IBEW 2020: Leadership Plenary: Re-imagining the built environment in a post-pandemic era


IBEW 2020: Leadership Plenary: Re-imagining the built environment in a post-pandemic era

24 September 2020 — COVID has irrevocably changed the way the built environment sector and businesses have to operate. In this session, the speakers discussed where the future of the built environment sector is headed and how we should then design, build and operate our buildings in response to these changes.

Prof Dr Chris Luebkeman (Director of Strategic Foresight, Office of the President, ETH Zurich)

Prof Dr Chris Luebkeman’s interest in the built environment blossomed early, propelling him to pursue a multi-faceted education, beginning with engineering and culminating in a Doctorate in Architecture from ETH in Zurich, where he has recently returned. Chris’s love of concrete bridges and advanced computation enabled him to gained valuable experience as the protégé of Santiago Calatrava. Subsequently he returned turned to his other passion, education, by accepting teaching positions at several prestigious universities. In 1999, Chris joined Arup as the Co-Director for Research and Development. A couple of years later, he became an intrapreneur by forming the Foresight, Innovation and Incubation team. This evolved to its present form as Foresight, Research and Innovation. He, and his team have worked with many of the world’s to companies to help them understand what is driving change and how they can position themselves to take advantage of what is to come.

For some, COVID-19 was a wave that washed over us; some surfed this wave skilfully, others saw this as a terrifying plunge. Yet others in the world felt this as a tsunami. No matter where you are in the world, what we have seen, is that the frenetic pace of our lives that we spend travelling came to a true grinding stop, where the economies of the world ‘switched off’.

What will the ‘new’ normal look like?

I have an issue with the word “normal”, because there is no such thing is normal. Each one of us will have a different definition of the word “normal” as we go about our day. The question now is what will be “sticky”; what is going to stay.

What is interesting is that our view on this really depends on whether you sit or stand to work. Most of us in this webinar sit to work, and most of us work with those who stand to work (in factories or kitchens). So from the perspective of those who sit to work:

  • An accelerator of the inevitable
    Digital transformation is no longer a “someday”, but a “must”; we can do now in seconds what it took weeks to achieve. There will be implications, consolidations; the question is who is going to have an advantage.
  • An appreciation of the moments that matter
    A rediscovery of typologies of interaction, which we have become painfully aware of the interaction that we are missing through the lockdowns.
  • An appreciation of the efficiencies of transactional versus necessary meandering of the creative.
    We no longer have to only rely on travelling to a meeting, we can click in one via a Zoom platform in seconds.
  • An increased awareness of global supply chains
    A crash course in the fragility of globalisation, and an anticipation to enhance nationalistic supply resilience.

Data has become a crucial part of the new normal: where things are, where they are going, what is to come. There is now a new expectation for the tools and parameters that we did not know we have to optimise for a COVID pandemic; our systems now have new optimisation parameters. There is a need for total design, an increased awareness of the critical nature that we cannot continue to work in silos.

“The future will look a lot like it did a year ago, but with a digital ‘twist’.”

Prof Dr Chris Luebkeman

Matt Gough (Innovation Director, Mace)

As Innovation Director for global construction and consultancy company Mace, Matt is leading the company in its ambition to catalyse the next evolution of the construction industry. Focused on the disruption of Mace’s traditional business model across markets and geographies, Matt is at the forefront of the company’s digital transformation, and re-defining how Mace designs, builds and operates the built environment it is responsible for. With a focus on increasing productivity and improving all aspects of our delivery in direct response to the climate emergency, Matt’s is working closely with clients, suppliers and colleagues to ensure we rise to the challenge of transforming the construction industry to meet increasing demand and diminishing resources.

Reimagining the built environment to build back better

For a period of time now, we have been trying to encourage and inspire change for our business and the wider industry. I was looking back in terms of where we were pre-COVID-19, and as a company involved in the built environment, while we have seen a certain permeation of digital tools and technologies into the industry over the past decades, we still have not necessarily had that seismic shift in terms of productivity, performance, improvement and efficiency.

