Taking its name from the road it stands majestically on, Yap Ah Shak House is hard to miss if you are in the vicinity of The Row KL and the cool heritage enclave of Jalan Kamunting, Kuala Lumpur. Boasting a charming, symmetrical façade and sprawled across six floors, it has a lot to offer. From private offices, meeting rooms, lounges and event spaces to a street-level Italian restaurant and rooftop bar, here you will find everything you need to conduct business and more. Group executive deputy chair of Advance Synergy Bhd (ASB) Anton Syazi Ahmad Sebi, the brains behind Yap Ah Shak House, takes us through the nuances of this venture.
Insulated from the din of traffic, the space within the grey and white edifice is imbued with enduring classic style and a sense of understated elegance. I am ushered into a meeting room on the first level where Anton awaits me. It is a nicely decked-out room, with dark wood table, leather office chairs, a cabinet lined with coffee-making facilities, a huge LED monitor, framed nature art and Philippe Starck lamps. He has just wrapped up a business meeting and is usually here once a week when not working out of his company’s headquarters in Glenmarie, Selangor.
Business synergy strategy
Anton has his hands full at ASB, a diversified investment company with interests in information and communications technology, hotels and resorts, travel and tours, property development, card and payment services, and manufacturing. He is also executive director of the group’s nascent property investment and management division, which currently comprises Yap Ah Shak House and The Marloes serviced apartments on Philbeach Gardens, Earl’s Court in London.
“We’re trying to move more into property investment and engaging in adaptive reuse projects, where we take a building, maybe repurpose it to create a bit more value and allow it to become a place in its own right while still fitting into the local context. The end game is to find ways to develop the commercial potential of the property,” he says.
When it comes to identifying the properties to acquire, it always starts with location and having a good asset management strategy.
“We always look for an area that is regenerating or on the up and we do not look at too many established assets. We try to come in earlier so that the returns we can generate for our shareholders come from that enhanced capital value.”
The approach is similar to WeWork’s when it first started out, wherein the US company focused on looking for opportunities to create a lot more value from underutilised or low-value buildings in New York and eventually ended up introducing the coworking space.
This process usually starts from trying to know full well the usage context and getting into the minds of intended users. When briefing the architects, discussions often loop back to the commercial goal.
“Understanding the customer profile gives us a strong basis to design the space of our buildings,” Anton says. “Space utilisation will be guided by purpose, the journey customers take and how we fulfil that. The form versus function discussion tends to follow from there. It’s always about function first, then what wraps around that is the design.”
Anton adopts a more sustainable and timeless approach, and he is overjoyed to have found the perfect partner in award-winning Unit One Design that shares the same philosophy. The architectural firm does not have any contemporary trend built into its product nor does it try to trend spot, push the envelope or subscribe to a particular philosophy or style.
All the timeless design elements, furniture (Humanscale Diffrient World task chairs, Eames lounge chairs and Philippe Starck stools) and lighting selection at Yap Ah Shak House are guided by that.
“This project would’ve been an interesting one for Unit One Design since we did have some very specific commercial goals that we wanted to achieve, alongside the capacity of the building and the timeless appeal we wanted to incorporate.
“John Ding, co-founder of the practice, pays great attention to detail. He always takes a step back to look at function and see what we can achieve. The aesthetic aspect of it always comes last,” Anton remarks.
For serviced offices, creating a positive impression is very important. Anton found there is under-representation of the more elevated coworking addresses for baby boomers and the Gen X in Kuala Lumpur. The intention was to make the design and colour palette more subdued and serious but above all, the space must convey a sense of professionalism and maturity, and inspire confidence.
Compared to the heritage shophouses around the area, this particular building is a new structure built in 2015 with mock heritage architecture.
“We had the structure and the bare bones of an office building but it wasn’t fitted at all. The vision was to make this place a destination for doing business in modern times, which meant offering as many options as possible to suit a particular need — be it a well-equipped meeting room for business presentations, casual meetings over coffee or a meal as well as offices of different sizes.”
Initially, the building was due to be completed in early 2020 but there was a few months’ delay due to the different lockdowns and shipment hold up. Workers also needed more time to work on the rooftop because when ASB bought the building, space was non-existent. The top floor now houses the Terraza bar and two meeting rooms, which are often converted into a private dining area. The view at night is really something else, with both the Petronas Twin Towers and KL Tower flanking the different corners of the panoramic vista.
