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Ecoarchitecture: Is the sky the limit?

Topics: Building Communities | Comments

Ecoarchitecture: Is the sky the limit?

Photo: Solaris Building, Copyright T.R. Hamzah & Yeang Sdn. Bhd. (2012)

Malaysian architect and author Dr Ken Yeang has spent 40 years integrating ecological principles into building design, including into city skyscrapers. Healthy Parks, Healthy People Central recently caught up with Dr Yeang to ask him more about his approach to building design.

Many people are familiar with a green concept in terms of building design, and usually assume that it entails the inclusion of energy-efficient principles and incorporates features like solar power and water tanks. However, this is not only what Dr Yeang is thinking of when he talks about ecoarchitecture. What he is referring to is far more environmentally comprehensive and ground-breaking. It is not enough for buildings to have a small carbon footprint: they also need to serve wider purposes in the community and play a role in restoring or rejuvenating the environment.

Ecoarchitecture is not just the adoption of basic ‘green’ design principles, says Dr Yeang, but is rather about designing with the climate and with people in mind.

“An ecological approach to building design and construction is not just about eco-engineering, gadgets, carbon neutral design or clean tech and adopting green technologies,” Dr Yeang emphasises. “It is about designing the entire development and buildings within a ‘living system.’

“This is the fundamental basis of our ecological approach,” he says. “It is also about integrating human activities and the built environment with the natural environment of the locality in a seamless and benign way.

“This involves studying the climate and ecology of the land before imposing any human activity or built system upon it,” he says. “It also means that these activities and the built system must be ecologically permissible on this locality and that these activities must be designed to bio-integrate with the locality’s ecology.”

So buildings are not just constructions (however ‘green’ they may be) which are placed on the landscape. Instead, consideration of the existing environment, in conjunction with the purpose of the building, must be carefully considered.


Dr Yeang is also an advocate of incorporating the natural world into all buildings, even into city skyscrapers. He bases much of his work on creating building designs that mimic ecosystems—so called ‘ecomimicry.’

“Studies such as the evidence-based design work of Robert Ulrich have shown that incorporating the natural environment, like plants and non-intrusive animals into buildings, whether city high-rises or low-rises, can improve human well-being. It can also make the built environment cooler, reducing the heat island effect of the city, as well as engendering a healthier microclimate around the planted areas,” he says.

The cost of green buildings

What about the cost of such buildings?

“The cost of making buildings green depends on how green you want the building or development to be,” Dr Yeang reports.
“The totally green building is not possible to be built today due to the prohibitive costs and because many systems and technologies are not yet available.”

“However, if you take a building that is accredited by one of the many existing accreditation systems as an indication of partially heading towards a totally green building, then getting the highest accreditation rating can involve budgeting a premium of about 4 per cent to 8 per cent over industry standard cost for a particular building type.”

That figure seems very reasonable in the overall construction costs and it appears more people are now prepared to find the extra dollars required to make a builder greener.

“In many parts of the developed world, people are more committed to green building design now than in the past,” says Dr Yeang.

As someone who has been at the forefront of greening city skyscrapers for decades, Dr Yeang argues that there is an economic basis for them given the price of urban land and as a cost-effective ways of managing large increases in population.

In his book, Bioclimatic Skyscraper, Dr Yeang says that “the tall building type permits more useable floor-space to go higher, to make more cash from the land, put more goods, more people and more rents in one place…The environmental justification is that the high-rise’s concentration of commercial activities in an urbanised location enables the reduction of energy consumption in transportation.”

But even with the vertical green urbanism that Dr Yeang advocates, are city skyscrapers really places where people will want to live?

“Skyscrapers may or may not be places in which people can be happy to live,” he says. “The psycho-social aspects and benefits of living in high-rises remain to be adequately studied.”

However, given that they do exist, he argues the case that these buildings must be ecologically-based.

Project highlights

Dr Yeang has been involved in numerous prize-winning projects across the globe which reflect his commitment to ecoarchitecture. However, when asked to nominate his proudest achievements, it is like asking a parent which child is the most loved.

“All projects are our favourites,” he says, “and most have aspects that we would like to do again, but better next time.”

However, some of his most famous projects include the Gandendra Art House in Malaysia, the Solaris tower in Singapore, the National Library in Singapore, the Menara Mesiniaga Tower in Malaysia and the extension to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London.

One of his current assignments is the Fu Gong Shan Monastery in Malaysia, which is due for completion next year.

“It has green walls and green roofs, sustainable drainage, rainwater harvesting, urban agriculture and an enzyme pit,” says Dr Yeang. “We are experimenting with novel systems in most of our new projects, such as the natural ventilating down shaft in the Ganendra Art House.”

He expects further advances and would like to see some technologies still in development to become commercially viable, such as solar air-conditioning, photovoltaics that imitate photosynthesis, and recycling systems that imitate naturally occurring ecosystems. The idea of DFD - or Designing for Disassembly - is another idea he expects to come to fruition.

What does Dr Yeang see as the challenges that lie ahead for experts in the field of architecture?

“Dealing with implementing green design and masterplanning,” he says.

Does he have optimism about co-operative approaches in architecture?

“Yes, but the biggest hurdle is the incompatibility of the knowledge base of all parties in any collaboration effort which may slow down or inhibit collaboration,” he says. “There is so much information that I am not sure how the next generation of architects will assimilate it.”

‘Bioclimatic Skyscrapers’ by T.R. Hamzah & Ken Yeang was published by Ellipsis, London in 1994. His other books include ‘Reinventing the Skyscraper’ (2002), ‘Eco Skyscrapers’ (2007), ‘Ecodesign’ (2008) and ‘Eco Masterplanning’ (2009). See also Sara Hart’s book ‘Ecoarchitecture–The Work of Ken Yeang’ published by John Wiley & Sons in 2011.


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