Applies two cultures in one profession. Hui Tian: “Architecture is a lifestyle”

By Zita Lam

From the widest rambler homes to the tallest towers, everything built from the ground starts with a blueprint. Experience working in big firms like NBBJ and Mahlum, Hui Tian not only owns her company, Studio 19 Architects, but also bridges a connection between the cultures of east and west. Two years after Tian was originally featured in Seattle Chinese Times, she shared with us her current projects, this time her ambitions are greater.

Franklin Highrise @ Studio 19

Studio 19 Architects was listed as the fastest-growing minority-owned business by Puget Sound Business Journal in 2014. The company’s portfolio comprises of architecture, interior design and master planning. In addition to commercial buildings such as Little Sheep Restaurant, Bellevue Jinya Ramen, and J.Crew store, the company also takes charge of many mixed-use, hospitality, residential, and healthcare projects. Franklin Highrise, for example, is one of their main focuses this year. It is a 24 story mixed-use development located in the heart of Belltown. It preserves the landmark structure while creating a multistory high atrium space in between the old and new.

“It’s interesting because the corner of the side is actually a historical building which we have to keep.” Tian said addressing the design, “We try to reinvent the retail concept and the three story entrance basically brings people on the street and into the building.”

As the company expands, Tian and her team are also working on a few projects in SeaTac and Tacoma. Three buildings including two Hyatt hotels and one apartment building in SeaTac are expected to be the city’s largest project so far. “It’s significant,” Tian said, “as we are helping the local developers to build a highrise office tower maybe in the downtown Tacoma as well.”

“In my past career, I did pretty much any project you can imagine.” Tian’s diverse experiences allow her to provide clients with a variety of services. Tian was a lead designer of the Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, and she noted, “Healthcare is a complicated project and I did that. I also worked in Vancouver, Canada before and did a little high rise condominium tower there, as well as small stuff including restaurants and single family houses.” As of today, her team has worked on at least two thousand high-end customer homes for individuals and developers.

Hilton Double Tree @ Studio 19

For Tian, Studio 19 Architects has an important role to make sure their clients pay what it’s worth. As soon as the developers are looking for a site to purchase, they start searching for potential issues with the location and approximate construction costs. Their job duties include ensuring there isn’t contamination nor easement on the site. “So we basically help the developers to make the decision before they buy the land. Starting from the feasibility study to they are comfortable moving forward with the project.” Tian added.

Compared to the local developers, Tian believes that they hold more responsibility than typical architects when catering to oversea customers. “It’s because we are almost a combination of architect and development consultant.” She explained most local developers already have a clear vision of what they want for the site whereas the oversea customers only get suggestions based on the market.

The majority of the company’s international customers are from Asia; being a Chinese architect herself, Tian has a superiority in understanding the needs of her clients. Tian found that many Seattle-based Chinese clients and new immigrants are more comfortable working with someone who can speak in their languages and understand their cultures. “For them, they have to trust you as a friend before they can trust you with the project,” Tian said.

While the local developers have started picking up the fact that Asians are a big market in terms of purchasing homes, Tian’s background has given her advantages in building a large clientele. However, great opportunities come with great challenges. Feng Shui is still part of many people’s belief, and Tian admitted, “It could be challenging if the Feng Shui consultant is only looking from very limited perspectives.” Besides fulfilling her clients’ demands, it is also her job to introduce the American lifestyle to them.

Taking residence design as an example, Tian tells the different preferences in Chinese households. She explained how it’s common for many Chinese house owner to demand a master suite on the main floor, and the reason behind it is to avoid climbing the stairs when they get older. The open kitchen may not be as popular as in Western culture because of the heavy duty cooking. The Chinese clients often install a small door to separate the smell and the smoke from stir-frying or deep-frying dishes. “Sometimes even the client didn’t think of it, we would give out the options.” She believes when it comes to homes, it reaches a very personal level. That’s why it is so important to get to know every customer. Therefore, consulting customers after business hours has become her everyday routine.

Project display boards in one of Studio 19 Architects’ conference rooms. (Photo by Zita Lam)

Looking back to the last time she was interviewed by Seattle Chinese Times, Tian thinks her business is now more established. “We are definitely doing bigger and bigger projects. Two years ago we haven’t done any high rise project compared to now we have quite a few.” She then commented on the changes, “We have expanded our horizon. At that time we focused on Seattle area, now we have expanded all the way to the very south part of Seattle, as far as two hours drive from the city.” In terms of contributing to Chinese communities, Tian has been supporting charities such as China Tomorrow Education Foundation. Studio 19 Architects has been sponsoring HB1 of Asian Undergraduates who would like to start their career there.

Graduated from China’s best school of architecture, Southeast University in 1997, Tian had climbed the career ladder to become a business owner today. Twenty years has passed, what keeps her moving? “It really helps that I have the passion for the profession.” She answered.

Tian’s design was featured in National Magazine “Best of Residential” (Photo by Zita Lam)

“I always believe in, so far I still think it’s true, that architecture is a lifestyle. It is not just a profession or a job, but it’s like someone you marry for life. It definitely takes passion, so if you want to really do architecture you have to make sure you really love it, otherwise might as well just do another profession which pays more and demands less time and effort.” She laughed.

Tian considers herself a minimalist who likes something that leaves room for imagination, and it has led her to be featured on the National Magazine “Best of Residential”. Tian continued her theory in this profession, “I think when you really love it, the reward is significant because it does broaden your perspective and your world so much. People travel, but as an architect, what I see is so different from what other people see. When I see a wall, I can see the story, the texture, the brick, and the history.”