A leaner and greener future
New buildings will be trimmer, more cost-effective and environmentally friendly
By Kevin Khye-Ming Eichenberger firstname.lastname@example.org
The buildings of the near future will be designed and built from plans born of high-fidelity simulations and cost-optimisation. Tempered by resource scarcity and increasingly refined resource management, the art and science of building has evolved from the renaissance to stylistic, aspirational, and multi-functional structures.
The need for labourers and craftsmen is being replaced by industrialised practices – processes developed over the course of many years by our collective pursuit of lowering direct costs in terms of materials, labour and time.
But this modernisation has led to some unforeseen consequences. Modern skyscrapers represent some of our civilisation’s most expensive works of art, designed and built through the industrialised management of resources.
“Urbanization will continue to dominate our culture in reflection of growing population of the world, urban migration and escalation of social status. With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, this number is expected to increase as much as 70% by 2050 especially in Asia, according to the UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs,” said Veritas Design Group principal and sustainable director Syah Kamaruddin.
“As the world continues to urbanise, demand for urban infrastructure will grow in tandem with sustainable development. Architecture will be a pivotal key in this upward urbanisation trend in providing affordable and sustainable housing.
“The commitment to sustainable architecture is testament to society in general committing to a ‘greener’ lifestyle. Home automation and smart homes are also an upward trend as technology becomes more inclusive and affordable, where homes become more self-sufficient with increasing demands for customized climate-control homes and increased security.
“Smart homes offer its users greater comfort and savings by reducing electricity bills in reflection of our increased social awareness to take care for the environment. Apart from sustainability, people are now more urban-centric by choosing to stay in the heart of the cities,” he said.
However, the cost of living in these compact areas is increasingly becoming more unaffordable. The concrete, steel, glass, and other materials that go into raising modern skyscrapers are still made at high, and largely fixed, direct costs to the environment, with cumulative and incidental costs hidden in every stage from the gathering of raw materials to the installation of finished materials.
As a result, architecture is steadily evolving from single use spaces to more integrated and flexible spaces to facilitate social and urbanization trends. Flexible open living or office spaces which facilitates for more social interaction takes centre-stage as key spatial requirements, and hence eliminates unused spaces that are underutilised.
What building designs and construction might look like
In this age of human-driven climate change, the evolution of buildings will eventually arrive at thoughtful designs that draw inspiration from vernacular architecture and structures conceived with more than mere cost-optimisation in mind.
Building Information Modelling (BIM), a means of visualising designs and quantifying building functions, has been applied to pedestrian simulation since the late 1990s, resulting in safer and more efficient recreational and communal facilities.
“Since it was first conceptualised here, its usage has been picking up rapidly as the industry puts pressure in its widespread application – and for a good reason,” said Syah.
“The construction industry is reaping many benefits in BIM application from its predecessor known as computer aided design (CAD). Some of the immediate benefits are improved construction speed with all detailed technical coordination seen ‘live’ by all consultants to make tweaks before the actual physical construction works begin.
“This avoids costly change orders for the earlier unforeseen coordination works between consultants and specialists,” he said.
With accurate digital representations becoming more readily available, designers are able to eliminate problems before a design is manifested into physical reality. Practicing architects like Jaafar Baisah, an associate director of RSP Architects and a consultant for the PNB 118 project, said that BIM is now increasingly sought by design consultants and their clients as a useful measure of pre-empting problems that may occur during construction.
However, Jaafar emphasised that using BIM to discover and address potential problems does not necessarily translate to lower costs or faster delivery. Advancements in functional building simulations could theoretically enable more effective designs that conserve energy and minimise operating costs, but the substantial costs of the necessary software, hardware, and expertise, at least for the time being, still outweigh any potential savings that BIM could theoretically provide.
With greenfield space becoming increasingly rare in urban environments, a significant portion of future structures will likely be matured buildings retrofitted to serve various needs. By virtue of the pursuit for optimisation, these restoration projects will presumably be aided by BIM to extend building lifespans, increase operational efficiency, and reduce the costs of providing new spaces. Aside from monetary, resource, and operating costs, one of the factors increasingly being considered is the health of a building’s occupants.
Biophilic design is a rising school of thought that looks beyond minimising energy consumption and prioritises health. In the words of Gregers Reimann, the managing director of IEN Consultants Sdn Bhd: “There is economic value in the positive effects of biophilic design on well-being, stress reduction, and enhanced learning.”
