HKS’ Angela Lee Goes Global with Thoughtful Health Care Designs

When HKS Principal and Asia Pacific Managing Director Angela Lee finished architecture school in 1994, she knew just what she wanted to do — and exactly where she wanted to do it.

While preparing to present her final design project at the University of Oklahoma, Lee noticed that the jury included Joe Buskhul, then the President of HKS. She recognized him from an inspiring class visit to the firm’s Dallas headquarters earlier in the semester.

“I walked up in front of the jury and said, ‘I’m very nervous because Mr. Buskhul is here today and I really want to work for HKS’,” Lee recounted.

She needn’t have worried. Lee promptly received a job offer and two weeks later, she started at HKS. It has been her professional home ever since.

After working for more than two decades out of Dallas, growing into a celebrated global health care designer and leader along the way, Lee relocated to Singapore in 2016 and established the HKS office there. She now oversees the firm’s practice throughout the entire Asia Pacific region.

Moving to Singapore was a return home to Asia for Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 80s when it was still under British rule. Looking back on her childhood, she describes her upbringing and family structure as conventional — her father worked in government service and her mother worked at home raising Lee and her two younger siblings.

“We were your classic Asian family,” she said. “My sister and I played piano, my brother played violin, dad worked, and mom took care of three kids.”

Lee in the 1970s outside her family home in Hong Kong.

But her parents did everything they could to subvert traditional gender norms common in Asian families of the time, Lee said. They enrolled her in one of the top Catholic girls’ schools in Hong Kong and encouraged her to study hard so she would be prepared to enter the workforce one day. Her father gave her extra assignments outside of school so she could continue her studies at home.

“My dad has always pushed me, which was very unusual for a girl. He wanted to make sure I had a good education,” she said.

Taking a Leap Toward Architecture

Driven by a desire to immigrate to the United States before Britain’s lease on Hong Kong came to an end, Lee’s family moved to Oklahoma in 1989, where they joined one of her uncles. The move came just in time for Lee to start college and she took her hardworking spirit to the University of Oklahoma. But architecture school wasn’t initially on her radar.

“I really liked art and science. From the eye of an 18-year-old, architecture jumped out to me as something where I could do both,” said Lee, who followed her gut when selecting a major. She was immediately excited with the curriculum and by her classmates, thrilled that her instincts led to such a good match.

“I really liked art and science…architecture jumped out to me as something where I could do both.”

Not long after she started school, Lee’s mother, father, and brother unexpectedly returned to Hong Kong — her mother was diagnosed with cancer and went home to be surrounded by a larger support system. Lee stayed in Oklahoma, living with her teenage sister while she attended design studios and other college courses.

At 19, Lee met a graduate student named Lawrence and two years later, they married. And when the couple moved to Dallas upon her graduation, they began to look after Lee’s pre-teen brother who had returned from overseas to continue his education in Texas.

Lee says that going through such major life changes in rapid succession wasn’t easy, but that overall, she has had a linear trajectory.

“I would say my life is straight forward. I went from one family to another family, from one school to another school, then to a firm for 28 years,” she said.

Finding Footing as a Professional

When she first started her career in 1994, Lee said there were relatively few women architects working in the field compared with today. The women at HKS have always been a source of great comfort and inspiration for her.

“The most important thing to me throughout my career has been the support of women at HKS. They have kept me grounded and shown me how to be a professional,” Lee said.

One of those influential women is Anita Linney-Isaacson, an architect who recently retired from HKS. Linney-Isaacson said that the small group of women architects who worked at HKS in the early 1990s has remained ‘tight knit’ throughout the years as they’ve watched Lee grow and become an important contributor to the firm’s global success.

“Early in her career Angela looked to us for leadership and guidance, but she has proven herself to be a smart businesswoman,” Linney-Isaacson said. “I am always amazed by her drive and dedication.”

Lee (left center) on a ranch field trip with HKS colleagues and friends in the 1990s.

Lee said geniality and support have been embedded in her HKS experience from day one, both among those women as well as the men who led practice areas and ran the business. Firm leaders often encouraged her to speak up during project meetings and share opinions about how they could promote professional growth. Lee and fellow young designers advocated for a new title structure for early-career professionals, ultimately gaining leaders’ support to create the Forum, a group that continues to be an integral operational body within HKS today.

Discovering a Passion for Health Care Design

It was also in those early years when Lee took opportunities to grow as a designer, working in different practice areas to gain experience.

Lee fondly recalls a health sector project she worked on then, Obici Hospital in Suffolk, Virginia. Shortly after the building opened, she travelled there to assist with a nighttime photoshoot. As she waited for the photographer — alone in a vacant lobby — an elderly man entered the space and approached her. Lee was frightened at first, unsure of what he wanted, but that emotion transformed to empathy when the man told her that he had written a poem for his critically ill wife and asked if he could read it to her. When he was finished, Lee shared that she had helped design the hospital.

