NUS plans to offer interdisciplinary major on urban systems at new centre

The facade of SDE1 and SDE3, two buildings on NUS' Kent Ridge campus that were retrofitted with green architectural elements. ST PHOTO : CHONG JUN LIANG
Built in the 1970s, the retrofitted buildings – SDE1 and SDE3 – are among the oldest on campus. ST PHOTO : CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The National University of Singapore (NUS) opened a new centre on Thursday that plans to offer a new interdisciplinary major to turn students into thinkers who can come up with innovative solutions within complex urban systems.

The new major to be offered – NUS Cities – will tie together the disciplines of architecture, engineering and public policy, among others, to teach students how these various disciplines have interacted to create well-known examples of public spaces today. 

The new centre, housed within the NUS College of Design and Engineering (CDE), will hold classes in subjects like the planning and governance of cities – which will be taught interactively through case studies and lessons that prioritise role-playing. 

The major and the new centre, which will also offer master’s and potentially doctoral degree programmes on urban systems thinking, are part of NUS’ broader push for interdisciplinarity.

The college was established in 2021 through the merger of the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment. 

The new major will be the 15th one offered under the CDE, and more details on the course will be announced at a later date. 

NUS Cities director Khoo Teng Chye said the new major comes at an opportune juncture of global development. “More than half the world now live in cities... In South-east Asia, only 30 per cent live in cities. In South Asia, it’s also 30 per cent... So there’s a lot of urbanisation going on, and this trend will only keep going up.” 

Singapore, despite its dense population, is an example of a liveable and sustainable city. The new programme will help it become a nexus of expertise in such city planning, Professor Khoo added. 

“Singapore’s strength is being able to come up with urban system innovations,” he said. 

He cited Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park as an example. “To turn a drain into a naturalised river in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, you need a water engineer to work with a landscape architect, not just an architect, or engineer... So we want to train students who are able to create solutions like that in future.”

With the new centre, NUS has also retrofitted two buildings at the Kent Ridge campus with green architectural elements, such as a garden that does not need watering and naturally ventilated areas.

The courtyard and green spaces at the university’s SDE1 building. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

They exemplify the education that the centre seeks to provide its students and graduates, said CDE dean Aaron Thean.

Built in the 1970s, the retrofitted buildings – SDE1 and SDE3 – are among the oldest on campus, and have a combined gross floor area of around 24,000 sq m.

The new cluster that includes the centre will comprise SDE1, SDE3 and SDE4, and span more than 32,000 sq m. SDE4 is Singapore’s first net-zero energy building to be built from scratch.

As the buildings are still in good structural condition, the cost of renovating them was substantially lower compared with demolishing them to construct new ones. 

Furthermore, SDE1 and SDE3’s embodied carbon footprint is estimated to be lower than a third of that for similar new construction. Embodied carbon refers to the carbon dioxide emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the life cycle of a building or infrastructure.

The building’s total energy consumption after retrofitting is projected to be one-third of pre-renovation levels.

Professor Thean said: “This project also represents the next benchmark for renovation and sustainability for built environment in the future.” 

NUS president Tan Eng Chye (second from left) and DPM Heng Swee Keat (third from left) looking at students’ work during their tour of SDE3 at the university on Thursday. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat was at the launch of the centre and renovated buildings on Thursday. He said the effort to retrofit and improve the performance of existing buildings is crucial to decarbonising Singapore’s built environment and meeting its net-zero goals. 

“For the world to meet our climate commitments, we cannot just rely on building more new net-zero energy buildings... We also need building owners to retrofit and improve the performance of existing buildings, to reduce carbon emissions,” he said.

“What NUS has done with SDE 1 and 3 has great potential to be applied in Singapore and beyond.”

Professor Heng Chye Kiang, the CDE’s deputy dean of research and innovation, said that beyond environmental and educational considerations, retrofitting also preserves memories associated with an old space. “This building (the college) has produced generations and generations of architects who are responsible for building the landscape of Singapore today... A lot of them are well-known in Singapore now, as well as the world,” he added.

“To visit a design studio where great architects have worked in before can be very inspiring... Connections are important in conserving buildings, people’s emotional connection to space.” 

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