How do we design for Singapore's future?

The NUS School of Design and Environment has just one central tenet in building sustainable, resilient communities of tomorrow: Put people first

SDE4 integrates gardens and learning spaces by incorporating greenery into its design. The building encourages its occupants to step out of the indoors for a breath of fresh air. PHOTO: RORY GARDINER
SDE4 integrates gardens and learning spaces by incorporating greenery into its design. The building encourages its occupants to step out of the indoors for a breath of fresh air. PHOTO: RORY GARDINER

 A storm is coming. 

The years ahead hold several challenges for Singapore. According to the Meteorological Service Singapore, rapid urbanisation has led to the exacerbation of the urban heat island effect, meaning that Singapore heats up twice as fast as the rest of the world, at a rate of 0.25 deg C per decade. 

Furthermore, by 2030, the population aged 65 and above is set to double. With one of the fastest-ageing populations in the developed world, Singapore will need an ever-increasing number of hospital beds in the near future. The country’s current bed crunch will only see itself worsen as the population requires more frequent and longer hospital visits. 

A common perception is that Singapore simply needs to pour more resources into improving technology to develop solutions. Sure enough, most efforts towards improving sustainability and greening the urban environment involve retrofitting existing buildings with “green” features like solar panels and energy-efficient lighting. 

But these are ultimately changes enacted on a micro level. In order to create a truly sustainable Singapore, our communities and living spaces need to be completely redesigned from the ground up. 

How can this be achieved? 

According to the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment (NUS SDE), the right way forward is a people-centric approach. 

Putting people at the heart of design

“We believe a holistic vision to sustainability is pivotal in the definition of curricula, project goals and aspirations,” says Professor Lam Khee Poh, Dean of NUS SDE.

“Beyond sustainability, our strategic commitment also extends to promote the health and well-being of inhabitants in buildings.”

With access to daylight and connection to outdoors, SDE4 is designed for wellness. PHOTO: RORY GARDINER

SDE calls this approach Well and Green thinking. As the name suggests, it aims to redefine the way community design is approached, by placing emphasis not just on environmentally-friendly and sustainable design, but also on the well-being of residents.

90 per cent of Singaporeans’ time is spent indoors. As such, the built environment we live in shapes the way we work, play, study and more — and ultimately has a significant impact on our overall well-being. 

Why is this important? Take for instance Singapore’s hospital bed shortage: At the current rate our population is ageing, it will be physically impossible to provide enough hospital beds to meet projected demand. 

As Professor John Wong, chief executive of the National University Health System phrases it, the current life expectancy of Singaporeans is 85 years, but they are only healthy for 75. That leaves 10 years of life where they require a degree of medical care — medical care that might not be readily accessible for a number of reasons. 

How can this 10-year gap be filled, then? By reshaping Singaporean communities into people-centric integrated sustainable developments.

Take Kampung Admiralty as an example. The 11-storey “modern kampung”, designed by SDE alumnus Wong Mun Summ, integrates 100 flats for the elderly with a wide range of social, healthcare, communal, commercial, and retail facilities. These are complemented by a wide range of facilities and amenities for all ages, as well as a plethora of community spaces.

By improving residents’ daily quality of life by facilitating social interaction and encouraging active lifestyles, this could drastically cut the elderly’s need for medical care in their twilight years, letting them “age-in-place” in their own homes for as long as possible.

Researchers from NUS Centre for Ageing Research in the Environment gathering insights from an elderly research participant. PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

Urban design that facilitates residential interaction also helps create a sense of community and civic ownership, ensuring that residents will look out for each other’s welfare. In turn, this mitigates the demands placed on Singapore’s healthcare systems by its ageing population.

Collective wellness contributes to what SDE terms Singapore’s “urban resilience”: The ability for an urban community to sustain itself through the challenges that it faces — not just for the geriatric population, but citizens of all ages. 

Walking the talk in creating a well and green community

NUS SDE hopes to take this concept of the sustainable integrated development and expand it into entire districts — effectively making it the future of the whole nation. 

And what better way to start than with itself? In January this year, SDE officially launched the NUS SDE4 building, the first new-build net-zero energy building in Singapore. Designed to consume only as much energy as it produces, the building makes use of a rooftop solar farm that uses 1,225 photovoltaic panels to provide energy, and a hybrid cooling system that makes minimal use of air-conditioning. 

Its architectural design also facilitates the meeting of minds: A central staircase is the social heart of the building, where students can meet and share ideas. An outdoor plaza on level 3 is yet another informal social space that inspires communal interaction and learning. 

A tropical portico, built around existing trees. SDE4’s biophilic design brings one closer to nature. PHOTO: RORY GARDINER

Groundbreaking though it may be, SDE4 is just the beginning. NUS SDE is also working closely with the Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities on the idea of sustainable integrated districts. Solutions like SDE4 could be scaled-up at district level, to achieve ambitious urban sustainability goals. Multiple stakeholders within each district are envisaged to be actively engaged in the development process.

Collaboration is key to building urban resilience — and as such, NUS SDE is not acting alone. One of NUS SDE’s partners is the Delos Well Living Lab, a global wellness pioneer serving as the world’s leading catalyst for enhanced health and well-being in living spaces. 

NUS is also the first university in the world to register for the WELL Portfolio pilot by the International WELL Building Institute, a public benefit corporation dedicated to improving human health and wellness through the built environment.

“We believe that we cannot just talk about it,” says Professor Lam. “We must walk the talk. We will expand our collaborative outreach to include medicine, public health, engineering, business computing, physical sciences as well as arts and social sciences in our numerous educational and research programmes.”