Community of the Week: Singapore

“Singapore’s achievements show that with bold policies and the right expertise, urbanization and population growth do not have to result in environmental degradation.”

by / October 4, 2011

Imagine a building complex where the facades of all its tall building are fitted with solar cells. Ribbon-like canopies with integrated thin-film solar arrays rise straight from the base to the roof to direct sunlight and catch the wind and direct it downward for natural cooling of the ground-floor spaces.

A rainwater harvesting system reduces dependence on ground water, and helps with geothermal heating, as well as cooling the beams and ceilings of the building. And everything from the lighting, water taps and window blinds are automated to minimize energy use and waste.

This is not some dream of an environmental Utopia, it is already happening in Singapore. Buildings like these are increasingly common in this tiny island nation with no oil, gas, or coal reserves and an almost 100 per percent urban population of some 5 million people. And if the city-state’s government has its way, almost all its buildings will have similar, or even more advanced, green features within a couple of decades. 

Turning green is not just a lofty ideal for Singapore; it is a crucial component of its sustainability efforts. It is a tropical country -- located just 1 degree north of the equator -- where the average daytime temperature hovers around 81 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity averages over 84 percent year round. And Singapore's population has grown by 70 percent since 1986.

"The hot and humid climate forces Singapore residents to be largely indoor-centric," says Damien Duhamel -- managing partner Asia Pacific, Solidiance, a marketing strategy consultancy that operates in the region. "That means its buildings consume a lot of energy and for that matter, given its growing population, green buildings are a necessity for the city-state."

Singapore is already Asia's greenest metropolis. The tiny city-state faces the unenviable challenge of balancing economic growth with increasing demands on its environment. In the process Singapore is doing what it is very good at: setting ambitious targets, roping in all and sundry, and wielding its government’s enormous influence to build a sustainable Singapore.

By 2030, the government wants 80 per cent of all buildings to be "Green Mark" certified, a benchmarking scheme that incorporates best practices in environmental design and performance, similar to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.  Green Mark is a rating tool that is specially designed to rate the environmental performance of buildings with a higher emphasis on energy efficiency as compared to other green rating systems around the world.

Developing a Green Ecosystem.

"Singapore in fact has developed the most favorable green building ecosystem in Asia," says Duhamel. Its green building project is spearheaded by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) that has rolled out two Green Building Master Plans.

These contain several initiatives to steer the real estate sector to green buildings. In 2008, the Building Control Act was amended so that minimum environmental sustainability standards are required for all new buildings. Incentive schemes were also introduced to encourage the private sector to green new and existing buildings.

To grow the capability of the building industry to design, construct and operate green buildings, BCA also implemented a comprehensive training program to groom 18,000 to 20,000 "green collar" practitioners over 10 years.

For implementing greening of existing buildings, BCA has recently introduced a Building Retrofit Energy Efficiency Financing Scheme, in collaboration with financial institutions, to help building owners to overcome the high upfront cost that had often been cited as one of the barriers to energy efficiency retrofits of existing buildings. Simultaneously, BCA announced its intention to legislate minimum energy efficiency standards in existing buildings as they retrofit their cooling systems.

According to Solidiance, the most redeeming feature in Singapore’s green building effort, "is the conscious effort by the government agencies to bring about changes in the building practices." Different countries have different sets of demand drivers pushing the industry toward a greener building practice. For instance, the green initiative is industry-driven in the U.S. and consumer-driven in Australia.

But in Singapore, "Greening the built environment is part of the government’s overall commitment to build a sustainable Singapore," says BCA Chief Executive Officer John Keung.

"Hence, policies were put in place to drive and support the greening effort. The government, as the leading land owner, developer and building owner, also takes the lead to show its strong commitment in this initiative by greening its own buildings."

Keung added that since 2009, all new public-sector buildings in Singapore that are air-conditioned are required to meet certain prescribed standards while existing ones will need to be retrofitted to meet certain prescribed standards by 2020.

