Speaking to Eco-Business at International Built Environment Week last year, Tan Szue Hann, one of Singapore’s most notable sustainability-focused architects, considered how the low-lying city-state will be able to stand up to rising sea levels. An upbeat pragmatist, he said sea-level rise “won’t be like in the movies. We won’t see seawater inundation. The built environment will have time to adapt—but we need to plan and act right now.”
Rising at a rate of 4 millimetres a year, the gradually ascending waters will give architects time to tweak their plans as they go, and factor in sustainability in what will prove to be a monumental construction feat—even for a meticulously well constructed city like Singapore. He suggests using aggregates from recycled demolition waste as in-fill to save on concrete, and applying circular design principles to the sea walls that will be built to protect the perimeter of the city-state.
A busy thinker and a wearer of many hats, the National University of Singapore-educated Singaporean is now a client-based director in sustainable development. He is also chairman of sustainability for the Singapore Institute of Architects, and board member for Singapore Green Building Council.
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His most recent role was running the Singapore office of circular economy engineering firm Miniwiz as managing director. Prior to that, he was head of sustainable urban solutions and principal architect at Surbana Jurong, an infrastructure and urban development consultancy.
There’s a lot of greenwashing going around, and keeping your eyes open and thinking and rationalising the things you read does make a difference.
In this interview, Tan talks about why he moved into the sustainability world, what motivates him, and the best piece of advice he could give people starting out in the sector.
What’s your education background?
I have always been fond of both the arts and sciences, and took art as a subject at secondary school and junior college level, and that definitely contributed to my decision to major in architecture at National University of Singapore (NUS). During that time, I spent a semester as an exchange student at TU Delft in the Netherlands, and also a good part of my Masters as a visiting scholar at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).
What prompted you to move into sustainability?
One of my first projects as an architectural graduate was the Parkroyal on Pickering (now Parkroyal Collection Pickering), designed by [Singapore-based architecture practice] WOHA. I was assigned to design the podium section of the building, as well as manage the BCA Green Mark certification submission. This piqued my interest in sustainability—buildings could well integrate the natural environment, rather than (just) be shining monoliths of glass and steel; they can also be energy-efficient, despite being air-conditioned. That sparked an interest in designing for sustainability, and also understanding the economics of sustainability. This, in turn, led to an interest in sustainable systems and operation flows, as well as materials engineering and the circular economy, beyond just the building industry.
Who has been your career mentor, and what was the most valuable thing you learned from them?
I’ve been inspired by many individuals both within and outside of my industry, so it would be unfair to just identify one mentor. However, I do find that the most successful individuals chase their passion, and are true to their beliefs. There are plenty of heroes in the sustainability scene—individuals who carve out success from trying to heal, and save, the planet—and they tend to place the interests of the planet and of others before themselves.
On a more personal level, my father has been a constant source of encouragement in my life, and being a man of few words, his advice is simple - “move forward”. I’ve come to realise that this doesn’t necessarily mean not looking back, but not dwelling on the past.
What’s your proudest career moment to date?
In recent memory, it would probably be an invitation to speak at COP25, the UN Climate Change Summit, in Madrid in December 2019. So much has happened in the world since then—the convention hall has now been turned into a hall of hospital beds [for Covid-19 patients]—but as a sustainability professional and architect, being invited to a global conference on climate change and sharing on what businesses can do for global sustainability, was quite significant for me.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
It would have to be that sustainability tends to be sidelined in some business decisions, as the common perception is that sustainability adds to capital expenditures, and does not contribute to the bottom line. The truth is far more complex than that, and it can be easily proven that sustainability-focused enterprises are not only more beneficial to the environment, but also more cost-effective in the longer run.
What motivates you?
In terms of work, clearly defined goals, and when teams and their individual members are aligned and in sync. When solutions to the world’s problems are guided by sustainability principles and practices. When people are geared towards a common good and for the benefit of humanity (especially in these times!) rather than their own individual needs.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give someone starting out in sustainability?
I’d say, stick to your guns, but also be cognisant of the real-world challenges that businesses face. One could say capitalism and its economics are negligent towards environmental sustainability, but the survival of businesses sometimes takes precedence over sustainable practices—especially in challenging times like these when we face a global pandemic. Always keep that balance while trying to save the planet. And always keep that belief that you can change the world for the better, because chances are, you can.
Where do you think the main sustainability knowledge gaps are among students now entering the workforce?
Sustainability consciousness is definitely a lot more apparent now among students than it used to be, at least during my time as a student. We now have data that proves that global warming exists. Students need to be aware that they do have agency in contributing towards environmental sustainability, and it’s no longer just the problem of corporates and governments.
What’s the one thing you wish you knew before you started out in sustainability?
I wish I had been more conscious of it before I started out in it! There’s a lot of greenwashing going around, and keeping your eyes open and thinking and rationalising the things you read does make a difference.