Atelier Ten chief outlines his sustainability vision

With pioneering works around the region, the design consultancy is at the forefront of sustainable building in Asia. Henry Woon, the Singapore director of the firm, talks about what has gone before and what lies ahead

Henry Woon’s work with Atelier Ten has taken him all around Asia. Meixi Lake Exhibition Centre in Changsha, for instance, is a showpiece sustainable building in China

If you’ve not heard of Henry Woon, or the company he helms, you have most definitely visited one of the buildings he helped create. After studying in Hong Kong and London, Woon worked as an engineer in London for 12 years, including a three-year stint at WSP Buildings, where his work with Foster+Partners on Masdar City­—an ultramodern desert development in Abu Dhabi—served as “a real eye-opener.”

The last eight years have seen Woon collaborate with some of the world’s most noted architects for Atelier Ten, which not only brought extraordinary architecture to cityscapes around the world but has placed innovative environmental and sustainable credentials at the heart of its practice.

Garnering enormous acclaim for the firm has been Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay (2012), which Woon declares is Atelier Ten’s “signature project” and “benchmark” for its future work.

Henry Woon

Much of Woon’s own work has taken him further from Southeast Asia. His engineering expertise led to the rise of such projects as Meixi Lake Exhibition Centre in Changsha, south-central China—an “exemplary sustainable building in the region to showcase sustainable building technologies,” he says—and Bee’ah Headquarters, an ultra-low-carbon construction in the Arabic city of Sharjah that features the inimitable architectural flair of the late Zaha Hadid.

Woon’s most recent posting, the Jewel at Singapore’s Changi airport, has the potential to become the most renowned Atelier Ten project to date. Fervently anticipated since news of its construction started circulating six years ago, the Jewel finally opened on 17 April. The steel-and-glass masterwork—dreamed up by an eclectic design team under Marina Bay Sands maestro Moshe Safdie—contains, among many attractions, a 130-room hotel and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the Rain Vortex.

In the final days before the Jewel opened to the general public, Woon addressed some of the key ideas behind Atelier Ten’s globe-straddling projects, spoke of his own modus operandi and his thoughts on Singapore’s broader contribution as a model sustainable city.

How has your previous work prepared you for your current role at Atelier Ten?

My engineering training in the U.K. was quite diverse. My first job was with a building services company focused on healthcare development. These projects are very MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] services-led, so getting involved in those projects gave me very solid engineering-based knowledge. My second job was with an international firm, WSP, where you have to be strategic and a strong communicator to influence a project in a positive way. Joining Atelier Ten allowed me to combine both skill sets to offer our clients and projects a comprehensive capability, making sure design strategies can be engineered, and ideas are communicated effectively to both the team and the client to enable optimised decision-making.

More: A leading Singapore architect shares his designs for life

Meixi Lake Exhibition Centre deployed innovative techniques to address ventilation, lighting, cooling, and energy within the building. Did you have a particular template in mind?

We don’t follow a template because every building is different in terms of climate, functionality, and architecture. However, we do have a consistent thinking process when we set strategies for our projects. We always try to make the building “do more with less”—by incorporating passive design strategies such as insulation, orientation and shading, the system can do less, and occupants are naturally more comfortable to be inside the buildings. Renewable technologies are actually the last thing that we will apply to a project, after we exhaust all other improvement solutions to cut down the demand. 

We don’t follow a template because every building is different in terms of climate, functionality, and architecture. However, we do have a consistent thinking process. We always try to make the building “do more with less”

Which buildings, engineers or designers have been your chief inspirations?

At Atelier Ten, I have worked with a number of remarkable architects—for example, Moshe Safdie, Thomas Heatherwick and Zaha Hadid—whose architectural statements are all inspiring. The sense of space, scale, and line of structure are spectacular. I also appreciate it when a building can provide space that’s very useable and comfortable, providing a good balance of light and shade, efficiency and sustainability. We are also proud of low-key projects that offer amazing space for people to spend time in.

The Jewel at Singapore’s Changi Airport, with its blend of eye-catching green features including the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, is another showcase development Atelier Ten has had a hand in

How would you describe your experience working on the Jewel? 

Jewel Changi is an extremely challenging project. The architecture of Jewel is fundamentally very different [to Gardens by the Bay], and the building design focuses more on people rather than plants. In a way, plant survivability within the glass dome is considered a baseline. The experience we want to bring to guests is very diverse, and every corner of the Jewel can surprise and give [visitors] a pleasant experience. You can shop, dine, drink, sleep, play, or just relax and admire the architecture and gardens. Combining the design criteria is very challenging, and every aspect needs to be fully optimised to achieve the performance the client is expecting. 

You’ve described Gardens by the Bay as the first significant sustainable project in Singapore. To what extent would you say that this landmark has influenced sustainable building in the city in the years since?

There have been a lot of discussions in the industry about how truly sustainable Gardens by the Bay is, comparing to other sustainable projects in Singapore. From my point of view, they all have their merits and characteristics. I think Gardens by the Bay’s most significant achievement is the eco-cycle it creates—especially how it utilises [previously untapped] resources and generates valuable energy.

What Gardens by the Bay also achieves is showcasing Singapore’s sustainable low-carbon development to millions of international visitors every year, and through accolades it has won around the world. I think it is a good case study of what a sustainable development can achieve and the value it brings to a development. While Singapore has very limited land, this encourages [the city] to develop more high-quality, high-performance projects that are less reliant on imported resources.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

How does sustainable design in Singapore differ from that of other countries around it? To what extent does a centralised government role help the city achieve its success?

The government plays a significant role in the development industry. A lot of the major developments in Singapore are funded by government agencies; the government is thus both policymaker and client, and sustainability policy implementation is very efficient. The Building & Construction Authority is the main agency that sets up environmental and sustainability standards, and also drives their implementation. BCA’s strategies in promoting sustainability design are multifaceted. They include policy- and regulation-making, initiatives to improve baseline performances, publicising Green Mark best practices, and provision of incentives to encourage developers to embrace sustainability measures.

More: Green-up time for Asia’s polluted cities

Do you think we are already seeing the benefits of the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint?

Singapore signed the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015 and subsequently the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint was set up. It covers a wide range of areas, including sustainable resources, environmental quality, and community sustainability. The “car-lite” campaign, transportation infrastructure upgrade, waste recycling (particularly food waste) and drainage treatment are some of the new key measures for enhancing sustainability. I think we have seen a lot of government policy and infrastructure investment being implemented already. Personally, I would like to see more education and community efforts to encourage the public to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.

Which new buildings in Singapore are successful both in incorporating environmental design and benefiting the wider community?

Very soon, sustainable buildings will become a baseline requirement, and building itself will need to contribute a greater value and benefit the wider community. The industry is definitely paying a lot more attention to it. The Building of the Year award at the 2018 World Architecture Festival went to Kampung Admiralty, designed by [local practice] WOHA. It is a prime example of how to integrate an extensive community element seamlessly into the development and create a functional, enjoyable space for the community to use.

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 154 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine