An Interview with Scott Lee
Since taking the helm 18 years ago, President and Principal, Scott Lee’s architectural skill, passion, business acumen, and marketing savvy have been a driving force behind SB’s emergence as a leader in the hospitality industry. With talent-packed offices in San Francisco, Miami and Hong Kong, the firm is increasingly taking on large illustrious commissions ranging from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel & Residences in Boca Raton to the Ritz Reserve at Caroline Bay, Bermuda. Featured here, alongside Lee’s thoughtful interview, is one of the firm’s triumphs – the Malliouhana Hotel & Spa in the British West Indies which was completed in collaboration with TAL Studio. The project was a renovation of Anguilla’s first hotel property – serving to preserve the iconic destination’s history, all while setting a new standard of luxury.
Please can you share a little bit about your background?
I’ve always gravitated towards building and drawing. It started with backyard forts with scraps from neighborhood construction projects and evolved into drawing plans and building furniture in junior high school. Shortly thereafter, I decided I wanted a career that combined drawing and building and interacting with others who share that same passion. In high school, I started an antique business with my brother and cultivated a passion for all things entrepreneurial. I also worked for an architect in the afternoons after class in high school to get a sense of the profession and set my sights on Cal Poly based on their “learn by doing” ethic. I started at Cal Poly [as an architecture major] when I was 17 and never deviated from my focus. I supplemented… with part-time work with local architects and developers. I started an unrelated business that connected students with scholarships for which they were eligible. I was awarded a scholarship and attended University in Bath, England to both study architecture and represent the Rotary Foundation as an ambassador of goodwill. When I graduated several things were clear about my way forward: 1. Designing, building and an appreciation for a global perspective would be my focus, 2. Emphasis on teamwork and collaboration would be my special approach, 3. A strong desire to be in control of my own destiny through entrepreneurial pursuits would steer me toward owning my own practice – at the right time.
What was your path to becoming President and Principal of SB Architects? How did you make it happen and thrive?
Hard work. I spent 10 years being inspired by and working with amazing people and projects at Hill Glazier Architects (now HKS). Sixteen years ago, I left there as a partner feeling the need to build an organization with cohesion and common purpose, both on professional and personal levels. At Sandy & Babcock, I was given the latitude to shape the company culture of design excellence with a realigned focus on hospitality. I was made a partner and worked with firm leaders to rebrand Sandy & Babcock to SB Architects. Predecessors and mentors retired, making way for me to become president and further solidify the focus of the firm. I surrounded myself with incredible talent with mutual respect for all facets of the profession and pursu[ed] recognition through great design and delivery while cultivating a culture of wellness, collaboration, and balance.
When addressing a project, whether it be your own home in Mill Valley or the St. Regis Los Cabos at Quivira in Mexico, what do you strive to achieve?
Listening. To the site, its context, the culture, the program, and the client. Our job is to explore all potential solutions and synthesize all feedback into one optimal design direction. Philosophically, our design values are centered around being true to the site and connecting the project with the place. Imagining the finished project and how it will be experienced and what it will become known for helps greatly in informing the design process and ultimately the solutions.
As an architect and business owner, could you offer some insight into the benefits and challenges that come with that dual role?
Firstly, nothing in architecture school prepares you for running a business. Fortunately, I had some experience as a small business owner in both high school and college and had an appreciation for some of the challenges. Toggling between the business side of architecture and the architecture side of the business, for me, is invigorating because I love both…One thing is for sure, great architecture without an understanding of business, will not survive in today’s market. Neither will great business acumen without design excellence.
What is the secret to SB Architects’ success?
Cultivating and maintaining geographical diversity has been one key to our success. We are currently working in over 22 countries. Cautiously diversifying between building types also allows us to smooth out the peaks and valleys of economic volatility. We know what we are good at and don’t dabble in schools, hospitals, museums, public projects or the like. All forms of hospitality, residential and mixed-use are our sweet spot.
What advice would you like to give your younger self or architects/designers just starting out?
Pick up a hammer. The ultimate goal of architecture is to get things built. Build something. Yourself. The physicality of construction is humbling. Intuitively understanding how far a 2×4 may span, or the fact that a junction box needs physical space to fit within a wall are lessons you won’t learn in books, in the office or in the classroom. Developing a hands-on understanding of construction will make you a better designer and a better architect and will allow you to speak with authority and experience to your peers who are charged with building what you draw. I toiled with the construction and renovation of 1907 Victorian that I lived in, in San Francisco, at the start of my career. I drew before work in the mornings and built after-work in the evenings and on the weekends. Fail…It is through overcoming adversity that we develop courage and through failure we understand our limits, boundaries and expose ourselves to competitors and leaders who would otherwise be outside our sphere of influencers.
Any advice to those starting out in business?
It’s a small world. You never know who will become your client, your boss, your partner or your co-worker. This is a small profession and the world is getting smaller. Your words and deeds will shape your reputation of which you only have one. Treat others with respect and dignity and don’t make enemies. Do not be afraid to state your goals and intentions and objectives to your employer. Ask for exposure to projects or tasks that are in alignment with your passions. Hopefully, your employers will, as mine have, give you the latitude to triumph or fail. Either way, you will learn and grow.