a good position to be in.
Favourite brand or products?
Shirley: I’m into Muuto’s furniture at the moment. LightArt’s acoustic lighting is interesting. And Interface’s Thread Story line of carpeting, inspired by Bauhaus weavings.
Travis: When I was in Philadelphia, I also worked for Bulthaup – I laid out kitchens and worked on casework with highly trained installers. So I’ll always have a soft spot for Bulthaup kitchens.
Best places or works you’ve seen or visited?
Shirley: Madrid (the Prado, CaixaForum), Montreal (urban form), Dubrovnik Old Town, Ping Yao (ancient Chinese city), anything by Carlo Scarpa.
Travis: Greek islands, the Badlands, New York, Venice (Fondazione Querini Stampalia).
Favourite ways to get creative juices flowing?
Shirley: Prior to the pandemic, we used to hold team “design breakfasts” where we meet over coffee and pastries to share precedents, reactions, and thoughts on a new project. One team member usually prepared a brief ahead of time with warm-up questions for the team to consider. The discussions are always fun, loose, and productive in terms of getting down to the core idea behind the project. It also allows us to get away from the computer, our code references and emails, and rediscover what we loved about design in the first place.
Travis: Our personal library is a place I go to read, listen to music, sketch, or just mediate. It reconnects me to overarching ideas or questions that are recurring, the threads that carry through our work as it evolves. The library, and more recently, the garden.
Where to find them