Biophilic-designed architecture incorporates natural lighting and ventilation, and use of natural resources as building materials in-built environment have been adopted in traditional Malaysian architecture, and are still being used and evolving to this day, said Syah.
“In essence, biophilic architecture is an environmental-social architecture that is rampantly popular these days. Its proven benefits include effective social collaborative of spaces, improving psychological aspects in the working environment and encouraging the incorporation of the natural environment into architecture.
“In essence, this is the ‘Green Building” approach that will prevail in the future. Buildings oriented to the North-Southward facing and designed in shallow footprints with large, energy-efficient glass capitalises on natural lights significantly reduces the need for mechanical lights in the building, hence improving overall project construction and reducing building operating costs,” he said.
Locally-sourced sustainable building materials and products would significantly reduce the carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions in cutting down transportation distances from the material source to development areas, he said.
The refuse from demolished buildings used to go directly to landfills, but a burgeoning industry of reclaiming, recycling, and reusing construction materials is changing the way buildings are being constructed while drastically reducing the environmental cost of sourcing for new spaces, and feeding the rising demand for post-industrial aesthetics.
Costs for new structures will be further decreased through optimised prefabrication and the controlled manufacture of new building components with Industrialised Building Systems (IBS) which automate the conventionally labour-intensive, and often inefficient, construction practices within an isolated environment to minimise project costs and delivery times.
These construction practices could enable newer and more thoughtful constructions that attain higher scores in green rating systems such as the Green Building Index (GBI) – but why should builders seek to achieve these ratings with their structures?
Incorporating recycled materials in architecture is not a trend, but a commitment to sustainable architecture. Local green certifications, like Green Building Index (GBI), GreenRE or MyCREST puts a lot of emphasis in ratio of recyclable content in building materials.
Are any new buildings currently being planned to use reclaimed materials and what would you say is their current (or future) rate of use in Malaysia? How would buyers and investors react to the use of recycled materials?
Increasingly the use of reclaimed materials is more widespread in individual homes and small-scaled bespoke developments, especially in flooring and wall paneling. This is seen as an upward trend as owners are more sensitive to sustainable architecture and more receptive to it.
On a larger scale, reclaimed building materials are being applied more commonly in reclaimed steel structures, and steel cladding for façade, as well as reclaimed bricks on feature walls. Designers all over the world are turning to repurpose a wide array of reclaimed building materials into new and exciting stylized ways to present fresh ideas from still worthwhile materials.
Unfortunately, although there are substantial environmental benefits to using reclaimed building materials, this market in Malaysia is virtually untapped with limited suppliers actively sourcing and supplying the demand. One of the barriers has been the lack of flexibility of reclaimed materials.
This is also economically challenging to sustainably source, extract and storing such materials with limited knowledge of standards and legislation. Therefore, in its current state, medium-to-large construction projects cannot benefit from the reclamation building industry due to limited salvaged materials supply chains.
The financial forces driving climate preservation
Being at the forefront of change and doing things differently can be scary, maybe even dangerous. It takes big money to bolster that kind of courage.
Reclaimed materials and cleaner building practices require well-financed interests in order to fund the necessary infrastructure to provide spaces with less adverse impacts on the environment. After more than half a century of popularisation, concerns of crashing ecosystems around the globe have grown.
According to a 2006 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an estimated US$9 trillion in total is being invested annually by multiple international and regional organisations to address various elements of accelerated climate change.
This US$9 trillion is the sum of separate and ongoing efforts by intergovernmental organisations like the World Bank; major environmental, social and good governance funds, regional development banks such as the Asian Development Bank, environmental secretariat budgets and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Capitalist interests are getting on the climate preservation bandwagon too. As the economic theorist and author of The Green New Deal, Jeremy Rifkin, has speculated, the weight of US$40 trillion in global pension funds, the world’s largest pool of capital in 2019 (according to Forbes), will be invested in the development of green technologies and optimising energy efficiency.
While still fragmented, and sometimes overlapping, these efforts are steadily culminating in an idealised global environmental governance framework to foster and optimise climate preservation efforts around the world.
China appears to be leading the charge for a global ecological civilisation. Despite currently being the world’s largest contributor of carbon emissions, China is set to invest trillions of US dollars into a pivot to clean energy over the next couple of decades.
This mass collective effort is spurring changes in commercial entities and raising the value of the investment discipline known to some as sustainable, responsible, and perhaps, impactful investing. It is clearly becoming common knowledge that the long-term survivability of even the most stable investments is under threat from increasingly unstable ecosystems and unpredictable natural disasters.