Buildings should be net zero, says architecture dean

Professor Lam Khee Poh, the new dean of Singapore’s top architecture school, is an early advocate of green buildings. In the run-up to the International Green Building Conference next month, he tells Eco-Business why he wants his students to embrace sustainability in their education and work.

Prof Lam Khee Poh, dean, SDE, NUS
Professor Lam Khee Poh is the new dean of the School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore, and a veteran in the green buildings sector. Image: School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore

Buildings are currently one of the world’s biggest energy consumers and emitters of carbon dioxide, a problem the sector is trying to tackle as the global climate fight gathers momentum.

But two critical barriers hampering efforts to make green buildings the norm are a lack of qualified manpower and the slow adoption of new technologies and processes, says Professor Lam Khee Poh, dean of the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment (SDE). 

Buildings account for 40 per cent of global energy consumption and a corresponding 40 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions; this is “significant” for one sector, he tells Eco-Business in a recent interview. 

“One of the major challenges for the building industry in Singapore and worldwide is to strategically reduce energy use and emissions, hence the growth of green buildings and sustainable design,” says Lam, who has headed SDE since July this year and spent 13 years teaching architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States (US) before that.  

An early advocate of energy efficiency and sustainability in the buildings sector since the 1980s when he did his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the few to offer courses in sustainability at that time, Lam has worked on iconic, award-winning green buildings such as the National Library in Singapore as well as the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, US.

Today, his vision for what the building sector can achieve still outpaces what the industry is aiming for.  

“Right now (the industry is) setting targets of 30 to 40 per cent reduction in energy savings from the current business as usual. I think that’s just not enough. I am for net zero,” he says. 

“Given the totality of the global situation, there will always be developing (countries) where they’re not able to meet that, but they still need to build those buildings, right? But if those of us who know and have the experience and capability, do not push the limit to compensate, then as planet earth, we’re doomed,” he explains. 

For Singapore, the city-state’s size, climate and lack of resources have made it “incumbent on Singapore to adopt green building technology aggressively for its economic and political stability”.

The need to speed up

Lam foresees two obstacles to getting Singapore’s building sector to net zero: the slow pace at which the building industry adopts new technology and processes, and the lack of qualified manpower.

He points out: “The time scale between what we know can be done and should be done, and when the technology and processes become the norm, needs to be shortened. Currently it takes about 10 to 15 years.”

If those of us who know and have the experience and capability (in green buildings), do not push the limit to compensate, then as planet earth, we’re doomed.

Professor Lam Khee Poh, dean, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore

A case in point is the National Library building, for which Lam teamed up with fellow green building advocate and renowned architect Dr Ken Yeang between 1998 and 1999 and submitted the designs to an international competition. After the library was approved, built and became operational in 2005, energy consumption was close to half of the average back then. 

Fixtures that made the library energy-efficient — such as the now-ubiquitous motion and light sensors, and decentralised airconditioning — were rare in that time. 

“Our research (and ideas were) 25 to 30 years ahead of the curve,” Lam recalls of the political climate in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, one technology he would like to see implemented universally is building information modelling or BIM, for which there already are working models.

BIM is a concept and technology that allows all professionals involved  such as architects, contractors and energy engineers  to simultaneously design, document, and simulate energy performance on a single platform, enabling them to achieve a single vision for the building, such as net-zero emissions.

This is in contrast to the assembly-line process of the architect handing a complete design to the engineer, and so on.

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes in the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is an example of a building that was completely designed through an integrated modelling process. 

It achieved a 1.5 per cent difference in energy usage from what was predicted at the design stage with a calibrated energy model, an impressive feat within the construction sector. 

New technologies also require that stakeholder, whether operator or architect, adapt to the new processes to maximise the potential of the changes. 

Ideally, building operators should be involved at the design and construction stages of a building to learn about the new technology being implemented, says Lam. “If you only design and build but if you don’t know how to operate the building effectively, then performance will also be affected in the long run.”

All hands on deck

The dearth of sustainability-trained construction professionals even as demand for green buildings grows exponentially around the world, especially in developing economies, is another major barrier for the industry, states Lam.

Having worked in the US and China under the non-profit Energy Foundation, which helps and promotes transitions to a more energy-efficient future, Lam says that building developers and authorities in China are keen on going green.

“Developers are very passionate, but with all their good intentions, paper-based designs and sophisticated modelling, but when you go on site there’s really a gap there: developers say they can’t find people,” he remarks.  

Further compounding the problem is the difficulties developers face in finding qualified experts to perform evaluations of building project submissions for sustainability certifications.

In both cases, these professionals are usually people with backgrounds in any construction-related field such as architecture or engineering, but have the extra experience and credentials to perform in these roles. They should also come with a cross-disciplinary perspective so that they understand how strategies of sustainability can be implemented at every stage of the construction process, he says. 

As the newly appointed dean of NUS’ School of Design and Environment, Lam has made addressing the manpower issue a priority and is working towards building a curriculum in which students can obtain a well-rounded education and an awareness of the need for sustainability in construction. 

But this takes time and companies are looking urgently to hire people who understand why and how to bring sustainability into the picture. Says Lam: “I’ve trained a whole bunch of PhD students and companies constantly call me and ask, ‘When is your next graduate coming out?’”

Given the high demand for professionals with credentials in sustainability, those already in the field can upgrade themselves through executive training courses that the BCA Academy offers. 

Besides doing good for the environment, it also offers them a competitive advantage against their peers, points out Lam: “If you are equipped with this new set of skills, with this new mindset, the prospects are very, very good, no question.”


Professor Lam Khee Poh will be speaking at the annual International Green Building Conference (IGBC) 2016, which runs from September 7 - 9. To hear more from him and other experts, register here. 

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