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Changing the face of architecture for social good

5 August 2019 at 8:24 am
Maggie Coggan
HY William Chan isn’t your average architect. He’s using his passion for social change to disrupt the industry to design sustainable, inclusive and resilient cities for the future. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 5 August 2019 at 8:24 am


Changing the face of architecture for social good
5 August 2019 at 8:24 am

HY William Chan isn’t your average architect. He’s using his passion for social change to disrupt the industry to design sustainable, inclusive and resilient cities for the future. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Hailing from Sydney, Chan has designed architect projects that have spanned Olympic stadiums, metro systems, and whole city plans. 

But it’s his work building environmentally, socially and economically sustainable projects for the homeless, slum-dwellers and refugees that has attracted global attention. 

His latest venture is working to upcycle plastic waste from refugee camps in Greece into 3D-printed building material to improve the built environment for refugee communities. He is working with UNICEF Australia to bring the initiative to other refugee communities.  

Chan travels the world to advocate for the role young leaders can play in sustainability development. His work has been showcased at the Venice and Rotterdam Biennales, and he has co-authored the UN-Habitat World Urban Youth Declaration.  

His work has also earned him a spot on the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30, and the GreenBiz 30 Under 30 lists. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Chan talks about the challenges of disrupting an industry to do good, managing success at a young age, and how to make small changes slowly. 

How have you been able to create social change through your work as an architect?

I really focus on how I can shape communities to ensure that it is done in a way that really uplifts communities. A lot of my work is now about collaborating with the urban poor in Australia and the rest of the world to create projects that really benefit them. 

When you first started architecture, did you think that you would be designing projects like upcycling plastic and turning it into architecture? 

Not at all. My career journey and exploring how I can help others through architecture has been driven by working directly with communities and finding out what they need, and being on the ground and looking at where people live and asking questions about their environments

You can’t really preempt what will happen and what the best solutions are, especially when dealing with vulnerable communities. You have to make sure the solutions you are creating and the types of problems you are solving with these solutions are actually meaningful and worthwhile in terms of the other challenges.

Chan at the UN General Assembly

What sorts of challenges have you found being a disruptor in your sector?   

In architecture, it’s not apparent that there is a strong connection to community development, unlike other professions. And that’s something that I’m dedicated and ambitious about really changing. I want people to understand the buildings that we design aren’t just buildings, and we’re actually designing how people live and work, and when we apply that to vulnerable communities we can actually have a great influence in terms of people’s lives. It’s really important that more and more people understand the value of design and how built environments affect others differently.

What are some of your biggest achievements so far? 

I think it would be very easy to say that being recognised by Forbes Magazine on the 30 under 30 list would be my greatest achievement, but for me, that is an accolade and it doesn’t speak to the outcomes and the impacts that I personally have gained. I think it would have to be my day-to-day role in terms of helping my local community directly. I am a surf lifesaver in Sydney, and being able to volunteer my time to help my local community, stop people from drowning and to educate people on beach safety, is as rewarding as the work I do overseas in slums or in refugee camps.

Surf life saving at Tamarama Beach

How do you manage so many projects and success at such a young age? 

It comes down to being passionately involved and being able to see the results of your work changing the lives of people. I had the chance to work with a township in the slums of South Africa, and I was lucky enough to go back five years later to meet with the same community and really evaluate what worked and what didn’t work. Being able to understand the difference it made and whether or not it’s a small change and sustainable change, really drives me to understand what I’m doing is working. Especially because I’m making sure that it’s focused on the local community and their needs rather than my own needs and what I think that a community might need. That’s really driven me and allowed me to manage because I know that the work I’m doing isn’t fruitless and that it is really creating change in people’s lives.

What would your advice be for a young professional who wants to use their skills for good? 

It’s important to look at how you can combine your career and your interests towards something that’s socially and positively driven, and look at the needs within our communities and in the world. I see how I can actually be part of the answer and be part of the solution rather than be part of the problem. For our generation, it’s our time to really use our skills, innovation, and creativity and to be entrepreneurial about these problems and really look at them and solve them in a completely new disruptive way. 

There are also a lot of people who are already doing amazing things and so it’s important to surround yourself with people who are running social enterprises and startups so you see that you aren’t alone and you are part of a movement. 

What do you like to do in your downtime?

Keeping myself preoccupied and taking on lots of different responsibilities is my life and I find balance in everything I do which gives me joy. I don’t know if downtime on its own is something that helps because a lot of it is really about finding those moments in the busyness. I really love it when I get the chance to meet other people and find out about what they do and their life stories. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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