Albert Liang Tsu Ying is the founder of the Built Environment Experiential Programme Lab (BEEP Lab), a social enterprise which uses architecture and design to empower children and youth to connect what they learn in school with the built and natural world around them.
However, his journey in architecture began in the unlikeliest of places — the Singapore IT Show.
As a member of the sales team, he was tasked with interviewing a part-time job applicant. Instead of grilling the applicant on his sales acumen, Albert spent two hours listening in fascination to his experiences as an NUS Architecture student.
“He was telling me about this subject which combines art and science, history and geography. Instead of talking to him about the IT show, I talked to him for hours about architecture because I loved reading about those subjects at the library.”
When it came time to apply for university, Albert only had one box ticked on his application.
“Luckily, I really enjoyed the 3-hour model-making and dexterity test,” he recalled with a laugh. “Later on, I even ended up taking the same class as the guy I met at the IT Show!”
As an undergraduate, Albert was captivated by the interdisciplinary nature of architecture, which meshed disciplines as diverse as art history, structure design and material science. Although most university courses are self-directed, he was pleased to learn that architecture takes the idea of free rein to the next level.
“There’s really no single textbook for architecture. There are just different books from different schools of thought. NUS emphasised a great deal on critical thinking and observation skills, so we could absorb, synthesise and come up with our own perspectives”
His extracurricular life at NUS was just as varied as the architecture syllabus. Since he enjoyed the NUS Students’ Union’s (NUSSU) Rag & Flag as a freshman, he returned to lead his faculty as the Rag & Flag Head for the NUS School of Design and Environment (SDE) (now the College of Engineering and Design (CDE)) in the following year, and worked closely with the marketing committee in fundraising.
Albert, first row, second from right, with the SDE Rag & Flag team
“To me, the culture of Rag & Flag is very unique. I was personally quite inspired by the dance, and the building of the floats. That’s how I ended up getting involved, first as a performer, then as the Rag & Flag Head,” he recalls.
His crowning achievement was the raising of $4,000 in one afternoon. Instead of washing hundreds of cars to raise the funds as most other student groups would have done, he led the team to take part in a cheerleading competition.
“At first, everyone was skeptical because they thought we had to do those dangerous stunts but it was actually just the verbal cheers we had done in orientation,” Albert explains. “We got first place and that basically secured us all the money we needed for Rag.”
He also loved the vibrant campus life that NUS is known for, which he credits for giving him that entrepreneurial spark as well as the courage to step up into leadership roles.
Despite being one of the few Architecture students in Temasek Hall, he didn’t find it lonely. Instead, he was excited at the opportunity to interact with students from different faculties like Engineering or Business, some of whom were in the midst of founding their own companies.
“It made me realise, perhaps there’s more to architecture than just joining the industry,” he mused.
However, the highlight of his time in NUS was the exchange semesters in Malaysia, Taiwan, China and Korea. These opportunities not only gave him a chance to hone his skills by working in design studios abroad, but also to immerse himself in the local cultures. He found himself doing everything from planning cycling expeditions with local friends, to visiting the Shanghai 2010 Expo, to practicing his Korean at ajumma-run eateries.
Albert, second from left, catching salmon at the 2009 Salmon Festival with his friends during the NUS student exchange programme to Hanyang University
“I also met my wife in a studio during an NUS summer exchange programme,” he says with a laugh. “My professors and friends have a running joke that I gained more than 4 modular credits during the programme. I gained a life partner too!”
It was when he was working for an art studio for his Final Year Project that Albert discovered the seeds of his own start-up idea. More than just an Architecture internship, it gave Albert the unique opportunity to work on architecture while helping with art classes for children on the weekends.
Through this experience, he discovered a new passion which would slowly morph into BEEP Lab.
“My seniors were doing education. So, I thought, why not go and teach some kids instead of sitting at my computer all day,” he explains. “I liked it a lot, so working with kids every weekend became a way for me to unwind.”
Fast forward to 2021 and BEEP Lab now runs classes, workshops and camps for children of all ages. Every week, Albert’s team sees about 250 children and youths for a variety of programmes. BEEP Lab has also topped the ranks of the Global Selection for Creative and Innovative Education Startups by Finnish education non-profit HundrED, and has also been featured in their Employability Spotlight and Visual Arts in Education Spotlight in recent years.
Team BEEP Lab at Archifest 2019
However, it hasn’t been an easy journey from passion, to project, and to profit.
His first business post-graduation – a fashion start-up – was not a success. Albert moved on to work with SAA Architects on the design of Changi Airport Terminal 4, and eventually convinced the company’s board to let him start an arts outreach programme for children as a corporate social responsibility initiative. Then, in 2018, he decided to strike out on his own with BEEP Lab.
However, just as BEEP Lab was growing and getting more recognition, COVID-19 struck. Classes were cancelled and Albert’s expansion plans were shelved. Unable to pay their salaries for much longer, he advised his employees to start job-hunting.
“It was a confusing time,” he admitted. “We were a new start-up so we didn’t have the funds. I continued to pay them whatever I could, but the company returned to a one-man operation.”
He confesses that the shutdown left him in a state of depression. For a while, he was fearful of the future, and often felt as if a fog had descended over his mind. It was the words of his erstwhile mentor at SAA Architects who got him through this rough period.
“Before I started out on my own, he told me that one day I will hit rock bottom, and to seek help when it happens,” he recalls. “It was a good reminder that my COVID-19 ‘rock bottom’ was just a temporary moment in time.”
Slowly but surely, he began to recover his footing. BEEP Lab switched to online classes and Albert even found creative inspiration from his work-from-home pandemic cooking efforts. He would draw on his home-baked bread to create new sculpture-themed content for BEEP’s workshops.
“I think creativity flourishes when there is great constraint. It forces you to be extremely resourceful.”
Despite the setbacks, BEEP Labs has now bounced back on its feet, with a new space at Pandan Gardens in partnership with PeopleUp Singapore. Albert has also begun making plans for his company once again.
His journey, though unconventional, would not have been possible without the insights and relationships he built at NUS Architecture. He credits his mentors firstly with shaping his ideas, and secondly with connecting him with the right people.
“Assistant Professor Lai Chee Kien was a big influence because of the way he taught about architecture and social landscape,” he recalls. “Associate Professor Tan Beng Kiang also helped me by introducing me to people who worked in early childhood education. She is really very grounded. After you tell her about your dreams, she will say ‘let me connect you to this person who is doing something similar’.”
Albert also credits Associate Professor Cheah Kok Ming, who was pivotal in building Albert’s experience in organising and designing curriculum, and his facilitation skills for university students to learn how to run youth design and architecture classes.
Most of all, he believes that his training in architecture has helped him to become a resilient start-up founder. Although they seem to share little in common at first glance, there’s actually a great deal of overlap between a good architect and a good entrepreneur.
Albert teaching a class at BEEP Lab
“Both roles require decisiveness and a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. Architecture, after all, is equal parts art and science – a craft that requires a mind that is both imaginative and inquisitive.”
He elaborates, “Both jobs require multiple skill sets as well as an ability to accept failure and adapt quickly.”
Through BEEP Lab, he hopes to pass on these essential skills to a new generation of children. They may not work as architects in the future, but the world will need them to think like architects.
“We empower young learners to be aware of current issues around the world and participate in design thinking to interact with such topics. We hope to inspire them to be confident, collaborative and compassionate human beings.”