The project executive on the industry’s blame culture, the importance of collaboration and why it is vital to care about those smallest details

Charlene Shum Platform 2023

Why did you choose construction as a career?

I have been surrounded by iconic buildings in the places where I have lived: Hong Kong, Singapore, London. I love how multi-faceted they are, bringing together science, art, history, technology and culture.

Architecture was an obvious career choice for me. I wanted to be part of creating something that is so intertwined with our lives. As an architecture student who was more logical than artistic, I took great interest in the project management and legal modules during my part 3 professional practice. Soon after I qualified, I wanted to apply what I had learnt and made the move to the client side.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

There have been a few highlights, but I am looking forward to completing The Acre later this year, which is our landmark retrofit in Covent Garden. ESG is so important within the built environment and The Acre is a great example of how we can reinvent an existing building into a high-quality and sustainable long-term asset.

Other highlights have included being part of the development team in creating and delivering Wood Wharf as a design manager at Canary Wharf Group and working on One Monte Carlo during my time at RSHP.

What has been the biggest challenge of your career to date?

The Acre has been a challenging but rewarding project to work on. By preserving 80% of the original Richard Seifert structure, we have managed to retain its 1980s Brutalist character while achieving sustainability credentials that outperform new-builds.

Day to day, a big challenge has been working on local and international projects at varying stages of development across different uses, and navigating time zones and work cultures, all simultaneously – as an architect and with Platform, as we have projects across Europe.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

The culture of blame. It means that too many people in the industry are overly risk-adverse, defensive or unwilling to make decisions.

We should always anticipate what lies ahead, make informed decisions and take responsibility for them. If you make a mistake, own it and be proactive in finding a solution.

What is the most helpful advice that you have been given?

When I first started as an architectural assistant at RSHP, a mentor told me that we must care about everything we design, no matter how insignificant it might seem – “down to detailing the cabinet that houses the fire extinguisher in the basement”. That really stuck with me: to care and be accountable in everything that you do.

Bruder Klaus field chapel low res

Source: Shutterstock

The Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, designed by Peter Zumthor, was built on the edge of a field in Mechernich, Germany, in 2007 

Name your favourite building in the world?

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in western Germany by Peter Zumthor.

Which famous building do you most dislike?

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre – an entirely opaque facade sited on the Victoria Harbour front with one of the best views in the world. Such a waste!

Hong Kong cultural centre

Source: Shutterstock

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Victoria Harbour was officially opened by King Charles III when he was Prince Of Wales on 8 November 1989

Which famous building do you wish you had worked on?

Any of Tadao Ando’s buildings.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in your profession?

Collaboration is key. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Who do you most admire in the construction industry?

Richard Rogers. Not only for his incredible talent, but also his personality. He was very approachable and everyone in his practice was made to feel like family.

What is it like being you (and doing your job)?

Every day is different. I could be attending design team meetings, drafting development briefs, negotiating appointments, visiting factories and signing off benchmarks, or brainstorming with my colleagues about the growth of our company. This is what I love about my job at Platform – it never gets boring!

Do you have a life philosophy?

Treat others how you wish to be treated.

What do you think your best quality is?

The ability to multi-task efficiently is critical in my role as a project executive, as Platform covers such a wide scope across any development’s life, from crunching numbers during the acquisition stage to sifting through defects at snagging.

What trait do you most dislike in yourself? And in other people?

In myself, it is being impatient with unfinished tasks. In this industry, patience is essential when a million different things are happening at the same time.

In others, it is being unable to handle conflict or negotiations in a professional way, and not delivering things that have been promised.

Name three things that you like

Good food, travelling and wakeboarding.

Tell us about a secret skill that we don’t know you have

Balancing my job with keeping my five-year-old twins happy. Is that a skill?

What is your most prized possession?

A scarf that my late grandmother knitted for me. She had the ability to knit and replicate any piece of clothing that she had seen. Sadly, that talent did not get passed down to me…

Early bird or night owl?

Night owl, but a sensible one.

What is your favourite food?

Any food from the hawker centres in Singapore.

What would your superpower be?

I want to be like Tony Stark. He doesn’t need superpowers, he kicks ass without!