by Jerry ElengicalSep 21, 2022
Sustainable architecture are words that garnish every contemporary project. The term is used so widely and commonly, it has perhaps become hollow and futile. This is not to discount the importance of needing to develop sustainable practices, or to learn from existing practices that have been working on more human-centric design solutions for decades. In an attempt to further understand the meaning and implication of the term “sustainable”, STIR spoke to MK Leung, Director of Sustainable Design at Ronald Lu & Partners. Leung was awarded the first Uniseal G-Architect Award by the Singapore Institute of Architects, and has been active in both academic and professional circles for more than 20 years. Ronald Lu & Partners, which was founded in Hong Kong in 1976, has been at the forefront of practicing sustainable operations throughout Asia.
Devanshi Shah (DS): In recent years the term ‘sustainability’ has become an important keyword in architecture. Could you elaborate on how you define sustainability?
MK Leung (MKL): There are several ways to define sustainability. The UN’s Brundtland Commission explains it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. At Ronald Lu & Partners (RLP), we pursue sustainability by designing better and greener places with positive “environmental handprints” and light and lean “environmental footprints”. A neater way of saying it is that sustainability connects ethics with aesthetics.
DS: How does the scale of a structure affect its sustainability?
MKL: How we pursue sustainability, a particular redevelopment or urban regeneration project is linked to the extent and complexity of the bio-ecological, social and economic systems involved. A project with greater complexity will have higher potential gains or impacts, depending on the systems it affects. Bio-ecological systems impact the natural topography, landscape, habitats and biodiversity, urban geometry and microclimate; social systems impact the inclusiveness and safety of a community; while economic systems impact the diversity and flexibility of community activities and opportunities. Overall, making a project sustainable involves carefully determining, measuring, simulating and analysing the nature, extent and complexity of the interrelationships between these systems for each proposed design over time.
DS: What are some of the popular misconceptions in relation to sustainable design that you would like to dispel?
MKL: There are quite a few! The first misconception is that sustainable designs cost more. We believe sustainable design should pursue circularity. We proactively advocate and promote the use of local and regional materials and systems, and engage supply chains to move towards a circular economy and “closing the loop” – keeping production, consumption and waste recycling systems local. Sustainable design should also take a whole lifecycle cost perspective, since the majority of the resource consumption happens over the lifespan of a building. Design for wellness and high efficiency of energy, water and material use at the outset in addition to proper maintenance are well worth the investment and are proven to achieve lower life-cycle cost in many cases. There is also a presumption that sustainable projects equate lower liveability and comfort – this is simply not true. They are designed for diversity, offering a wide range of choices and catering to different comfort levels.
DS: What makes a building human-centric, and what constitutes future-ready design?
MKL: To create something human-centric, designers must first know the building's anticipated users and fully understand their needs. To create something future-ready, designers must anticipate future changes as best they can and incorporate these into designs, while also creating adaptable spaces that can respond to the changes that they cannot foresee. Technology is a vital part of this process, so big data, digitalisation and smart building systems must be fully integrated with any building.
DS: How does one incorporate the idea of ‘Design Better Life’ in high-density urban environments?
MKL: There are three main ways. First, through urban climate adaptation – this involves designing a building to be permeable, so as to promote ventilation; and designing the building’s façade to perform well in extreme weather, through a lower thermal transfer value and greater resistance to wind-driven rain. Second, the building must connect its inhabitants with nature, through biophilic design, multi-level skyrise greening and introducing nature back into cities by increasing urban biodiversity – we do this by using native plants that will enhance cities’ wild lives at different vertical urban habitats. Lastly, we must design specifically to create place identity for communities living in vertical cities. This involves paying close attention to vertical social clusters and the communal skyrise experience within a high-rise building.
DS: Could you tell us a bit more about the sustainable design of the spinning and garment manufacturing plant in Guilin? As a manufacturing plant were there any additional factors considered when planning the building?
MKL: Integral is an entirely unique project – a complete reboot of what a clothing manufacturing plant can be. The project takes a holistic, regenerative and innovative approach, highlighting how humanity, industry and nature can exist in balance. We had to first consider how to regenerate the site – which was quite environmentally degraded. This involved preserving and rebuilding its biodiversity and reactivating its aquatic biodiversity. Then, we considered what “sponge strategies” we could use to retain rainwater and prevent flooding. These included rooftop gardens, permeable paving and a rainwater collection system. Above all, our planning and design work was guided by respect for nature and the need to create architecture that harmonises with the stunning natural landscape of the area.
DS: The Technological and Higher Education Institute (THEi) of Hong Kong is a World Green Building Council-recognised, community-centric campus. Could you elaborate on some of the design considerations that facilitated its recognition?
MKL: We put a great deal of effort into THEi. We started with sustainable site planning and then designed the built forms to optimise urban ventilation, daylighting, views, and shading against solar heat gain. We opened up the campus to an adjacent public park and the prevailing summer wind, embracing this outdoor public green space and extending it vertically through sky-rise greening across various terraces and pocket spaces located on multiple levels. The campus also has liveable outdoor and semi-outdoor areas with microclimates that are designed to attract students and staff out of the air-conditioned interior, allowing them to enjoy shaded spaces under buildings and trees and take in the summer breezes, views and fresh air.
Its “lean and green” design substantially reduces waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse. This is enhanced through the Campus Environmental Performance Dashboard, a platform that is shared by campus users and facility managers to observe data, share insights on strategies to improve performance, and form partnerships to achieve goals.
DS: What are some standard sustainable practices that are a part of how Ronald Lu & Partners plans and executes projects?
MKL: We adhere to three core tenets: our project designs are science-based, adopting multi-disciplinary collaboration using clearly-defined metrics and constantly evaluating performance from the very start of the conceptual design process. They are climate responsive, using a thorough analysis of the urban microclimate during the pre-development and proposed design phases. Finally, they are culturally driven – before any project starts we conduct a stakeholder engagement exercise, diving deep into the prevailing culture and exploring any long-term cultural shifts that may be foreseen.
RLP’s work is anchored in a philosophy of open-mindedness and inclusiveness. We believe that only through open dialogue and honest conversations can we conduct important, all-encompassing conversations with clients, partners and co-workers. This is a necessary part of the design process, as we need to bring all stakeholders together to develop a common understanding of a project’s issues and their ramifications into the future.
We also foster a spirit of “cross-pollination” of diverse but connected disciplines, industries, and knowledge centres. We create coalitions of stakeholders from all sectors to challenge the assumptions that lie underneath current norms, identify what we do not know, discover new knowledge and understanding, and harness these new insights to generate ground-breaking ideas.
DS: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
MKL: We live in an era of change. Not just “ordinary” change: Black Swan events – these are undirected and unpredicted, but have extreme impacts. At the same time, the pace of urbanisation in Asia, especially coastal China, presents challenges in terms of quality-of-life impacts in vertical developments and dense urban cores. Social inequalities and access to housing and other basic services impact a city's growth potential and prosperity.
Cities are our focus, and right now cities across Asia are at a crossroads: technological disruption, shifting geo-politics, the effects of climate change, and a global pandemic are clear signs that as the future unfolds, we cannot continue to rely on old-world certainties. While these issues are critical, this new landscape is also creating opportunities to build a new mindset and create new infrastructure that can withstand these and future issues.
RLP designs better and more resilient places, we put people at the centre of our endeavours, and we help clients limit their exposure to these impacts by clarifying uncertainties and gaining insights through research and expert partnerships. We assist clients as they navigate the unknown and work to minimise disruptions as we invest in our common future.