T3 Architects’ ‘office’ in a garden in Ho Chi Minh City
General director and co-founder of T3 Architects Charles Gallavardin on starting his firm and the company’s green-pronged design approach
March 19, 2018
Interview by Patrick Kasingsing and Denny Mata
Photography by Ed Simon of Studio 100
T3 Architects co-founder Charles Gallavardin began his work in Vietnam with an NGO from 2003 to 2005. This NGO, Villes en Transition, dealt with urban poverty reduction in many slum areas in Saigon, Central Vietnam and Mekong Delta areas.
Villes en Transition did many studies on social and low-cost housing in the area, which led to a pilot project that generated buzz: Tan Hoa Lo Gom low cost housing in District 6, Saigon.
Gallavardin then settled in France with his wife (an architect as well). There they set up T3 Architecture Company in Marseille with two friends, focusing on green and sustainable architecture, and adaptive reuse projects. Two of his colleagues continue to work for T3 Architecture in Marseille today. Meanwhile, the Gallavardin couple returned Vietnam in 2011 as employees in renowned architecture studios.
After some unsatisfactory experiences with their employers and projects, they decided to open T3 Architecture in Ho Chi Minh City, keeping the relationship with their first office in France.
You said you first worked on low-cost housing. What made you interested to work on these projects?
I still think like many young people do when they start out. You want to help save the world. And because I’m an architect, I said, “Okay, let’s go make low-cost housing for poor people and work in social fields.” But then I was disappointed by the way politicians take back your ideas and freedom.
And then, I figured there are other ways to ‘save the world’ beyond the public sector, which lead us to private commissions. Having good values, strong ethical standards and consciously avoiding work with people with dirty money can go a long way. It’s important as well to create projects that won’t damage the environment and one that functions well for its users.
When you started the Vietnam office of T3 Architects, how many were you then?
Only two: me and my wife, Tereza. She’s a Czech architect.
Was your office here (Family Garden) already?
No. We were working at home, in a small room. We collaborated with a Vietnamese friend, Mr. Thang Hoang Le Manh, who is our partner as well. He spent eight years in France to study and work, and he came back to Vietnam the same time as us. So very quickly we started to collaborate. We started with three partners, T3. And we are still three main partners.
When did you move to this new office? How is it better from the last one?
We initially moved to another office also in this area, when we were 5 people. And then we moved to Family Garden roughly two years ago.
Our space here is 40-50 sqm plus we have many outdoor areas and green spaces we can use for both meetings and relaxation. That’s the main concept of this place. We have a lot of common areas and facilities shared amongst the other five design studios and practices within the complex too. It opens us up to design collaborations.
How many people are in your office currently?
We are currently ten in Vietnam. And we also have an office since a year ago in Phnom Penh in Cambodia with two employees, 1 French architect, and 1 Khmer architect who graduated in Moscow.
How does your office reflect your studio’s personality?
I would say Vietnamese contemporary, using local materials, using natural materials as much as possible. So it’s also good for us. And now we really want to focus again fully in sustainable architecture.
We really want to focus on sustainable architecture, even though at the start, some of our clients didn’t seem to care because we believe in it and the benefits it brings to both man and environment. But now, thanks to Vietnamese studios that champion green architecture like VTN, people are starting to change their minds about sustainable contemporary architecture.
What’s it like in your office in a normal day?
We start at around 9:00 in the morning and we finish around 6:30-7:00 in the evening. And only 5 days a week, Monday to Friday. We don’t work on weekends. The main idea is for our team members to have free time to enjoy life outside of work: to go to exhibitions, concerts, enjoy other things and maybe derive ideas and concepts that will jog their creativity. This is important to us. The goal is to get everyone to have work-life balance. I know a lot of studios and architects that work almost all the time until the weekends. That’s not our thing.
I see, so is it normal in Vietnam for architecture studios to work on the weekends?
Quite often, on Saturday mornings. Before, it was whole Saturdays. More often, we stop on a Friday evening. Of course, like many other architecture studios sometimes we work extra hours, especially our main partners. The partners work a minimum of 10 hours a day. For employees, 8 hours a day.
How many design projects do you handle currently? And on average, how many design projects do you handle in a year?
I would say, a minimum of 10. Now we have 5 projects in design and construction in Cambodia. In Vietnam, we also have 6 projects in the design process phase. From low-scale to big-scale, from interiors to landscape design.
Briefly discuss, from start to finish, how you deal with a certain design project.
The first very important step for us is the design brief. It means we spend 2-3 weeks to clarify the program of the client: what kind of project they want (hotel, restaurant or office); is it a new building or a renovation; the budget they have per square meter (we don’t care too much about the full budget, but having an idea of the budget per sqm helps us get an idea about the materials we can use, the contractor and the supplier we can collaborate with). We then craft a construction schedule to get a realistic timeline of the project. And then we try to clarify the design tender, and the style they want and what we can offer them. We go for projects that promote sustainability, contemporary, with respect for local context.