Yap Ah Shak House is still a work in progress. The multipurpose hall on the third floor will be turned into an upscale jazz bar, a tearoom and a reading room, with a gallery space to connect the venues. It will be fairly compact but going by Anton’s vision to flip the space around, it will be nothing short of amazing. He is also looking at introducing a premier barbershop or blowout bar for a wholesome members’ club experience.
Currently, there are two types of membership: resident and non-resident. Resident members enjoy exclusive use of a permanent office for the duration of their membership, 24/7 access to the building, complimentary valet parking and dining privileges. Non-resident members, on the other hand, have access to the building between 9am and 6pm on weekdays, meeting rooms and workspace and on-demand use of office. The minimum term for membership is three months.
Sense and sustainability
Yap Ah Shak House is also guided by the WELL Building Standard and the work of the International WELL Building Standard. In pursuit of sustainable office design, Anton worked with environmental design consultants Atelier Ten.
“One of the few things that we thought about when considering this site was how to ensure the environment within the building is healthy and conducive for work and everyone who uses it. Pre-pandemic, we had the annual haze posing a significant health threat and also the use of air conditioning that sometimes brings about all kinds of illnesses. Particle and carbon dioxide monitors were built into our air-conditioning system and this became useful during the pandemic.”
The air within the building is maintained at healthy levels. “We bring in fresh air if the carbon dioxide exceeds a certain level. It makes sure people stay alert and don’t fall asleep. Unlike other offices in the city, we also have plenty of windows for air circulation purposes. We value natural light and ended up spending a good amount of time working on reclaiming the balconies along the floors. As you can see from the outer part of the building, we’ve put in louvred windows, this second skin to help reduce power draw to keep the temperature at a comfortable level inside, and also minimise heat gain from the morning and afternoon sun.”
The louvred windows became a winning factor on many fronts for Yap Ah Shak House. They not only beautifully utilise the art of symmetry and give the entire building a timeless feel, but also work amazingly well in keeping the temperature and utility bills low.
“We also try to make the space more biophilic with ample potted plants. Where we can’t accommodate real plant life, we have artworks that celebrate the beauty of nature.”
Anton’s portfolio includes two properties under private ownership. “We acquired 93 Gloucester Place in 2015 and it came with serviced-office operations, managed by a third party. We let the place run for 18 months while we prepared an asset improvement strategy. Refurbishment took less than a year and we relaunched it as an elevated product offering compared to what it was before, focusing a lot more on design and personalised service.”
Located in Marylebone and not too far from Chiltern Firehouse, the fully-serviced bespoke office accommodation is a period building comprising two Georgian townhouses.
“It’s a boutique hotel equivalent, like going to a nice Airbnb. We’ve tried to keep it small and friendly, and we do have a more intimate service culture. A lot of effort is put into retaining the team, so you always have a familiar face and staff will remember your preferences,” offers Anton with a smile.
ASB has had great success with this particular product: the building is almost fully occupied save for one unit that is in between tenants. The success formula is being replicated in its KL property.
The other property, 73 Oakley Square just south of Camden Town, is fast becoming a hotspot because of the regeneration down in King’s Cross and the success of Coal Drops Yard. London’s tech hub is set to get buzzier with the building completion of Google’s new UK headquarters in 2024. “It started out as an Airbnb lease during the pre-pandemic days before it became a long-term rental for students and tech guys,” explains Anton of the pied-à-terre block, which houses 10 elegantly designed compact living units with built-in kitchen, en suite bathroom and a living/dining area, making it suitable for longer let. À la carte services like linen change and cleaning are thrown in for good measure.
Seeing the properties in London doing what they were intended to gives Anton much satisfaction, knowing that he has nailed the product-market fit. The journey for Yap Ah Shak House is taking longer due to pandemic-related setbacks but by next year, it will be the ultimate address in KL to fulfil all of one’s business needs.
Next, Anton is looking to make a mark in George Town, Penang where he will potentially introduce a hospitality brand similar to Soho House, a members-only club.
“Essentially, it’s going to be a hub similar to Yap Ah Shak House with office space, meeting rooms, event space, restaurant as well as apartments. We hope to get onsite by the end of the year and it will take 18 months to transform the nine shophouses we’ve acquired.”
He’s also hoping to get another project off the ground next year, when the equivalent of Potato Head will be introduced as a beach club or riverside club an hour out of KL.
The man is on a roll. And let’s be honest, perfectly designed buildings do make the world a better place.
This article first appeared on Feb 20, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.