From Dreaming to Doing: Priya Daniel’s Journey as a Leader and Innovator in Architecture

Admired Women in Business, 2023


Priya Daniel is an architect who defies the norms and expectations of her profession. As the founder and principal architect of Five Scale Design, a Singapore-based firm, she has a vision to create spaces that not only meet the needs and aspirations of her clients, but also inspire and delight them with their design and quality. She is also mindful of the environmental and social impacts of her work, and seeks to incorporate sustainable and culturally sensitive solutions in her projects. With over 16 years of experience in the industry, she has amassed a diverse and impressive portfolio of projects that span across Asia and the Middle East, covering various sectors such as residential, hospitality, commercial and mixed-use. Her work has earned her recognition and respect as a leader and innovator in the field of architecture and urban design. 

In this interview, she shares with us her journey from being a young girl who dreamed of becoming an architect to being a successful entrepreneur who runs her own company with passion and dedication.

Aspioneer (A): When did you first realize that you wanted to be an architect?

Priya (P): Ever since I was twelve years old, I have been passionate about architecture and its influence on the built environment. It was at that age that I realized how much the design of buildings and spaces affected the way people lived, worked and interacted with each other and their surroundings. I was fascinated by how architects could create spaces that met the needs and preferences of different users, while also enhancing the beauty and sustainability of the environment. I also loved to use my creativity and analytical skills to find solutions and express myself through drawing and sketching buildings and landscapes in various styles and perspectives. As I travelled to different countries and experienced diverse cultures and architectural styles, I was inspired by how architecture could narrate a story of a place and its people, reflecting their history, values and aspirations.

A: How did you start your career and what led you to start your own company?

P: My career in architecture began in Dubai and continued on to London and Singapore, where I had the opportunity to work for international firms on large-scale projects for several years. It was a great learning experience that exposed me to different aspects of the profession, but I also felt that there was something missing. I wanted to have more creative control, create my own vision and do work that would connect with the local context, people and culture of a place, rather than follow global trends and standards.  I also wanted to build a team that shared my values and passion for architecture. That’s how Five Scale Design was born. Since then, we have been designing and delivering projects that are sustainable and context-sensitive. The projects under my own handle allow me to explore different design concepts and approaches, and to engage more closely with my clients and users.

A: What does the name Five Scale Design mean to you?

P: The firm is called Five Scale Design based on our overall design philosophy and the scales of the built environment relating to the services we provide: From macro to micro, the first 3 scales are – Urban Design (the city scale, townships, Masterplanning), Architecture (buildings, facades, roof) and Interior Design (the spaces we inhabit). The fourth scale we like to say is the ‘Human Scale’ which is constant in all and the most important. The Fifth scale is the ‘Emotional Dimension’ i.e the feeling and takeaways that a user has when he/she experiences a space or design. The word ‘scale’ like a scale balance also refers to our design philosophy aiming to be in harmony with the environment and visually and thoughtfully balanced proportion and proposal. 

These scales do not work in isolation but rather interrelated and mutually influencing. For example, how a building looks from the street level affects how people perceive it and use it, and how a building relates to its surroundings affects how it contributes to the urban fabric.

A: What are some of the challenges that you face as an architect?

P: As architects, we encounter various challenges in our industry that test our skills and creativity. Some of these challenges stem from the site conditions that we have to work with, such as safety issues that pose risks to our workers and users, unsanitary facilities that compromise hygiene and health, or difficult terrains that make construction and access challenging. Sometimes we have to travel to sites that are far away from urban centres or located in undeveloped lands that lack infrastructure and services. There are also budget constraints, which restrict our design choices where we sometimes have to make trade-offs between quality and functionality. There are also some situations when we need to negotiate with clients who may have unrealistic expectations or conflicting demands that are hard to reconcile. Another type of challenge is the global issues that affect our profession and our world, such as climate change that threatens our environment and well-being, resource depletion that limits our materials and energy, or social inequality that creates disparities and conflicts. These challenges require us to adapt and provide solutions that are sustainable and innovative.

From Dreaming to Doing: Priya Daniel’s Journey as a Leader and Innovator in Architecture
Priya Daniel

A: How do you overcome these challenges?

P: We face various challenges in our industry that require us to be flexible, creative and resilient. To cope with these challenges, we seek to find the optimal solutions for each project, taking into account the constraints and opportunities that each site and context presents. We also communicate effectively with our clients, collaborators and stakeholders, ensuring that we understand their needs and expectations and that we explain our design rationale and vision. We also enhance our skills and knowledge by learning from our mistakes and feedback and by keeping ourselves updated with the latest trends and developments in the industry and the world that affect our profession and our projects.

A: How do you balance your work and personal life? Do you find it easy?

P: Balancing work and personal life is one of the biggest challenges in this profession. Architecture as a field requires a lot of dedication and passion, but it also demands a lot of time and energy. Sometimes I have to work long hours, travel frequently or deal with stressful situations. I have to manage deadlines, clients and teams. But I also love what I do and enjoy creating spaces that make a difference. I find it rewarding and fulfilling to see my ideas come to life and to make a positive impact on the world. To find a balance, I try to prioritise my tasks, delegate, manage my time and set my boundaries. I try to be efficient and productive at work, but also to know when to stop and take a break. I also make time for myself, my family and my friends. I do things that help me relax, recharge and reflect. Architecture is not just a job for me, I integrate it in my daily life and my travels. Traveling broadens my horizons and inspires me creatively.