Technology Drivers

Technology is playing a key role in Singapore's green initiatives, says the BCA. Increasingly, buildings are mandated to use more energy- and water-efficient equipment while motion-detector lighting in toilets, stairwells and waterless urinals have almost become standard features in high-rise buildings.

Businesses are also helping to meet Singapore’s objectives. Siemens, for instance, has developed a monitor panel that communicates energy consumption of the building  to tenants and visitors. The Japanese Nippon Paint Co. developed-heat reflecting paints and a new type of cement was developed that uses much less water for curing.

Keung said ICT is widely used as a tool to aid modeling and simulation. For instance, BCA encourages the use of an ICT tool called Building Information Modeling that "helps building designers incorporate green features more efficiently in their designs as well as perform energy analysis on their virtual building models."
 Additionally, BCA has also encourages use of building management tools that can monitor a building’s operations and performance. "BCA is encouraging use of sensor technology and networks to improve energy efficiency and performance in the operations of buildings," says Keung.

Challenges Galore

However, Singapore’s feat hasn’t been easy as the government says it has to overcome many challenges in maintaining the city’s green building success.

"We needed to change mindsets radically," says Keung. Starting with the residents who need to be made conscious of the virtues of energy saving and being responsible citizens. And the construction industry as well.

"Construction of building is a traditional industry and change is not something that builders like," says Duhamel. "Since building green increases costs, I think the main challenge was and still is to convince them that going green makes business sense."

Stellar Results

Still, Singapore’s formula is taking rapid strides. Solidiance has recently ranked Singapore the region’s fourth greenest city after Tokyo, Seoul, and Melbourne in terms of sustainable living and carbon footprint reductions. However, in terms of government policy toward green building and sustainability, it tops the list in Asia in Soldiance’s ranking.

Besides, according to the "Asian Green City Index" conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit this year, Singapore ranks highest among the 20 cities polled in parameters like air quality; energy and carbon dioxide emissions; environmental governance; land use and buildings; sanitation standards; transport system; waste disposal and water management.

In the past six years Singapore has managed to produce more than 840 Green Mark rated building projects, amounting to 25 million square meters or 12 percent of the total gross floor area in Singapore. The city’s carbon emission too is estimated to have reduced by about 4.62 tons per year.

Showcasing Success

Small wonder then that experts like Rod Leaver, CEO of Lend Lease -- the global property consulting firm -- feels Singapore demonstrates how a strong collaboration between industry partners, stakeholders and government bodies can shape a country's sustainable built environment. "Singapore’s achievements show that with bold policies and the right expertise, urbanization and population growth do not have to result in environmental degradation," wrote Leaver in one of his comments on Singapore Green Building initiatives.

According to Leaver, Singapore’s city-planning strategy not only demonstrates that sustainable built environments can be created at the precinct level. But it also gives hope to all of Asia’s city-planners.

Resource Notes

The Green Building Masterplans provides a holistic plan and innovative solutions and guidance to the building and construction industry to address concerns on climate change and the environment. It is a roadmap that sets out specific initiatives to green the built environment in Singapore. Under the masterplans, BCA also introduced the Green Mark incentive schemes to encourage building owners to build green buildings and to retrofit their existing buildings to achieve greater energy efficiency. They are:

$100 million Green Mark Incentive Scheme for Existing Buildings (GMIS-EB) that provides:

(a) A cash incentive for upgrading and retrofitting scheme that co-funds up to 35 percent (capped at $1.5 million) of the costs of energy-efficient equipment installed to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings, and;
(b) A ‘health check’ scheme, which is an energy audit to determine the efficiency of the air-conditioning plants.  BCA will co-fund 50 percent of the cost for conducting this health check and the remaining 50 percent will have to be borne by the building owner.

To date, BCA has received 39 applications for this incentive scheme -- 19 for the ‘health check’ scheme and 20 for the upgrading and retrofitting of the existing buildings.  About $6 million in incentives has been committed so far.

Indrajit Basu is the International Correspondent of Digital Communities

Indrajit Basu Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.