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Changing the way we build green

Blog post   •   Apr 26, 2016 19:45 SGT

At the Panasonic Developers Forum held in September 2015, attendees heard from Mr. Tai Lee Siang, Group Managing Director for Singapore-based architecture consultancy ONG&ONG, and Vice Chairman of the World Green Building council. We speak to Mr. Tai about his thoughts about climate change, how space is being utilised by cities currently, as well as his vision of urban cities of the future.

Q: How long have you been involved in green building, and what are your views on climate change with regards to green construction?

A: I have been involved in green building for about 25 years now, and I am still asking questions about why the world is the way it is. Compared to what it was 10 years ago, the issue of climate change is no longer new today. Most of us would have seen Al Gore’s movie The Inconvenient Truth. That was I felt, an accurate representation of the situation of climate change then.

Today, as you can imagine, the climate change situation has escalated, resulting in the immediate need for us inhabitants of the earth to ignite a change in the way we live out our lives on a planet that is not sustainable without a change in our habits. For me, the way we structure and build our homes and the places we inhabit on a daily basis are the areas we can make the most difference.

Q: Tell us a little about what you have been working on recently.

A: I am working on many housing projects recently, but the one that’s of most interest to me right now is something I call the Future Space Project. This is a personal undertaking where I examined the issues affecting building and construction today in an attempt to understand the issue of overpopulation affecting many cities in the world today, in order to develop better plans for more intelligent use of space for the future.

Q: What challenges affect green building today?

A: There are several factors affecting green building and construction. In the construction industry itself, the way we have advanced digitally in terms of how we use technology and the way we build in general are going in opposing directions.

The way we build right now is causing our consumption to increase 400% in the next 80 years. Rising real estate costs, a high-stress working environments, health and aging issues, mobility problems, and a worsening earthly environment are just some.

At the World Green Building Council, we’ve come to the realization that green building can only take people so far. The real fundamental issue lies with overpopulation in our cities. While we can take steps to make each building green, if the cities are fundamentally and philosophically wrong, then green building alone is not enough to effect change.

Q: In your opinion, what about urban planning can be improved?

A: In human history, what started out as villages and medieval towns have since advanced to megacities and conurbations. The Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation consists of over 35 million residents alone for example.

What starts with a town grows bigger, and then people start to dictate what elements of the city should be placed where, but we don’t realize the impact that this tight use of space has on quality of human life. There is also a massive amount of distance between the way we function and live our different parts of our daily life. In my opinion, there are some fallacies to urban planning in our cities today:

  • Cars as a transportation strategy are a serious fault. The value of public transport is being undervalued, and with cars, space is being seriously underutilised. For example, a space of 400 square metres of cars grouped together can seat 64 people, but a train occupying 250 square metres of space can seat 68 people. This is a 37.5% savings in space when comparing to cars. Also, roads are effectively unusable space when there are no cars on them, for example at night, or when there is no traffic in general.
  • Urban planners are also rigid in their zoning strategies today. The way our cities are being planned and built today allows us to spend our time usually doing only one activity in one place, before needing to travel to another to do the next activity. For example, your home is where you to live and spend time with your family, you need to travel to go to work, and then travel to another place to go to the gym after, travel to pick up your kids from school, and then travel back home. The places we occupy to do what we need to do in our every day lives are spaced too widely apart. To make effective use of urban space, we should be able to do everything we need to do in a local area and minimise transport (which of course, adds to our carbon footprint on the whole).

It is good to know however, that we are moving forward towards improving the way we live and function as humans in a sustainable and holistic way. Smart cities like Panasonic’s Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (FSST) use digital technologies or information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance the quality of urban life, reducing costs and resource consumption and more important, to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.

Q: How can the perfect smart city life be foreseeably achieved?

A: There is no example of the perfect smart city, my opinion is that it will probably be a combination of all the attributes that I talked about earlier through the results of urban planners and developers working incrementally together.

I am however, increasingly convinced that no amount of technological advancement can stop climate change. The way forward is through education with an aim to change people’s mindsets about how we think and build the ideas we conceive.

We think the way we build. How can we shorten the pain of producing a building? How do we mitigate the economic risk, at the same time deliver a sustainable product to your end user? Adopt solutions that fundamentally remove the blind spots that limit the way we live and use a city’s space, that’s how I see it.

About Mr. Tai lee Siang

Mr Tai is currently the Group Managing Director of Ong and Ong Pte Ltd, a multi-discipline consultancy firm that provides 360º solutions encompassing Urban Planning, Architecture, Engineering, Landscape Architecture and Interior Design. He has practiced as an architect and urban planner since 1990 and is the Immediate Past President of Singapore Green Building Council, a key body for the promotion and advocacy of Green Buildings in Singapore. He is also the Chairman of the Campus Planning Committee for Singapore University of Technology and Design, Ministry of Education.