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Time to build support for sustainable buildings in South-east Asia

SOUTH-EAST Asia is rapidly urbanising, with an additional 90 million people forecast to move to cities by 2030. Cities such as Singapore, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Hanoi and others already generate around two-thirds of the region's gross domestic product and will continue to be a key driver of growth. Unfortunately, many of the same cities find themselves straining under the pressure of rapid growth.

The impact of global warming will be felt intensely in South-east Asia, affecting the region's economy and livelihood. Increased global warming is expected to significantly impact labour productivity and capacity by 2045. In fact, Singapore and Malaysia could experience decreases in productivity by up to 25 per cent!

Sustainable architecture and urban development have an important role to play in mitigating the impact of climate change, helping support the growth of cities and the ambitions of their people. From homes and workplaces to shopping and entertainment venues, sustainability in the building and construction industry must be viewed holistically considering the impact on the environment, contribution to public health and wellness as well as cost-centric measures like energy and water-efficiency.

Awareness around sustainability and climate change is slowly but surely increasing across the region. For example, nearly all governments in the region have sustainability plans with specific commitments towards tackling sustainability challenges such as reducing carbon emissions and reducing energy usage.

However, despite this, there is an inertia and lack of action around sustainability. Contributing factors include a lack of understanding of the economics of green buildings, and little incentive to encourage and enforce green practices.

The general perception is that green buildings and energy efficiency projects are more expensive, a myth that is a key factor causing green projects to stall. While it is true that the upfront costs for green projects tend to be higher, a bitter pill for some to swallow, the longer-term savings and environmental impact more than make up for the initial outlay. In one example, switching to energy-saving LED bulbs helped the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore reduce their costs by S$12,000 per year. The property also replaced the air-cooled chillers in its service apartments with more energy-efficient water-cooled chillers, saving them a whopping S$250,000 a year.

Simple changes can have a long-term impact and governments, business owners, architects, developers, and consumers all have a role to play in taking the "green" bull by the horns and adopting best practices.


Climate change is set to be the defining challenge of our time and the onus is often on governments and public sector officials to drive sustainability efforts. While governments across the region would do well to step up efforts to assimilate green buildings into their city planning, they can't achieve their sustainable development goals without the support of the private sector and that of consumers.

Developers and builders play a huge role in driving change, beginning with the adoption of green building standards in their projects. Aside from using cost-saving green materials, efficient fixtures and sustainable design, initiatives such as installing recycling bins and starting carbon offset programmes are effective steps that builders can take.

For industry practitioners who want to build more awareness and inspire change, keeping abreast with the latest green and energy-efficient building innovations will help to steer efforts in championing sustainable development within the building industry. This can be achieved through industry networking and connecting to regional industry platforms such as Build Eco Xpo Asia & Mostra Convegno Expocomfort Asia.

Finally, the end-consumer is a key player too. A bottom-up or consumer-driven approach to sustainability includes consumers making smart choices and voting with their dollar for all types of products and services that have been developed, keeping in mind their long-term impact on the environment. When consumers make conscious green choices, developers will receive a fresh impetus to adopt green practices.

The potential cost savings of green buildings are only one benefit of adopting sustainable construction practices. With many of the region's countries starting from ground zero in this space, there is the unique opportunity for them to leapfrog the initial development phases and go straight to smart, integrated and well-planned cities. With sustainable cities in place, the region will also be set to attract further investments in addition to improving the quality of life for citizens.

The city of Vancouver is a fabulous example of how the city council, residents, businesses, and all levels of government have come to implement a sustainability plan. The city's Greenest City Action Plan, is a strategy to make Vancouver the greenest city on earth through a set of measurable and attainable targets.

The only question to ask is: Will any of South-east Asia's emerging cities take charge of their green destiny and be the next gold standard for sustainable cities?

  • The writer is chairman of the World Green Building Council.