Peter Lampard and Norman Ung still believe in the power of architecture. “I think there’s a pessimistic view that architects no longer have the power or influence to shape the built environment in the same way as developers,” says Ung. “But the value of architecture is how you create space – and how you try to convince someone to believe in certain ideals.”

Ung and Lampard are the founders and co-directors of DEFT, which they founded in 2014 after working together at CL3 Architects, a major Hong Kong firm. With a team of eight designers, DEFT works in architecture, interior design, graphics and branding – a full-service approach that allows them to flex their creative muscle in a diverse range of projects.

“We have this philosophy about making things quietly brilliant,” says Ung. Lampard elaborates. “In all of our projects we look for ways to give meaning to the project and to the space that may not be apparent when you first take a look but when you engage with the space you can start to peel back the layers.”

What that means is that, however straightforward a project may seem, DEFT use it to explore some deeper underlying issues. One of those is how to make Hong Kong’s ever-shrinking living spaces more pleasant and functional. When DEFT was asked by upstart developer Weave to create a co-living space on Boundary Street in Kowloon, they began to peel back the layers of what co-living actually means.

Essentially a kind of long-stay hostel, co-living spaces are touted as a flexible accommodation for young people who value their career and social lives over putting down roots. But the reality is that, in increasingly expensive cities like Hong Kong, co-living spaces may be the only affordable option for someone living on their own. So how can small living spaces be made comfortable and desirable, rather than a last-ditch option?

“We did a lot of market research ourselves,” says Lampard. “We looked at things like cruise ships and houseboats for ways these spaces can be maximised while still having a sense of home.” And they realised that creating a sense of home was crucial to making small spaces — and shared spaces — liveable. “Instead of working with loft and bunk beds like you see in a lot of co-living spaces, we worked on ways where people can live in a lower bed – so things like pull-outs, different types of wardrobes, things that are concealed,” says Lampard.

Working on the basis that each room, no matter how small, needed a handful of basic amenities like a television, a refrigerator, storage space, a bed and a desk, they ended up designing custom furniture for each of the project’s 160 rooms. “They fit together like Tetris pieces,” says Lampard. “As a resident you start to uncover more ways to use the space.”

Some of the lessons from Weave will be carried on to other projects. “We’re currently looking at ways to use a system of compactors, like you see at a library where the shelves are on wheels on a track, and we’re adapting it to some residential projects,” says Lampard.

Their ambitions go even further. DEFT Community is an initiative that brings Ung and Lampard’s architectural practice together with charitable works. It started in 2015, when an earthquake devastated Nepal. “We had a friend from a village just outside of Kathmandu that was pretty much entirely destroyed,” says Lampard. “We didn’t have a lot of financial resources to donate but we thought maybe we could donate our professional experience.”

At first, they thought they could help rebuild the village’s houses. But after travelling to Nepal and meeting with the villagers, they realised a community centre would be more useful They launched a charity in the United States to raise funds and designed a building using rammed earth. “It adapts to seismic activity so it’s really good for earthquake regions,” says Lampard.

The next DEFT Community project might deal with flooding in northern Thailand. In the meantime, the studio plans to continue making an impact in Hong Kong. Ung is particularly optimistic that a new generation of developers and designers share their broad-minded view of what architecture can achieve. “The city’s development is shaping into something more unique,” he says. “This is a good chance to reshape what Hong Kong architecture really means.”

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