Sustainability is the new black

This form of development goes beyond bricks and mortar, but more towards the creation of safe, clean, interesting spaces

By Joseph Wong

Most new developments have many green features like this one.

Most new developments have many green features like this one.

As the years progress, more and more property developers have been offering new and sustainable real estate into the market, whether they are residential, commercial, retail, office or even hotel developments. In addition to this, they are now looking to provide a “home-sweet-home” vibe that would be good for both the wallet and the planet.

Of course, sustainability isn’t a new trend per se, but there are certainly more of such properties coming to the fore and taking shape in an entirely different way across the real estate industry. Big companies like Sunway Property, Gamuda Land, IJM Land, UEM Sunrise Bhd, Matrix Concepts Holding Bhd and MRCB have all launched projects with sustainable features in them from ecologically friendly aspects to water harvesting for reuse.

Even the mid-tier and smaller developers are on the same page where sustainability is concerned. In many cases, this shift is voluntary but there are just as many instances where developers are increasingly being required by new government policies and homebuyers’ preference to contribute to environmental safeguarding.

No longer a buzzword 

Sustainability at one time was quite the buzzword even though many did not know how it intertwined socio-economics with the environment. In the past, the early birds tried and failed to gather the sustainability momentum because social and economic growth within the built environment cannot be achieved on a longer-term basis if environmental issues are not appropriately addressed. 

In other words, a sizable population of people who have environmental awareness is essential and ecological issues like global warming become prominent enough to take centre stage. This happened with the rise of the Millennials, or the GenY, who are more environmentally conscious than their predecessor GenX.

As the next group of property buyers, developers were, in essence, forced to cater to their preferences. As such, all parties involved with acquiring and developing sites had to participate in strategic environmental and sustainable thinking to maximise successful developments and investment outcomes. Even landscaping has become an integral part of bigger projects where parks and green recreational areas take up a chunk of such developments.

“As a landscape architect, I am happy to see that landscaping has become an integral part of the overall development of new townships and cities. I really hope that this movement should follow through and even more crucial in the smaller development scheme,” said Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia immediate past president Associate Professor Dr Osman Mohd Tahir.

“It is high time for the landscape to be in the forefront in the planning and designing of the built environment and take a more influential role in leading and inspiring green design solution that will shape our future for a better living environment for all,” he said.

Despite this, there are still laggards. Reports generally agree that there will always be stragglers in their adoption of new innovations. Generally speaking, at least 16% will be the last to join the bandwagon. While some may think that this is too late, the advantage for these segment of developers is that they can learn from other’s mistakes and not repeat them.

With sustainability, there is also a strong emphasis on the built environment, which goes beyond the bricks and mortar and more about creating safe, clean, interesting spaces that people want to work, live and play in. Sustainability is at the heart of the built environment and the property industry has the power within its hands to shape social and economic growth while minimising environmental impacts.

Of course, the government also has to provide the incentives to do so. “We have adequate knowledge and expertise in the implementation of sustainable development, but the challenge is to make various stakeholders understand the whole benefits of sustainable development and adopt it,” said Institution of Engineers Malaysia honorary secretary Mohd Khir Muhammad.

“Certain technology and construction materials for sustainable houses may not be easily accessible and available locally and resulted in relatively higher cost of the development. Low Incentive by the government and coupled with a lack of enforcement in sustainable development are also contributing factors,” he said.

As the nation progresses with its sustainability drive, there are challenges to be met. Among them are redevelopment projects where older non-sustainable buildings need to make way for newer ones. There is a limit naturally. For heritage buildings, the task is to preserve them as can be seen in Penang where many have been protected and repurposed.

Sustainable developments also equate to greener and healthier environments to live in.

Sustainable developments also equate to greener and healthier environments to live in.

Redevelopment conundrum 

Other challenges include the proposed urban renewal legislation through a ‘forced’ en bloc sale, which has raised the hackles of many organisations and individuals. The proposed legislation, currently being mulled by the government, is expected to be similar to that of Singapore or Hong Kong, where a majority of owners can force the minority to sell their homes, whether they want to or not. 

There are no specific laws to facilitate and implement redevelopment of cities in Malaysia, although there is a guideline on urban regeneration for the government and public sector. The current Land Acquisition Act has prescribed reasons provided, including stipulated procedures in place to ensure any forceful acquisition is undertaken after having considered of the interests and opinions of all the owners, and not the majority.

The reasons prescribed are also confined to those for the benefit of the public, and not for commercial interests. The worry is the move may have an unconstitutional impact on house owners everywhere in Malaysia whether within or outside of the Federal Territories, even though each state has jurisdiction over real estate.

There are far-reaching implications that such a proposed redevelopment law will have on Article 13 of the Federal Constitution and the principles of indefeasibility of title as enshrined in the National Land Code. There must be safeguards in such legislation to prevent a primary aim of ‘confiscating’ real estate from its owners for profit and not for any higher purpose of rejuvenation or renewal or beneficial interests of the owners. As Malaysia is still relatively new to such redevelopment for sustainability, this is new grounds that must be carefully trodden upon so that the innocent will not suffer untoward consequences.

Leave it to market forces 

But Architect Mustapha Kamal Zukarnain doesn’t see the need for such legislation in Malaysia as yet. “We are not like Hong Kong and Singapore where land scarcity is acute. If we look at Kuala Lumpur, there are still many pockets of undeveloped land that can be used,” he said. And while the nation is seeing more sustainable developments, the question is: Is it enough? 

Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) president Lillian Tay believed that more has to be done: “More recently, we are focusing on ensuring our buildings and developments are more sustainable and kinder to the environment with a lower carbon footprint to help address the climate change crisis.” “Architects, by virtue of our profession, are an intrinsic part of the property industry because we design buildings and environments for living, working, commerce, and recreation.

However, there is a need to continue educating and converting more people, companies and institutions so that they can play their part. “It all adds up to achieving our target for more low-carbon cities and towns in Malaysia and to better preserve our natural heritage of rivers and forests. We have to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and it must start with each and every person,” she said.