| By Professor Lam Khee Poh |
Global economic growth has been driven by energy consumption, predominantly generated from non-renewable fossil fuels. For instance, the use of coal in power generation alone surpassed 10 gigatonnes, accounting for a third of the total global carbon emission.
The resulting unabated carbon emission has dire consequences for the climate and the environment of planet earth. Singapore, as a tiny low-lying island in the tropics, is especially vulnerable. It can become a nationwide crisis if we do not act decisively to build up our resilience against such imminent threats like temperature and sea level rise.
The Singapore government has stepped up its efforts against climate change with a robust climate action plan that includes measures such as increasing the adoption of cleaner forms of power generation and the introduction of carbon tax. There are also plans for Singapore to achieve global leadership in green buildings.
Buildings and building construction sectors combined are responsible for 36 per cent of global final energy consumption and nearly 40 per cent of total direct and indirect carbon emissions. As such, this makes it an important component to address in our efforts against climate change. For this reason, the NUS School of Design and Environment (SDE) has placed a strong emphasis on studying sustainable building designs, and has been actively contributing our expertise in this area.
Being the only school in Singapore that offers a comprehensive suite of undergraduate and graduate professional educational programmes that cover the entire life cycle of the built environment — from the macro urban planning and design, as well as architecture, to landscape architecture and total building performance and diagnostics — SDE has been playing a significant role in reducing building energy consumption in Singapore since its establishment in 1969.
As early as 2009, researchers from SDE collaborated with the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of Singapore to retrofit an existing three-storey building, and made it a net-zero energy building demonstration project.
The School also actively supported several initiatives of BCA such as the 2014 Green Building Master Plan, which sought to ‘green’ at least 80 per cent of Singapore’s building stock, and to establish innovative solutions to achieve net-zero or net-positive energy low-rise buildings and low energy high-rise buildings, as well as the Green Buildings Innovation Cluster where SDE researchers worked on multiple research and development projects related to energy-efficiency solutions.
Energy, however, is only one aspect of a sustainable community. In 2015, the United Nations, with consensus of its Member States, issued a document that addresses sustainable development in a holistic way. Its ambitious agenda featured 17 new sustainable development goals aimed at eradicating extreme poverty, promoting prosperity and people's well-being by 2030, while protecting the environment. These included goals such as quality education and good health and well-being, which are intimately connected with our environment.
A study by Schroeder SA, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (2007), concluded that social, behaviour and environment contributed 60 per cent to the impact on premature deaths and disabilities. Genetics and healthcare, on the other hand, contributed 30 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Even then, the effect of genetics can be somewhat mitigated by conducive environment.
However, when we speak of the environment, we almost always think of the environmental conditions outdoors, such as air quality, weather or traffic conditions. What about the impact of our indoor environment? We spend 90 per cent of our time inside buildings, yet research connecting buildings with health and wellness is still a relatively nascent field.
But there is a compelling value proposition and strong business case for providing energy efficient and healthier interior spaces. In October 2014, the International Well Building Institute, after six years of research and development, launched the WELL Building Standard, covering buildings, interior spaces and communities, which seeks to implement, validate and measure features that support and advance human health and wellness. In Singapore, BCA collaborated with the Health Promotion Board to launch the BCA-HPB Green Mark for Healthier Workplaces scheme in 2018.
At SDE, we have proven the feasibility of a green building that also promotes wellness with our newest building — SDE4 — Singapore’s first new-build net-zero energy building. Contrary to its sophisticated term, the building was actually designed based on fundamental but essential concepts, such as maximising daylight, making use of shading and hybrid cooling systems to reduce energy consumption while maintaining the comfort for its occupants. Solar panels are installed on its roof so the building can harvest solar energy to power its own needs. Furthermore, the building was designed to maximise air circulation and proximity to nature to enhance productivity and elevate the mood of its occupants.
The SDE4 building is just one of the full suite of projects under SDE’s twin-prong ‘Well and Green’ strategy launched in conjunction with the School’s 50th anniversary this year. So far, the building has obtained the 2018 BCA Green Mark Platinum, and won the Global Human Settlements-Model of Building Award in November 2018. More recently, SDE4 is the first university building in the world to achieve WELL Certified™ Gold, and the first building in Singapore to be conferred this prestigious WELL Certification. We believe its success will spur the development of similar buildings on campus and across Singapore, thereby amplifying the positive impact of this ‘Well and Green’ notion.
Above and beyond, the 'Well and Green' strategy will support Singapore’s national agenda of creating 'an endearing home and a distinctive global city'. We are expanding our collaborative outreach to include researchers and practitioners in the areas of arts and social sciences, business, computing, engineering, medicine, physical sciences and public health in this important collective effort. We are also working closely with various government agencies, including the Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities on the idea of sustainable integrated districts, to scale up solutions at a district level to achieve ambitious urban sustainability goals. Examples of ongoing projects under this strategy include designing age-friendly workplaces for older workers and improving waiting experience in healthcare facilities.
As we celebrate SDE’s 50 years of achievements and contributions to Singapore’s nation-building, it is also time for us prepare for a whole new set of critical challenges in the next 50 years.
About the author
Professor Lam Khee Poh is the Dean of the NUS School of Design and Environment (SDE). He is an educator, researcher, architect and consultant who specialises in life-cycle building information modelling and computational design support systems for total building performance analysis and building diagnostics. He teaches architectural design (with a focus on systems integration), building energy modelling, building controls and diagnostics as well as acoustics and lighting.