Interview with Owen Wee, Surbana International Consultants, Singapore
Owen Wee joined Surbana International Consultants in 2004. He has been involved in a wide range of projects that include a National Park Board East Coast Park Master Planning, public housing, private housing, design competitions for Firestations and Lasalle Arts School, Public Housing Punggol WaterWay.
Wee has won the SIA Gold design award 2006 for his involvement in the Marina South Pier as well as Singapore’s Building Construction Authority (BCA) buildability award 2007 and BCA Barrier Free and Accessibility 2008 and the BCA Green Individual Commendation Awards.
As Head of the Archi Green Core in Surbana and a registered Green Mark Professional with BCA, Owen believes that all buildings can and should be Green. He put this belief into action when he advised all design teams within the company to attain higher levels of sustainability for each project. This drive has led Surbana to achieve 10,000 Green homes with higher Green Mark awards in the last five years. He is currently involved in multiple public and private projects, striving for higher Green Mark accreditation in both.
Owen Wee. (Photo courtesy of Surbana International Consultants)
FA: How do you think “greening” has evolved over time?
OW: Commercially, especially among big consultancy firms, Green has evolved over the last 10 years as a must-have: many firms now have dedicated departments to deal with Green projects. However, they are still mostly special projects getting the special attention. Other projects without “Green” briefs are left to fall back on traditional ways of designing a project.
Overall, in the developed economy, the consultancy industry is rather mature, as developers and consultants have now grasped the basic concepts and the benefits of good orientation, IAQ , highly efficient equipment etc. Big firms have also adopted Green design as part of their corporate requirements.
Nevertheless, the evolution of “greening” has come to a bit of a standstill due to the entry cost for end-users—home buyers and mid-size commercial users. As demand is not forthcoming from the mass markets, most developers do not feel the need to develop sustainable buildings. As such, it is now critical that the general population understand and benefit from staying, working and living in a Green building or environment for the movement to progress to the next phase—becoming the norm instead of the exception.
Numerous aspects need to be improved before we can move forward positively at a better pace:
1) Limited Resources
Most of the countries in Asia are developing countries with limited resources, and are more fundamentally concerned about basic provisions of cost and affordability.
Often, developers are looking at short-term solutions and rewards. The chief focus is usually about economics—“quick and cheap”, with Green solutions taking the back seat. Many developers understand the payback could range from five to 10 years (depending on country and locality). A building designed according to proper sustainability criteria from the beginning could cost between zero to 10 percent more (depending on country and locality), and this increase in construction cost multiplied at a scale of 10 projects would be substantial. Such additional funds might not be easily obtained or justified. A typical developer would calculate this cost as that which can be utilised otherwise as down payment for the 11th project.
Although governments do not always focus on monetary returns, they have other challenges. Even though many understand the long-term benefits for the country, and have articulated their desire and eagerness to develop sustainable projects and new towns, they often operate on tight budgets. As such, few projects make it past the drawing board.
2) Limited Knowledge
Knowledge to design a truly sustainable building is actually quite lacking, despite the large population of building professionals in Asia. Although Singapore is lucky to have a wide range of training programmes catering to various levels of the building fraternity, the rest of the region does not have such programmes. In fact, the general lack of knowledge has led to some half-baked designs that ended up being costly and underperforming. These cases have created doubts in stakeholders who continue to be over-presented with ill-considered concepts that promise unattainable results.
Fortunately, there has been an increase in decision makers’ awareness and knowledge, and they have become more discerning in differentiating good Green design from those that aren’t. This, we hope, will lead to a greater acceptance of sustainable design in the near future.
3) Limited Demand
The supply and demand of Green building have not taken root in Asia. Building users are not asking for it enough, so developers do not feel the need to produce sustainable projects. The reasons for the lack of demand is again, due to lack of knowledge on the end-user’s end about buildings’ impact on the environment and the inhabitants’ well being. At present, the top-of-the-list concern is still affordability. This creates a vicious cycle and needs to be addressed urgently.
In order for “greening” to evolve to the next stage in both developed and developing economies, Surbana has taken on the role of volunteering our time to raise the awareness of decision-makers by explaining and showcasing our successfully-implemented projects. The objective is to shorten learning curves and to equip decision-makers with more information on which to base their decisions. SIC is also venturing into educating the public by giving talks on Green buildings to students and youth.
FA: What is the one thing that you think is most important when considering the building of a Green project?
OW: The most important thing about any project is the end-user, be it a residential or a commercial building.
While you can design a zero-carbon or highly energy and sustainable building, it would all come to naught if users get sick or uncomfortable in the building, or worse—we are left with an empty building, in which case, it would be a total waste of energy and effort. It is only when a building is optimally occupied and used that it can then be a sustainable project. On the other hand, the most “sustainably-designed” building will become a wasteful building if it is under-used or empty!
FA: How different is Singapore’s architecture scene in terms of its efforts towards “greening” as compared to in other parts of Asia?
OW: Singapore is different, in that the Green effort is largely pushed by a government which is able to push policies in a careful and decisive manner. The first rating tool in Singapore was created in 2005, and consisted of a voluntary scheme produced by the Building Construction Authority of Singapore (BCA) under the name “BCA Green Mark”. The scheme was poorly received, with very few residential projects certified in 2005. This was mainly due to the lack of knowledge, as well as a shortage in availability of “sustainable” products that led to higher costs in constructing a building using the BCA criteria.