“He said thank you for designing such a beautiful space…and my interpretation was that he was thankful for a nice place to write a poem for his dying wife,” Lee said. “That is when I figured out that I could do good, that working in health care is making a career out of helping people.”

“Working in health care is making a career out of helping people.”

A moonlit photo of Obici Hospital taken that night — the same night Lee chose to dedicate her career to designing health care spaces — hangs in the HKS Dallas office lobby to this day.

Understanding the needs of people who use health care spaces is in Lee’s DNA. She has witnessed her mother battle and survive cancer three times, learned about medicine from her doctor uncle in Oklahoma, and watched the journey of her brother, who also became a doctor. These personal connections to health care have allowed her to develop empathy for patients and caregivers.

“My family has helped me understand the human side of health care. I’ve met with brain surgeons and Chief Medical Officers for projects…and I look at them and think, they’re just like my uncle and brother. They’re human. I am able to listen to them and their concerns,” Lee said.

Lee extends her empathy and care-giving nature to her communities in Asia and the U.S through volunteer work as well. As a long-serving board member of Mosaic Family Services, a non-profit that offers free services to victims of human rights abuses, she has raised funds for and provided direct aid to countless survivors.

She also regularly participates on committees with professional organizations such as Urban Land Institute, Global Health Services Network, and The American Institute of Architects, which elevated her to Fellow this year, the highest of the organization’s membership honors.

Solving Design Challenges Around the World

When HKS opened the firm’s Singapore office in 2016, it was, in part, a culmination of Lee’s long-term efforts to bring her and her colleagues’ design expertise to health care systems in the region.

“Angela believed that there was opportunity in Southeast Asia and began traveling to the region as a young architect, developing relationships that would eventually grow into enough business to establish a presence,” Linney-Isaacson said.

Another HKS architect, Chad Porter, says Lee “built a lot of groundwork and connections” with prospective clients including ParkwayHealth, a Singaporean-based hospital system with buildings throughout East and Southeast Asia. Porter and Lee developed a strong relationship while working on the competition-winning design for ParkwayHealth Gleneagles Shanghai International Hospital in 2014.

Lee soon invited Porter and his wife, HKS architect and medical planner, Julia Hager, to join her from the U.S. as she launched the small but mighty Singapore office.

“When we first moved there, we were staying in her house and working in the living room during the day,” Porter said, adding that the office’s five initial employees soon outgrew that space and several co-working spaces as the business expanded.

Original HKS Singapore team members including Angela Lee, Chad Porter and Julia Hager celebrate winter holidays.

Within the first year, HKS rented and sustainably renovated a historic Singaporean shophouse to be a permanent office. Porter said that when he and Hager moved back to the U.S. to start their family a few years later, there were 25 employees working there.

Under Lee’s leadership and with her savvy business acumen helping to carve the path, HKS Singapore has grown over the last six years to include 40 employees hailing from a dozen countries.

Lee identified two major challenges facing health care in Asia that she and her Singapore-based team work to address: viral illness and equitable care for older adults. She has seen first-hand how population growth and density have exacerbated both — even before COVID-19, she saw some hospitals fully shut down when viruses spread. She also noticed that many health care systems and governments aren’t properly planning adequate facilities to provide care for a rapidly growing population of elders.

“In Asia, you don’t have to dig deep for these kinds of problems, they are very in your face,” she said, noting that these areas are natural for her to focus on because she has aging parents and lives in a very dense city herself.

Combining her knowledge of international health standards and awareness of what the Asia Pacific region needs, Lee engages users and leverages design thinking to create pandemic resilient and equitable care environments. In her almost 30 years as a designer, she has contributed to approximately 12 million square feet of health facilities around the world including hospitals and clinics in countries such as the United States, India, Ethiopia, China, Singapore, Vietnam and The Philippines.

Building Personal Connections and Empowering Others

Though based in Singapore full time, Lee travels to the U.S. frequently for work and family time. Her husband Lawrence, who Linney-Isaacson calls “Angela’s biggest cheerleader” is still based in Dallas where he leads the Americas division of a Taiwanese-based technology company.

Lee also often takes adventurous trips with HKS colleagues from across the decades including Linney-Isaacson, who says Lee “watches over her flock” from their vacation destinations, sometimes taking middle-of-the-night meetings to ensure project teams have her support.

Lee and her husband Lawrence vacationing in Iceland with HKS friends and colleagues.

Porter also said Lee dedicates most of her time to her work, and that her cleverness and unconventional problem solving are what make her a thoughtful architect and supportive team leader.

“There are people where if something doesn’t go as prescribed, they see it like a roadblock or they don’t know how to go about it. For her, it’s not like that. She knows how to navigate things and people,” he said.

Hager called Lee “fearless,” for the way she expertly rises to challenges, putting forth the right design solutions while tailoring her leadership style so teams can do their best work.

“Angela has taught me to be confident in my knowledge and humble in my lack of knowledge, to see an individual as an individual and also see them as part of a bigger collective,” she said.