The reason is that technology is not the panacea, it is not the silver bullet; it is an enabler. What we really required is something else, in order to achieve that seismic shift, which we believe is the climate emergency. It’s not something that we had thought or wished for, definitely something that as an industry we had to make it more effective, impactful or responsive, it was going to accelerate change, innovation and transformation way quicker than any digital tools that we have been testing.

Firstly, we recognise the significant humanitarian challenge brought about by COVID-19, and our responsibility as a business, first and foremost, to protect the health and well-being of not just our employees, but also the wider community and society that we work with.

Secondly, we are presented by a significant economic challenge, how do we ensure that we can keep our business operating and our economies vibrant, where possible?

While we are now starting to get back to the same levels of resource and labour, we found that our productivity has improved: 50 per cent of the workforce reduction but only 30 per cent reduction in output. A feedback from our site managers revealed that “with the productivity and the new ways of thinking, we believe we only need 7.5 people to do the same as 10 people,” which is a significant shift in the industry.

Three big trends: Workforce, supply chain, environment

We had a glimpse of the future, and it is imperative that we take some of that positive learning and accelerate/capitalise on it.

Workforce: Prior to COVID-19, it was difficult for us to really understand how our workforce is operating: who and where they are, what they are being tasked with, etc. There is a long-held believe in the construction industry that if you are running behind schedule, you bring more labour to site, you throw more people at it, to try and generate more activity. What we learn during the last six months was that actually, that is not working. Less people could produce more results. Better clarity, better planning, better transparency and direction around what is going on has allowed an increased productivity without an increase of labour.

Supply chain: The fragility of supply chains and the arrangements that we have around both materials and labour have proven to be a critical area in need of improvement and to be addressed. With the impact of the pandemic, there was a closing of borders, affecting the ability to get materials to sites, the lack of visibility of stock piling and where materials are, etc. The industry had to make a seismic shift as to how these issues are being approached, with a need to ensure that this is being incorporated as a standard procedure moving forward.

Environment: It’s long been proven in cases that work off-site is safer, produce better quality, and is more productive compared to the same work on-site.

There is a recognition that technology continues to be an enabler of those type of changes. Our digital transformation has been incredible, we say we have been through 10 years of change within weeks. That’s not through doing new things, but just the absorption and adoption of the tools that we already had in place. The proliferation of technology and tools to support us to do better work has been the silver lining in these recent challenging times.

These past six months have provided a glimpse of the future for all of us. How can we make things more efficient, how can we rationalise and use less space, and the most classic one; can we do that any cheaper? These are questions that we really need to ask ourselves, in order to be an industry that delivers benefits to the society, and one that meets the demands of WELL certification and the climate emergency.

What do you think the design of future buildings should be?

Seah Chee Huang Deputy Chief Executive Officer, DP Architects Pte Ltd)

Chee Huang is a firm believer in purpose-driven architecture, synergising economic, environmental and social dynamics, to impact positive change and bring delight to the everyday lives. His pursuit in synthesis includes Singapore Sports Hub, Our Tampines Hub, Bukit Canberra in Sembawang and Punggol Regional Sports Centre—all pioneering models of complex integrated community, sports and lifestyle hubs in Singapore. In addition, Chee Huang champions numerous corporate social responsibility initiatives such as Project Bus Stop, Goodlife! Makan – an elderly activity centre for stay-alone seniors and co-workplace for youth charity, Heartware Network. As the President of the Singapore Institute of Architects and a member of the Board of Architects Singapore, Chee Huang advocates a progressive architectural profession through leadership in sustainable design, ethical and enterprising practices grounded in innovative and social causes. He partakes in the larger discourse of the built environment in numerous design advisory panels and committees for various agencies and institutions.

Chee Huang: The idea of fragmentation itself is a persistent issue before COVID. In this pandemic, the silver lining is that it has ‘fused’ many of these gaps. Though it shows how interconnected and interdependent we are, but in terms of the larger construct and system, it also reduce the silos issue. There is now a re-centring of the priorities of wealth to health. We know that cities are traditionally designed where we centre and cluster people into areas of vibrancy, but that approach itself, especially in this COVID times, has caused a lot of vulnerabilities. In designing future cities, we should go back to the fundamental of health and wellness.  

