Until he was 16, Teoh Hai Pin had never heard of the word architect, let alone dreamt about building skyscrapers and masterplanning residential projects.

Yet he has become one of the top architects in Singapore.

Today, at 55, he heads teams at home-grown firm DP Architects, with a long list of achievements to boot. Over the years, he has been leading teams in projects such as the Pontiac Marina mixed development in 1991 and worked with celebrated Japanese architect Toyo Ito to design VivoCity shopping mall.

But the feather in his cap is the newly completed Singapore Sports Hub, which opened in June. He headed the team from DP Architects that helmed the project, which included architecture work and masterplanning the site, with international engineering firm Arup. The hub was landscaped by global firm Aecom.

The $1.3-billion Sports Hub earned rave reviews as early as the first reveal of its design. It snagged the Future Projects (Leisure-led Development) award at last year's World Architecture Festival, considered the Oscars of the architecture world.

The idea of becoming an architect was sparked by a math tuition teacher in Penang, where Mr Teoh was born, who suggested it to his students as a job to consider if they wanted to get hired fast.

Mr Teoh, then a secondary school student who was attending the A-level math class with his older sister, says: "He joked that if we wanted an easy career, we should consider being architects. There were few qualified architects in Penang then. And it was the first time I had ever heard of the word.

"It got me interested because it married the arts, which the education system at that time wasn't very geared towards, with science and math."

Mr Teoh learnt Chinese calligraphy as a child and had represented his school in competitions.

He was expected to take over his father's traditional Chinese medicine wholesale business. It involved importing raw medicine such as ginseng and herbs from Hong Kong and China to sell in Malaysia. His mother helped out with the business, although she stayed at home to look after the children.

As a teenager, Mr Teoh, the sixth of 11 children, would tag along with his father on visits to customers during the school holidays.

He says: "My father was hoping to groom me to take over the business. I didn't mind but it's tough doing business... you have to be discplined."

To take over the business, he would have had to leave school after O-levels at Chung Ling High School, one of the top schools in the state. One of his seniors there was Singapore's Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan.

Mr Teoh's two older brothers did not have the aptitude for business and his sisters were not shown the ropes as back then, women were not involved in managing businesses.

He was more keen in becoming an architect. But his father needed a little convincing from his siblings and his grandfather eventually made the decision to let him pursue a career in architecture.

Mr Teoh, whose siblings were studying in the United Kingdom then, says: "My siblings were against it because they wanted me to focus on my studies. It was expensive to call home from London but they did many times to convince my father to let me join them there."

His two older brothers were sent to London to become lawyers, while his sister studied economics.

"They were determined to put us through school because they weren't academically inclined themselves," says Mr Teoh, of his Fujian-born father, who came to Malaysia when he was 14. Together with his Malaysian-born wife, they lived in Kuala Kurau, a small fisherman's town in Perak, before moving to Penang in the late 1950s.

"Even though they were business people, they admired people who went to work wearing ties. I think my mother wanted us to have that too," he says.

Going to London to complete his A-levels was an eye-opener. He was promoted immediately to the next grade after the teacher found out that he was ahead of his classmates in mathematics.

He took extra classes three nights a week to keep up with the physics curriculum from the first year and worked the night shift from 11.30pm till the early morning hours at McDonald's on Fridays and Saturdays to earn extra money.

Although his parents paid for his education, he took the job to ease their financial burden. He mopped the floors and cleaned the grills and milkshake machines.

Mr Teoh, who was paid £1.50 an hour, says: "I tried not to spend too much of my parents' money. I got that sense of survival from my grandfather. It was an achievement to sustain yourself rather than rely on others."

He did well for his A-levels in 1979 and was accepted by the University of Sheffield, where he had to play catch-up with his classmates, who had been exposed to architecture through their fathers.

"I read up a lot on architecture. In my first year, my classmates, who were sons of architects, kept talking about their father's careers. I started from zero so I had a lot to catch up on."

He plunged headfirst into the first year in architecture school and had a lot of practical work, rather than reading assignments.

"We worked a lot in the studio and there, you saw how others created their projects. Inevitably, you get critiqued because everyone can see what you're doing. It was a 'kaypoh' culture'," he says, using the Hokkien word for busybody.

"But we learnt more from each other than from reading books or listening to the teachers."

In 1982, when he finished the three-year course, he decided to do an internship closer to home. Architectural Journal, a British weekly architecture magazine, had a feature on works by DP Architects, including The Golden Mile Complex.

Completed in 1973, the 16-storey mixed development building in Beach Road, with a stepped terrace design that cuts down on traffic noise and allows for natural ventilation and light, caught his eye.

