Dara Huang

September 13, 2016

As an architect and founder of Design Haus Liberty in London, Dara Huang gives us her thoughts on how important the right working environment is and how feature lighting can play a crucial role.

Dara Huang is the founder of Design Haus Liberty (DHL), an international award winning architecture and interior practice based in London. Since 2013, the practice has been the recipient of The 2013 RIBA Forgotten Spaces Competition awards, showcased on the BBC and exhibited at The Somerset House, London; The Art Club Gallery, Seoul; while more more recently taking part in the Venice Biennale 2016.

With current projects including a 550 unit, new-build graduate housing block for The Collective; a 110 unit, new-build, mixed residential/commercial development in Central London; and £20m penthouses in South Bank Tower, Huang is well versed in restaurant, hospitality, commercial, residential and office design. Previous to setting up her own practice, she graduated from Harvard in 2007 and trained under the apprenticeship of Herzog de Meuron and Foster + Partners. There, she contributed to 56 Leonard Street and Tate Modern II Museum.

Her personal awards include The Clifford Wong Prize, The KPF Travelling Fellowship, The Young Architects Award, and First Place in The AIAS National Design Review. She was also personally invited to design the Samsung Pavilion for the London Olympics 2012.

While DHL is very much an architectural practice, with 25 architects currently ‘on the books’, for Huang it is a practice that is still very much led by design, telling darc: “I think because I come from an architectural background I can relate to this way of working much more, the way architects work with form, light and space. I like the way architects have a general way of wrapping their heads around things and then when we get into the details of a project, we turn to people from different disciplines to take it to the next level, such as product designers and lighting designers.

“Our strengths and our ‘bread and butter’ are our ideas,” she continues, “so first and foremost we’re definitely an architectural firm and then everything else comes out of that. When I started out on my own, I always did the architecture and the interiors but it was the interiors that caught the developer’s eye so we started doing more and more schemes, or we would be brought in as creative directors and end up consulting on all the other elements as well.”

For Huang and her team, whether the project is residential or commercial, it is important that they produce something unique to the client and use what is special about the area to influence the design. “We did a tech office where so many people were saying to us how much they loved the design and wanted us to recreate it… but we had to just say no! That’s not your office, that’s not the vibe you’re giving off and that’s not who you are, so let’s sit down and come up with something that’s right for you. Every site has character in its history and its context and needs looking at individually – from there, you bring out the roots of where the company’s from and what makes it unique.”

Commenting on office design specifically, for Huang the office sector is split into three types: the private owner; serviced offices which are growing in the market; and offices which are owned by a developer and rented out to multiple businesses. “There’s so many ways to design an office,” she tells darc, “but what I decided to do and what I think is the right direction, is to think about what a healthy office space means. So there definitely should be natural light adjacent to being able to see the outdoors and some aspect of greenery.

“There should also be a mixture of materials – not just all desks and hard spaces, introduce some soft seating, various lighting aspects. Mix it up from floor to floor – don’t just use carpets and tiles, but give the tenant something that says the space is more than just an office. At the end of the day, what you’re investing in is the amount of efficiency you will get out of each employee – meaning they will work better if they’re more comfortable, they’ll stay at the office longer if it feels more homely and also, you’re getting tenants that don’t want to leave which is a bonus for a landlord.”

The problem with the office space, according to Huang, is that a lot of the time, developers and landlords want the quickest, cheapest, solution and don’t often see the long-term cost of things. “Being cheap and cheerful can result in tenants moving out quicker,” she says, “meaning the landlords have then got to pay an agency to get people back in there. NeueHouse in New York is a great example of how it can work well. They created this amazing space, which has gone global and all eyes are on them. There’s a lot to be said for creating good space and I don’t care if it’s office type a, b or c. I think every one of those can have a touch of design.

“I think back in the 90s and early 2000s it was all about fire regulations, maximising your floor space and then copy and pasting the design all the way through the building,” Huang continues. “This is definitely being replaced with different ideas and you can see it in the new World Trade Center in New York where it used to be geared towards finance companies and now the new money makers are the tech guys. They’re not interested in uninteresting spaces, so they’ll add roof terraces to some of the floors and double height spaces so you can see the neighbours below, and cafes and so on…

“This connection with being more interesting in the design is something developers really need to think about and consider and if technology is the future, maybe we shouldn’t be copy and pasting things thinking that the next investment bank might take the space, but the next Google might take the space and want something more creative.

“Office space is evolving and I think that some of the industry is slow to pick up on this. I think honestly, it’s only going to improve by example; people are going to see things happening in New York, want it and copy it in about ten years time, it’s always the same. Technology and the internet aren’t going anywhere; our whole lives are controlled by apps so why should architecture stand still? It all needs to move together and office space needs to look to embrace creative needs, desires and spaces.”

For Huang, the right lighting within an office project is paramount to the entire environment. “It’s the most important thing,” she tells darc. “Not just for office designs, but in general, lighting sets your mood, how alert you are… everything! So when we’re doing a project we’ll look at lighting from a technical point of view, considering regulations, where switches should be and so on. Beyond that we’ll put in low heat emitting fluorescents that turn on by section, or whatever is needed.

“I feel it’s crucial to have key areas of lighting, especially feature lighting which is the one thing a lot of offices don’t have. So when we recently did a tech office we went out of our way to design things that purposely fit the identity of the office and introduced key light features. For example on one project we took spaghetti jars and turned them into a suspended chandelier, and we’ve used old recycled bottles and scripted them into an amazing sculpture that hangs over a reception desk space.

“These are definitely points of interest, so when I design an office I think of it as a collection of moments, which generally occur in a conference room, or over a reception desk, or maybe even in the main space. I think that people don’t use feature lighting enough, but that it is a really cool element that can impress visitors and make them stop for a second and think ‘wow’.”

Besides feature lighting, task lighting is another element Huang feels is important to incorporate into office design. Not only for efficiency reasons should an employee choose to work late into the night, but the fact it gives out a different colour light.

“So if you’re working on 2,700K then it will give you a much warmer glow,” she says. “Where as with building regulations and so on you need to implement fluorescent lights that produce that colder glow… And I don’t know about you, but when I sit under a cold light all day I just want to go to sleep! It’s not a good feeling. So, the more lights you can introduce and the more variety, changing the shade of the environment, the more you’re going to divert the attention of your task workers to work longer, more efficiently and so on…”

One such variation in lighting is the pendant, which for Huang can help create zones within an office – hung over a small meeting area or over the kitchenette. “Introduce a couple of gorgeous pendants instead of those stupid fluorescents again,” she says. “Lighting is THE most important thing. We’ll even use floor lights on some of our projects where it’s suitable. We did this for an industrial warehouse we were working on, we put them in the corners of the room and the light would shine up the edges of the exposed brickwork giving it a really dramatic effect – it changed the whole mood!”

With more and more companies using their office spaces 24hrs a day, for Huang it is imperative this is taken into consideration within the design, the space needs to be flexible to accommodate different scenarios and working needs and as part of this, varying lighting only works to aid the multitudes of work and nuances.

“The entire design of a space can be dictated by one light,” Huang tells darc. “We create bespoke light features as part of our service and in the past we’ve had clients with the most dire of spaces who have completely changed their mind once the lighting has been changed. It only takes one light piece to completely reform an entire space.”


Product photography of Design Haus Liberty furniture