Looking to 2021: Designing buildings for the post-COVID new normal

| By Professor Lam Khee Poh |

COVID-19 has brought into spotlight the inextricable relationship and potential of the built environment in promoting the health of its inhabitants while adapting to unprecedented changes in the way we live, work, and play in the evolving future.

Well-designed, ‘healthy’ buildings not only improve the physical and mental well-being of occupants under normal conditions, but can help minimise their risk of exposure to transmissible diseases.

This provides a tremendous opportunity for built environment professionals to develop future-resilient solutions to mitigate the other complex challenges confronting us – climate change and resource depletion amidst urbanisation.

Catalysts of change

This movement has received further impetus with the announcement of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 - an important, goal-driven approach to sustainable development in Singapore that fast-tracks existing environmental, social and governmental (ESG) measures, in order to align with the United Nation's 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

It sets key targets concerning the future of the urban built environment in a comprehensive ten-year plan. They include an increased green cover to serve multiple ecosystems, and a whole-of-government approach to reducing waste and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions while maximising water and energy self-sufficiency.

They underline the fact that buildings can no more be viewed as mere utilitarian elements to accommodate life functions. They need to be treated as enablers of good environmental quality, that can be harnessed to accelerate positive impacts on health and well-being of the people and the planet.

Models of change

As we contemplate new paradigms of planning and design in a post-pandemic world, it is critical to shift our techno-centric, economic-based perspective of buildings that is predicated on a two-dimensional Gross Floor Area (GFA) metric rather than a three-dimensional volumetric spatial logic.

We need to emphasise a human-centric perspective to design, aligned to the volume occupied by each inhabitant – both indoors within buildings and outdoors in the urban environment. Especially in the hot and humid equatorial climate, the importance of natural ventilation and thermal comfort should not be understated. Non-residential buildings consume some 30 per cent of total electricity in Singapore, of which 60 per cent of this is used for air-conditioning.

The creation of unobstructed urban wind paths at the district level, coupled with intelligent, mixed ventilation modes integrated into building designs, serves to enhance human comfort with minimal energy costs and carbon expenditure.

At NUS, the School of Design and Environment (SDE) is spearheading this movement in conjunction with the “Well and Green” Campus initiative. It promotes new integrated infrastructural design solutions towards creating sustainable symbiotic natural and built environments.

We see evidence in the ongoing transformation of the SDE campus with four flagship buildings: SDE4 – Singapore’s first purpose-built net-zero energy building; SDE1 and 3 – a low carbon and super-low energy adaptive-reuse development; and a proposed SDE2 “hybrid” development which will be net-positive energy and net-zero water use. Special consideration will also be given to the choice of construction methods and materials, to track the total carbon use for the development.

SDE4 has become a major driver of change, a design prototype built on the opportunities of sustainable design and actively addressing the complexities of climate change in Singapore and the region.

The adaptive reuse of SDE1 and 3 demonstrates an effective strategy for renewing existing old buildings by introducing advanced high performance design solutions and optimising operational performance.

These buildings are forerunners in the NUS roadmap for carbon neutrality that aims to achieve a zero-carbon target by 2030, in alignment with the Singapore Green Plan 2030.

They represent aspirations that can positively influence the life cycle operations of future NUS buildings, exhibiting high performance standards and initiating public advocacy for healthy and sustainable buildings.

SDE has partnered with the Delos Well Living Lab, a global wellness pioneer, in catalysing measures for enhanced health and well-being in living spaces. This initiative has led to many other projects within NUS and Singapore embracing similar concepts. NUS is also the first university in the world to register for the WELL Portfolio pilot by the International WELL Building Institute.

SDE has also been working closely with the Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities on the concept of sustainable integrated districts, drawing upon many of the building and infrastructural solutions deployed in the SDE campus, to achieve ambitious urban sustainability goals.

The fundamental physical planning principles remain applicable for the future. The detailed design of certain “traditional” building types will have to be re-evaluated. However, the so-called “new normal” in the way we will live, work, and play in the post-COVID era will need to be carefully studied. We have to understand the impact on the individual and society’s health, which is defined by the WHO as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.


About the author:

Professor Lam Khee Poh is the Dean of the NUS School of Design and Environment. Prof Lam is an architect, educator and researcher who specialises in computational design support systems for total building performance analysis and building diagnostics. He is a Director of the Centre for Liveable Cities, and Advisory Board Member of Delos, which established the world's first building standard focused exclusively on human health and wellness. He was awarded the 2013 Alexander Schwarzkopf Prize for Technological Innovation from the US National Science Foundation, and was conferred the inaugural iBuildSG LEAD Distinguished Fellow by the Building and Construction Authority in 2020.


Looking to 2021 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the seventh and final installment of the series.

Click here to read about Professor Tommy Koh's seven wishes for the year.

Click here to read about Professor Danny Quah's outlook for the global economy.

Click here to read about Dr Kelvin Seah's analysis of the Singapore economy and labour market.

Click here to read about Professor Freddy Boey's views of the start-up ecosystem.

Click here to read Professor Teo Yik-Ying's commentary on the great unknowns that remain, regarding COVID-19 vaccines.

Click here to read Associate Professor Irene Ng's reflections on the pandemic's impact on society.