Chris: COVID-19 has been an accelerator in many ways; our awareness and sensitivity to certain issues that we were not aware before, or perhaps we were aware but have not really thought about it in a big way. The impact of design is really going to depend on where you are in the world; it’s a contextual issue. There is, and should be, a rethinking of the meaning and importance of public space and what they need to be in order to function as a place of wellness.

Now that we have all this digital tools, but the question is what should be really be optimising? Are we optimising for circularity; utilisation of water, carbon, longevity, health and bacterial resistance? There are now new criteria that we need to be stepping up to.

We are on the track of understanding how we can become as resilient as possible, which needs to be accelerated, and also needs to be incorporated within the natural ecosystems. There is still a lot to be done regarding this aspect.

Matt: We have to design for outcomes rather than specific outputs. The outcomes that we are now seeking as a society are now evidently around positive climate outcomes, and health and well-being. Six months ago, there was still a debate about whether it is climate urgency or climate denial. And over the last six months, we have pushed through a lot of, shall we say, negativity around that. So outcomes are important.

The other thing that provides an opportunity now is actually the greater ability to collaborate and communicate using technology. I feel that in the built environment, we have been hindered by disjointed processes and a lack of connectivity between client brief and presentation; design; how things will be manufactured and built; how it will be operated; that feedback loop in terms of how the building is actually performing so that you have an idea of how to design your building next time.

Chris: I want to add on to Matt’s points and elaborate on the concepts about place and space. How our personal space, the distance. If one goes back to many of the Europe hotel designs at the end of the 19th century, they always have hallways and lobbies that are quite large. And this is very interesting, because at that point, the circulation was part of the promenade. It was very different then; they were optimising for ‘social peacock-ing’—more for showing and not so much for social distancing. And this is something that we really need think to ponder, about what the impact will be.

Sub-optimising so that we can optimise. It’s something that we as an industry have to get our heads around. What does it mean if we are going to have to have an extra room for office workers at home? Because we are seeing a lot of mental health stress globally for those who are working from home.

From a design standpoint, we have to consider the spatial options, capability for space to be thought about in multiple different ways. I’m still a fan of cities and city centres. I know that others in the industry are saying “sell, sell, sell”, I’m saying “buy, buy, buy”. I think all of the factors why people young and old come into cities and have not gone away, they are essentially sleeping from home, they are taking a little bit of a ‘nap’, and I think once the nap is over, this vibrancy and humanity which we feel going to the stores and markets are going to come back. And so I’m very bullish on that. I think we have to think about how we are going to redesign it so that we feel comfortable.

Tai Lee Siang (Executive Director, Building and Construction Authority), moderator

Tai Lee Siang is a practising architect and urban planner since 1990. His key projects won both local and international award and was featured in a URA exhibition “20 under 45” in March 2004. He held the position as President of Singapore Institute of Architects from 2007 to 2009. In 2009, following his contribution to the design world, he was elected by the design industry as the first chairman of Design Alliance of Singapore. In 2011, he was selected as President of Singapore Green Building Council. Tai Lee Siang is a thought leader and strong advocate in the fields of Design, he was elected President of Design Business Chamber Singapore from 2013 to 2016. He also started the Singapore Good Design Mark in 2014.

Tai Lee Siang is committed to expanding his contribution worldwide. In 2013, he was selected as a Board Director of World Green Building Council. He was subsequently elected and served as Global Chairman from July 2016 to June 2018. From 2010 to 2016, Tai Lee Siang held the position of Group Managing Director of Ong&Ong Group – a multi-discipline design firm of 900 strong. He is also Board Member of Health Science Authority and Board of Trustee of Singapore University of Technology and Design. In September 2018, Tai Lee Siang joined Building and Construction Authority of Singapore as Executive Director of BuildSG—an industry transformation initiative by the government of Singapore.

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