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How Can Our Built Environment Be Sustainable?

In a recent sobering report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that climate change is now at a stage that is “widespread, rapid and intensifying”[1]. Now more than ever, we need to seriously consider making the shift to more sustainable modes of living and consumption, in an attempt to at least reverse some of the damage.

Sustainability as a concept recognises the environment as a finite and exhaustible resource and seeks the development of products, goods and services that meet our needs while minimising the impact on the environment. While most people associate sustainability with individual efforts such as recycling and use of greener energy, it should also be explored in various other ways through economic development and corporate responsibility. This can be achieved by establishing a circular economy - a model of production and consumption that involves reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials that helps to extend the lifecycle of products and minimise waste. Circular economies are a greener alternative to a linear economy, where a natural resource is turned into a product that ultimately becomes waste once its life cycle is completed.

Building A Greener Tomorrow

One important sector where a circular economy process can be implemented is within the built environment. Today, the building sector contributes to up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes up to a staggering 40% of all energy worldwide[2]. The construction sector consumes about 60% of our resources and produces about 50% of the waste. In the US, it is reported that for every 4 commercial buildings constructed, one is demolished, and for every 6 houses built, one is demolished. Construction and demolition waste comprises 30% to 40% of landfill mass across the US where approximately 50% of demolition material will go to waste[3], [4]. An increased emphasis on a circular economy means these businesses will take a more holistic approach in their operations, from procuring raw materials, to manufacturing and logistics. When businesses ‘go green’, they not only improve the environment but also reduce energy consumption, minimise wastes and improve overall efficiency.

Upcycling of the built environment, which involves extending the lifespan of buildings and encouraging long-term sustainability, is a potential green strategy in which businesses can inculcate in their workflow.

The ‘4L’ Principles

Some key criteria that can be taken into consideration to promote upcycling of the built environment include Long Life, Loose Fit, Low Energy and Beyond Lifecycle. With the application of these ‘4L’ principles, businesses will be able to better manage their building assets and construct buildings which remain relevant, decreasing the impacts of climate change.

Long Life

Long Life refers to how durable, resilient and maintainable a building is. Monitoring these indicators by developing a consistent routine to check and inspect buildings for any structural issues is important. It prevents problems from escalating, gaining significant cost savings over time, while supporting long-term functions and usage of buildings, making them safer for the public.

Loose Fit

Loose Fit measures how flexible and adaptable a building is and its reuse potential. Focusing on the Loose Fit of a building allows it to be adapted into other uses, such as designating old buildings with a rich cultural or historical significance into heritage monuments. This serves as a greener alternative to demolition.

Low Energy

Low Energy outlines the energy efficiency of a building which includes considerations such as orientation, natural lighting, ventilation, surface texture and insulation. These criteria are useful markers in designing buildings that are able to generate at least 60% energy savings. All through efficient and renewable energy measures that take advantage of a building’s layout and composition. Such a move will help keep Singapore on track to fulfil their Green Building Masterplan, where 80% of the buildings should be green by 2030[5].

Beyond Lifecycle

This concept refers to the practice of disassembly - where building materials and components are broken down, reused and repurposed at the end of their lifecycle, minimising wastage and reducing environmental footprint. Disassembly also encourages the development of prefabricated buildings, whose components can be taken apart and re-combined for future projects.

When businesses take the initiative to incorporate these four principles in the design stage of their projects, it paves the way for creating more sustainable, easy-to-maintain and adaptable buildings that have a diminished environmental impact.

The Effects Are Already Here

With the current rate of consumption, even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced immediately, it will still take 20 to 30 years for the earth’s global temperatures to stabilise. These continual emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide will lead to temperatures increasing by at least 1.5 degrees[6], resulting in prolonged heat waves, melting glaciers and erratic weather patterns - effects that can already be witnessed in multiple parts of the world. Going green is perhaps no longer a choice, but now a growing necessity.

Today, buildings account for over 20% of Singapore’s total emissions[5]. Additionally, according to National Development Minister Desmond Lee, the construction industry is projected to recover from the initial setbacks caused by the pandemic, with more projects in the pipeline[7]. That’s why it is of paramount importance to encourage a circular economy within our construction industry. By designing flexible and dynamic spaces that anticipate changes in their use over time, we avoid the need to demolish buildings and generate less wastage. This can not only reduce the effects of climate change, but gives future Singaporean generations the resources to fulfil their potential needs.

This article is written by Dr. Sheila Conejos, Senior Lecturer and Head of Programme (BSc Facilities Management with Minor and Graduate Diploma in Facilities Management), SUSS School of Science and Technology.

[1] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021) AR6 Climate Change 2021 - Sixth Assessment Report

[2] UN Environment Programme (UNEP) (2007), Buildings and Climate Change: Status, Challenges and Opportunities, UNEP Publications, Nairobi

[3] Fournier, D & Zimnicki, K 2004, Integrating Sustainable Design Principles into the Adaptive Reuse of Historical Properties, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington DC.

[4] Tobias, L & Vavaroutsos, G 2009, Retrofitting Office Buildings to be Green and Energy-Efficient: Optimizing Building Performance, Tenant Satisfaction and Financial Return, Urban Land Institute, Washington DC.

[5] Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Green Building Masterplans

[6] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 Climate Change 2021 - Sixth Assessment Report

[7] The Straits Times (JAN 2021) Singapore construction demand for 2021 expected to rise up to $28b

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