A: Is there anything you wish you had known earlier in your career?

P: That’s a tricky question because I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I think that experimenting, taking risks and making mistakes myself was beneficial for my learning process. It helped me learn what not to do and how to avoid repeating the same errors. It also helped me develop problem-solving skills and decision-making abilities. If everything was handed to me, I wouldn’t have gained those skills and abilities. But on the other hand, I also think that there is one thing that I would have done differently if I had known it earlier in my career. And that is to ask for help more often. When I started my own business, I was just a designer. I had the skills and the passion for design, but I didn’t have the knowledge or the experience for running a business. But after starting my own business, I had to be more than just a designer. I had to be an entrepreneur, a business owner, an accountant, a lawyer. I had to deal with things that were not related to design, but were essential for the success of my business. I tried to learn everything and do everything by myself. But that was not the best strategy. It was slow and inefficient. It was also stressful and exhausting. If I had hired the right people for those, it would have been faster and better.

A: What are the main sources of stress for you and how do you deal with them?

P: My job is very demanding and it can be a source of stress for me. Satisfying different stakeholders, such as our clients, who could be corporations or governments, and the people who use the space we design add a certain level of pressure when having to meet their expectations. To deal with this stress, I think the key is to do proper research, have a good team, use my experience, and provide well-informed and well thought out solutions. Sometimes I want to keep improving things endlessly, but I have to know when to stop and make decisions. This way, I can avoid delays and cost overruns that can cause more stress.

Another source of stress for me is finding a good work-life balance. I love my job, but I also love my life outside of work. I like to travel, exercise, paint, sew or play the piano. These activities help me relax and recharge.  Downtime with my daughter helps me see life from a different perspective. Sometimes she inspires me creatively with her playfulness or curiosity. Even when I’m spending time with her in a park or on a play date, I might get some ideas or concepts for my work. Or I might try to create something new out of the materials she plays with, like mud or clay. So I think it’s about finding a balance between your work and your life, and not seeing your work as just a job, but as something you love and enjoy. That way, even if I work extra hours, it doesn’t feel like a burden to me.

"Balancing work and personal life is one of the biggest challenges in this profession. Architecture as a field requires a lot of dedication and passion, but it also demands a lot of time and energy."

A: How do you keep growing and developing as a leader and how do you motivate yourself?

P: I try finding inspiration in whatever I do. Whether I am on vacation or in a meeting or somewhere else, I learn from people, places, things, or conversations that I encounter. For instance, when I travel to different countries, I observe how they design their buildings, products, or services and how they solve their problems. When I meet new people, I listen to their stories and perspectives and learn from their experiences. When I see something interesting or unusual, I ask questions and try to understand how it works and why it matters. By doing this, I expose myself to different cultures, trends, and innovations that can enrich my own thinking 

I periodically go back to universities to review or critique students’ projects. This way, I stay updated with their research and ideas and also give them feedback and guidance. I enjoy interacting with young minds who are passionate and curious about their fields of study. They often challenge me with new questions and insights that make me rethink my own assumptions and approaches. They also inspire me with their enthusiasm and optimism.

I enjoy factory visits to keep abreast with materials, production practices and systems with the suppliers I work with. By doing this, I gain a deeper understanding of the whole process and the value chain of our business. This helps me make better decisions and improve our performance.

A: Since you mentioned the future, do you have any advice for the next generation of women leaders?

P: I would say that one of the most important things for the next generation of women leaders is to not be afraid of taking on challenges or opportunities that seem scary or difficult at first. Sometimes we might feel intimidated or insecure about our abilities or qualifications, but we should not let that stop us from pursuing our goals and dreams. Instead, we should try them out and see what happens. We might discover that we have more potential and talent than we thought, or that we can learn new skills and overcome obstacles along the way. We might also find out that we enjoy doing something that we never imagined before, or that we can make a positive impact on others and the world. So, I would encourage the next generation of women leaders to be bold and adventurous, to embrace challenges and opportunities, and to give their best in everything they do.

A: What kind of impact do you want to have on others? What might be your legacy?

P: Well, my main goal as an architect is to improve and enhance the way people live, work, play, and learn through our design. I guess it’s about making a difference in someone’s life by creating spaces and cities that are functional, beautiful, and comfortable. If I can design better spaces and cities, it affects their life a lot because it influences their output, their health, their mindset, and everything else. For example, if I design a school that is spacious, bright, and stimulating, it can improve the learning outcomes and well-being of the students and teachers. Or if I design a park that is green, inviting, and accessible, it can encourage people to spend more time outdoors and connect with nature.

I also want to do more sustainable and eco-friendly design, like net zero buildings or reducing waste. That way, we can help preserve the planet for future generations by minimizing our environmental impact and carbon footprint. I think that’s a very important responsibility for architects today, to not only create beautiful structures but also to protect the environment and the people who live in it. So that’s the kind of impact I want to have on others: to improve their quality of life and to contribute to a better world through our design. This is something that I’m very passionate about and that motivates me every day. I love seeing how my work can make a difference in someone’s life, whether it’s a small or a big one. I hope that through my work, I can inspire others to also pursue their dreams and passions, and to use their capabilities for good.

A: Priya, thank you so much for talking to us.

Admired Women in Business, 2023