A report issued by BCA in 2008 indicated that additional construction costs could be estimated between 1 to 8 percent (BCA, 2011). Moreover, it must be considered that since residential developers do not get to enjoy the benefits of the payback, such as saving from lower energy and water cost during operation, they were thus unable to fully justify the increase in their capital outlay. This changed after the legislation became mandatory in April 2008, whereby a minimum GreenMark standard was required by law. More developers saw that with a bit more effort, it was possible to attain a higher certified award with less additional cost. With higher certification the developer and design consultants could apply for the monetary or additional floor area incentives being offered. Together with the carrot and stick approach, complemented by many subsided training programmes for the construction industry, Singapore has achieved one of the highest “greening” rates in Asia.
Another aspect of Singapore’s “greening” efforts is the ability for on-site post-construction evaluation and checking for both mandatory and higher Green Mark awards. This does make a difference in producing current Green buildings, as well as provides lessons for future buildings.
I do believe that the next step is to create demand for such buildings among end-users (home buyers or office users) in Singapore. A personal suggestion for home buyers is a property tax deduction (which is a small part of Singapore tax income) for a prescribed number of years for higher Green Mark home buyers. "Green" projects will use less water and have better natural ventilation (thus less dependent on air-conditioning). This will in turn lower Singapore's need for infrastructure and other associated costs for reservoirs and power plants—a submission of your electrical bill can be made during tax season.
FA: What is the most significant change you have seen in Singapore’s architecture scene so far?
OW: The most significant change in Singapore is the realisation of the need for integrated design, and consultants needing to become the “Renaissance Man”—architect and engineer—not just being aware of the other consultants' work, but also understanding the work involved in other disciplines. The process of integrated design has “recharged” a generation of designers. For example, our designers at Surbana have learnt through our projects that individual design decisions have an impact beyond each discipline, and on the environment and physical well-being of users of the building that we design. This intensified cross-disciplinary work and interaction (almost always from the project inception) has equipped our designers with a broader perspective and a more well-rounded knowledge.
Ultimately, this translates into better designs in shorter design time for the next project.
FA: Tell us about a recent project in Asia you’ve done which showcases extensive Green features.
OW: When developer JTC Corporation engaged us as the architectural firm for their first building in JTC CleanTech Park after we won it in a competition, we knew that we had a gem on our hands, and had hope that this gem would be brilliant.
JTC's CleanTech One is remarkable in that at the very heart of its philosophy and design strategy is a commitment to sustainability. It would form the first phase of JTC ‘s latest master plan located near the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, which is slated to be the future centre of clean technology and innovation.
Designed to attract investments into research and the promotion of sustainability features, and as the first signature building at the CleanTech eco-business park, CleanTech One had to meet high Key Performance Indicators in achieving 45 percent energy savings using the latest and most innovative technologies, many of which are test-bedded and have no predecessor that we could study.
In essence, the brief was to create CleanTech One that would a building for future buildings to benchmark.
The concept for CleanTech One revolves around a living capsule of experiments and research. We had to be innovative in our design approach. The result was a six-storey “living laboratory envisioned as a global leader of innovative test-bedding and prototyping” that would provide “clean technology solutions for urbanised settings in the tropics” as well as test the boundaries of an efficient building in an industrial setting.
The building’s pure cubic form, nestled and elevated from the dense vegetation, is a symbolic representation of clean technology, which is crisp and intense. Its emphasis on resource efficiency resulted in all aspects of the building being designed to optimise energy and water usage. We introduced a second skin, which many view as an unwarranted addition in construction costs, but we managed to convince and prove the savings diverted from this additional element would more than offset its cost. The second skin has multiple uses: cutting glare but allowing sufficient "usable light" to filter through so as to reduce reliance on artificial light, reduce heat gain so as to reduce air-conditioning, as well as reduce rain splashing along naturally vented corridors. Last but not least, the second skin gave the building a distinctive identity. As passive design is the key consideration, many design features, like water-sensitive and storm water control of swales, as well as a wind wall to direct wind, are incorporated into the building.
The entire building is built on a holistic design philosophy that embraces three pillars—social, economic considerations and the environment. The social aspect of the Living Atrium with its Sky Gardens and Sky Bridges brings greenery and allow space for interaction; the economics of the project allow for test-bedding and the adoption of new ideas for the advancement of the clean technology business while incorporating proper management and integrated architectural as well as mechanical and engineering (M&E) designs to reduce cost and speed up the construction process. The environment aspect ensures that Green buildings, renewable energy and clean technologies achieve a greater energy-efficient building. CleanTech One uses various smart sensors that constantly monitor the environmental performance to assess and mitigate any deviations, gaining it the Green Mark Platinum Award.
Owen Wee spoke on 9th of September 2013 at SB 13 Singapore, hosted by the BCA Centre for Sustainable Buildings (BCA CSB). SB 13 Singapore is part of a series of conferences hosted in different parts of the world, leading up to the global Sustainable Building conference scheduled to be held in Barcelona, Spain in 2014.
Images from Owen Wee, Surbana International Consultants