Welcome to the SUSS series of podcasts. Where we explore the ideas, solutions and collaborations that are making a difference in the lives of individuals, families, communities and beyond. This series features guests who discuss how we can achieve social impact for the greater good. No matter how big or small.
Hi, I'm Cynthia. And welcome to the podcast. As a child, I spent half a year growing up on a farm and with rose tinted lenses, I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I've daydreamed about giving up the stresses of city life and escaping to some fantasy of a simple countryside. But since 2010, more people in the world live in urban settings than rural settings and why not, right?
Because urban city living has so many conveniences, we’re served by a huge sprawl of apartments, hotels, restaurants, mega factories, and retail malls.
But it's these very conveniences that many of us have come to realise both contribute to and have become threatened by global climate change, excessive fuel dependency, and a growing demand for energy and materials amongst cities.
This environment that humans have built around us is both part of the problem as well as the solution. So the issue of sustainability in our built environment becomes a really critical one.
And this is where we're really excited to have our guest, Dr. Sheila Conejos from SUSS School of Science and Technology to come in to share her expertise. Thanks for joining us, Sheila.
It's my pleasure, Cynthia. Thanks for having me, too. By the way, your story is quite relatable and it's very interesting.
You're the perfect person for today's chat because not only are you the head of the programme at the School of Science and Technology, but you're also an architect and an urban planner as well. We hear a lot about sustainability. But we very seldom hear it discussed in the domain of built environment, so could you please explain the built environment in a manner that's simple to understand?
I'll start with the built environment. So built environment refers to man-made structures and its surroundings so it ranges from the building itself, parks and open spaces, and then it goes to neighbourhoods and townscapes or even cities.
Great, and how about the connection between sustainability and the built environment?
That's a good question. Because the built environment has become a central concern in addressing sustainability. Because the building sector is considered a major contributor for total greenhouse gas emissions, and it consumes up to 40% of all the energy worldwide. So while 40% of our landfill waste comes from building materials, the construction sector consumes about 60% of our resources and even produces 50% of the waste itself.
So what you're saying is that by making changes in our built environment, we could actually affect up to a third or more of global greenhouse gases, energy, resource consumption and waste generation?
The 3R strategy where we reuse, recycle and reduce has been applied in the built environment sector.
For instance, when we're applying recycling and reuse, building construction waste can be minimised and also the embedded energy of the materials are retained. So whenever we reuse products instead of producing new ones, then the energy is saved and the resources are also saved.
I see. It's interesting. I think what you're saying to us is that the built environment presents a really huge potential for impact on sustainability. So it sounds like the built environment creates many issues, but it also presents vast opportunities, doesn't it?
Yeah, it does. If we, sustainability designers, follow our responsibilities in maintaining or considering sustainability in our design, then somehow we'll be able to integrate these concepts of sustainability, maintainability, adaptability, and circularity in our design projects, right at the outset.
Interesting. These are issues that a task force or a government white paper alone won't be able to solve, right? So what kind of assumptions do we need to drop when we consider how cities function?
Well, we really have to abandon the traditional way of looking at an economy. So in a traditional linear economy, natural resources are stored in the product, and it ultimately becomes a waste once its life cycle is completed. However, in a circular economy, resources are being kept for as long as possible and then the maximum value is extracted from these resources while they're still in use and then the products or materials are recovered and regenerated from the resources at the end of the life.
So when we're talking about circular economies, it is more a greener alternative since it is a model of production and consumption. It really involves reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials that helps to extend the life cycle of products and even minimise waste.
So this can be initiated also in terms of how we generate a greener, sustainable future here in Singapore. Maybe we can do it by changing the way we build and manage our environment along with changing the way we design. This much more holistic approach, where sustainability is considered as its core, where nothing becomes waste and everything has value.
I think I know what you mean. My oven died the other day and I brought it to a repair kopitiam. And the good volunteers there taught me how to fix it. So the life of the oven is extended and it's saved from the incinerator.
But, you know, now that I can bake again, I probably need to save my waistline instead. But it's a small contribution individuals can make to helping Singapore move towards a circular economy.
But moving back to the built environment, how do you relate a circular economy to the context of the built environment and here in Singapore?
It's quite interesting to know that you have your oven repaired and then you're still using it. And this, really, a way of encouraging other people to be more resource efficient. Thank you for that.
So in relation to the built environment, we can design flexible and dynamic spaces we're in. We try to anticipate the longevity of the building itself and thereby we avoid demolishing the building or even replacing it. And then we generate less wastage. This type of a strategy that I'm talking about is upcycling the built environment.