As soon as the design brief is validated, we ask the client to sign it. And then we don’t come back to it, so they cannot do a U-turn on the agreed upon idea, well, except for a few minor things. We ask them to sign. It means they have to confirm by writing the program is like this, especially with a local investor.
Then we go for concept design. First we concentrate on the layout and once we have fleshed out the needs and requirements and plotted it down to a plan we start to create the 3D models. And then we draw technical parts of the design: basic design, all sections and elevation layouts, and we define more all the materials.
We then proceed to the detailed design tender. We usually work like in Europe: we propose to the client to organize a tender to compare the prices of different contractors, helping him make savings during the tender process. So architecture does not only incur costs, but it is also possible to save money.
Then we work on details for construction. So when the contractor is selected, we work with him to finalize a few details to make sure everything is clear. Then there’s one or two site visits a week, minimum. If it’s in Saigon, we propose to make a construction visit everyday on site. We take care of the technical part, coordination of the suppliers and contractor, everything.
During that time, we collaborate with the MEP designer, fixture designer, landscape designer, and lighting designer. We have a partnership with a few friends in other companies, and most of the time we work with them, but we always give the choice to the client. We’re independent.
So do you prefer to have only about 10 people or below 20 people in your firm? Would you like to maintain having a small workforce?
We’d like to get 3 offices running at least. With around 12 employees in Vietnam; in the future, about 10 employees in Cambodia; and then set up a new office in Europe, maybe another outpost in France or Portugal, we don’t know where yet.
I think we have the right number of employees for small and medium scale projects. We partners want to get involved as much as possible with all the designs and we don’t want to sacrifice quality. That’s why we don’t want to get involved in huge shopping malls or huge residential programs. First because we’re not huge to begin with. It’s not the right way to develop T3. We don’t like projects involving too much air-conditioning. As much as possible we uphold the use of natural ventilation in the projects we take.
How is the studio structured?
We have quite a horizontal structure: In the management committee we have 4 partners, 3 designers (2 Western, 1 Vietnamese who can speak the language and knows the country and its people) with 1 strategic partner to help us develop the company; he’s not an architect so we have a non-designer POV.
We involve all the employees in decision-making. We call it a “cooperative” in Europe where every employee gives his/her own opinion. We share our opinions together and take into consideration their opinions. We also share the benefits of the company. So if the company is doing well, the employees get bonuses.
So we can say that the studio is structured horizontally without extremely strict hierarchies?
Yes. That’s why we need the employees to be autonomous. Ones that we can trust 100%.
How would you describe your design approach in every project?
We focus on 4 fundamentals (in no particular order):
Harmony – We design bioclimatic architecture; people should feel good in the places they work and play. We aim for harmony with the environment. We design for and with the environment, not against it. We also aim for the harmony between the building and its user.
Creativity – Every project challenges us to be more creative to craft effective design solutions. We respect specialization of skills and often collaborate with artists and designers from various fields and genres.
Know-how – We want to promote collaboration with people who specialize in one thing. We try to extend our networks to always work with the best in the field.
Wellness – To create buildings that are safe and comfortable for people. We try to use natural materials as much as possible, and allow as much natural light in to make the people more comfortable, and so on.
As someone who’s worked in Vietnam for a while, can you pinpoint certain trends and issues prevalent in local Vietnamese contemporary architecture right now?
During the ‘60s to ‘70s, we have many nice buildings in South Vietnam, with double-skin facade, ventilation bricks, cement blocks, double roof, etc that clearly were built to adapt to the tropical climate. However, from the ‘80s until recently, the Vietnamese seemed to have forgetten their identity and started copying Western architecture they saw in magazines. They have lost their identity and did poor architecture that doesn’t adapt to the climate and way of living. There is some admirable progress however. Since 5 years ago, they started being proud of their identity and are now designing and crafting inventive, functional architecture that make use of a lot of local materials, and are more climatically-responsive and effective.
What is your favorite material to work with?
We make use of local materials and local techniques as much as possible. Then if we have more choices, we prefer using low-carbon footprint materials. So instead of bricks which are more energy consuming, we use light concrete blocks, industrial blocks that are more efficient in terms of insulation and less polluting. We also use earthen, uncooked bricks sometimes if the project allows it, ventilation bricks, cement tiles and even water palm leaves for roofing.
I think wood is the best material for low carbon footprint. The problem however in Vietnam with wood is those that are good for construction are cut already or are used for luxury furniture. You also don’t know how the forest is managed and taken care of. So we usually had to import wood from foreign countries, mainly from New Zealand, where wood is properly treated and well-dried.
How do you convince your clients to go for environmentally-responsible projects, despite it being relatively costly?
It’s mainly a question of design, not of cost. We use exactly the same materials, and we ensure it doesn’t cost more. You can create environmentally-responsible projects with the same materials and derive green benefits if the architecture is designed well. We also go for cheap, local, and low-tech solutions, that are both sustainable and tied to context so the application and maintenance won’t be an issue to the inhabitants of our projects.
More of T3 Architects’ portfolio at t3architects.com.