"I didn't want to go back to Penang because I wanted to see more beyond that. The Golden Mile complex intrigued me and I wanted to learn from DP Architects because they were adventurous with the structure. I wrote to them and got an offer," he says.

The firm's office was in the building he admired and had about 100 staff members. He would go down the long corridor, which had pigeon-hole rooms on each side, and chat with his colleagues about what they were doing. His year-long stint there left a deep impression on him.

"It was a real fun office to be in. Everyone knew each other and it might have been an office, but it was like family," he says of the firm, which has grown eight-fold, with offices in Marina Square. It has also expanded to include other consultancies in master planning and interior design, among others.

After Mr Teoh received his master's degree in architecture in 1985, he joined the Housing Development Board as an architect.

"It was recession period in Singapore and nobody was hiring. The number of DP staff was cut by half so I didn't even bother calling it for a job. I joined the HDB instead to learn how public housing was designed."

After he completed the three years he gave himself at HDB, he went to Hong Kong to get more experience outside Southeast-Asia.

There, he worked for Hsieh Yeh Architect, which built many projects for Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing, and learnt how to develop housing properties and did projects such as a wholesale exhibition centre.

He came back to Singapore after three years to re-join DP Architects as senior architect and was put in charge of the Pontiac Marina mixed development.

He was responsible for the overall management of the development, which had two luxury hotels, two office towers and a retail complex. Two years before it was completed in 1998, he was made a director at the firm.

The difference between the working styles here and in Hong Kong was not lost on him.

"There, they're trained to be very specialised and efficient. They separate the people doing the design process from the implementation process. But here, we're trained to be all-rounders. It's a balanced way of learning to be an architect."

He was in his 30s and already handling big projects such as being lead project architect for the The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore, where he had to hold discussions with the clients.

Recalling the first meeting, he says: "There were 20 people in that room and all of them were more senior than I was. Looking back, it was frightening to chair the meeting. The client might have seen us as young guys. All I was thinking about was how to control the meeting and get the job done. That was the kind of fearless attitude which brought us through."

He say his career was not always a bed of roses.

Back in the 1990s, DP Architects bid for the Esplanade project and submitted proposals by two teams: Mr Teoh's Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates & DP Architects.

His team lost to the team of James Stirling Michael Wilford & DP Architects. He says: "Of course, it's the dream of every architect to be able to win a major competition of this nature. But both teams put in a lot of effort so I was glad that it was a DP team which won.

"I learnt from that design that public spaces were key for such a major facility. That was a major part of the Sports Hub, when we were figuring out how to design it and make people come."

For the Sports Hub project, DP Architects did the master planning of the site together with Arup and Aecom, and were the only architects for the non-sport facilities there. They also designed the Water Sports Centre and assisted in the design plans of the iconic dome and sports venues. He lead a team of about 50 architects from the firm.

The project took eight years to complete, an unusually long time. There were many hiccups such as a re-submission of the design after the Government decided to do away with the Oasis Restaurant complex after initially giving the brief to keep it. Then steel prices went up three-fold, increasing the price of the project, and the 2008 financial crisis hit.

He says: "There was great danger of losing the job completely because it kept starting and stopping. I learnt that I'd better be equipped with stamina because it was going to be a very long process."

It was not just the beauty of the stadium which wowed. Mr Teoh's leadership on the massive project, in particular mentoring younger architects, impressed DP Architects chairman Chan Sui Him.

Mr Chan, 68, says: "It's unusual for an architect to share his experience with rookies and explain the ideas behind the project. He knew the project well and was confident about his knowledge. There was no need to hide anything from the young ones."

These traits were already apparent to Mr Chan when he interviewed Mr Teoh in 1991. "We knew him from his intern days in the company and we knew that he was promising. I saw him having director potential from the start. He has leadership qualities and the ability to solve problems well."

Long-time friend and property developer Eddy Ng, 63, was not surprised that Mr Teoh's career has soared. He describes the lanky, laid-back architect, affectionately called HP, as "ambitious and artistic".

Indeed, Mr Teoh has put in long hours at the office to get to where he is. Despite his hectic schedule, he always tries to make time for his friends.

Mr Ng says: "He will squeeze in time to see us even if it's just for 20 minutes and he's really tired. You can call him for help anytime, he'll always extend a hand."

Mr Teoh is married to a fellow architect and has two children - a son, 26, who is an architecture student at the National University of Singapore, and a daughter, 24, who is an art and media student at the Nanyang Technological University.

Despite his talent, he does not see himself as a superstar architect. He says: "I never think I'm a superstar and I never want people to see me as that. I just want to create spaces which people will use and architecture is a lot about teamwork. To be a superstar, that's a heavy burden."