When I say upcycling the built environment, it is putting more value on the existing building that we're trying to recycle. So it's not more like undervaluing it, but you're trying to raise its value to a higher level. So, the reason why I'm talking about upcycling the built environment, is because there are some design considerations that can be applied in doing this type of strategy.
So, whenever I talk about these design strategies, they also, as I mentioned before, incorporates sustainability, maintainability, adaptability and circularity, right at the design stage. So if we consider these four L design principles, then, our designers and practitioners in the built environment will be able to manage the buildings well and let them perform well and even extend their lifespan.
What are these four L principles that you speak about?
I will discuss it briefly. So I will start with number one - long life. I consider it as a design for durability and design for maintainability. So long life refers to how durable, resilient and maintainable a building is. So for instance, if we monitor these indicators in a building, it's more like trying to provide or conduct routine inspection checks of our building so that there will be no structural or material issues. For instance, like defects, we can prevent defects, because Singapore is like, mostly there are high rise buildings, right?
So they're always problems, of course, like falling facades. That, sometimes it also, destroys properties and even of course, harm the public. It is a deterrent to public safety and so that's the reason why we really have to consider these principles. For instance, the design for maintainability and durability, has been integrated in Singapore way back in 1989 and that was the Construction Quality Assessment System. We call it CONQUAS. It is considered as the national standard for assessing the quality of building projects here in Singapore. I know you're much familiar with Singapore, right?
So, there was the time that this was triggered because a certain building had collapsed. Of course, there were some casualties, so it is like the right time or a warning for Singapore to build quality buildings. And in addition to this, we also have the Maintainability of Facility standard, which is the first of its kind globally. This is something like a benchmark for quality buildings also in Singapore. It also introduced quality of design, construction and maintenance practices, so that buildings could be highly maintainable.
And the second design principle that I'm talking about is loose-fit.
So I call it designed for adaptability and reuse. So when we were talking about loose-fit, it measures how flexible, adaptable a building is and its reuse potential. So, we're talking about how buildings can be adapted into other uses. Off course, I'm sure you're quite familiar how designated buildings or heritage buildings with cultural historical significance are being reused into appropriate functions or just like the National Gallery of Singapore. It consists of two national monuments; the former Supreme court building and City Hall. These buildings have been adaptively reused into appropriate uses right?
Appropriate uses because sometimes there are buildings that aren’t reused in appropriate ways. For instance, it could be a church turned into a bar or something. There are some examples. Here is a good example. Chijmes was a good one, but then, in one of my research works, one case study that really provoked public opinion was a historical church turned into a bar by the owners. But then later on, they were being stopped. And then there were these guidelines to use principles of reversibility. So in that way, they were able to turn it back into a church. I was thinking that the principles of reversibility are very flexible.
So there's also one example that I can relate to, which I really like. This is a best practice because like, it is a church turned into a house. Now this time it is an appropriate use because, they're in a house that you can still see the altar or the pulpit, but then it was really reused, like as a reading area or a lounge of the owner. And then again, principles of reversibility were applied, if the owner or any institution would like to turn it back to its original function, it can be done. It still can be transformed again into a church.
So that's the loose-fit principle.
So we have gone through two of the L principles - long life and then the second one – loose-fit. And so what are three and four?
Three is the most practised principle here in Singapore. So we're talking about low energy. It's more like a design for energy efficiency. We all know that Singapore's leading this initiative here in Asia and it's good to know. But that's the reason that as part of the Green Building Masterplan, 80% of the building should be green by 2030.
And the last one is Beyond Lifecycle where I called it, Design for Disassembly. So this is the concept that building materials and components are broken down, reused and repurposed when their life cycle ends and then this minimises waste and also reduces environmental footprint.
Currently practised in Singapore is the Design for Manufacturing and Assembly. With this concept designed for manufacturing and disassembly, if we integrate the concept of disassembly, then the prefabricated building components assembled on site may have a chance to be disassembled and reused again, maybe in another future, on another site.
For instance, when I was studying in Australia, our building was considered a global excellence leader in terms of green building. And also, I was introduced to disassembly and even reuse because some of the materials used in that new building actually came from recycled materials. For example, recycled wood and this is the one used for the flooring for our second floor. And in fact, we don't use nails, but bags.
Thanks so much for explaining the four L principles. So, long life, loose- fit, low energy and beyond life cycle. Got it. And thanks for explaining how it contributes to the transition to a circular economy as well.
You’ve been listening to the SUSS series of podcasts. The next part of this episode will be available at suss.edu.sg/podcast. Stay tuned!