Green momentum grows in Asia, propelled by disruptors and innovators

With sustainability in sharper focus than ever before, visionary entrepreneurs around Asia are helping to steer the real estate industry on a mindful track

Calls to curb resource usage and environmental impacts will continue to rise. MarleenS/Shutterstock

As the business community looks towards the post-pandemic era, the search for “greener” alternatives and ideas has risen to the top of the agenda for many companies.

There is increasing public focus on the climate crisis and its impacts, new policies are affecting building energy performance, and investors are demanding a greater green cache. As a result, the real estate industry at large is finally—albeit gradually—heeding the strong business case for incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into their operations.

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines environmental sustainability as “a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.” And the building and construction industries must be part of this “process of change.”

Calls to curb resource usage and environmental impacts will continue to rise, especially as Gen Z hits adulthood. Indeed, most consumers now demand and expect sustainability-orientated products in most aspects of their lives, with 81% around the world believing it is extremely or very important for companies to have environmental improvement as an objective, according to a recent survey by global marketing research firm Nielsen.

In Asia, a growing number of disruptors and innovators are revolutionising how construction companies, facilities management firms, and the public sector, as well as designers and developers, operate and adapt to the crisis. Here are four of the most forward-thinking individuals and companies from the region who are trailblazing ambitious—yet viable—routes to a greener future.

Enter the dragon

Patrick Keane, the founder of Enter Projects, promotes the use of eco-friendly and locally sourced natural materials in his commissions

What’s the story?

Patrick Keane lived on five continents before relocating to Thailand in 2016. But the inspiration behind Enter Projects’ envelope-pushing ventures is firmly rooted in the culture, craftsmanship, and natural materials of Southeast Asia. Born in East Africa, raised in Australia and the UK, and schooled at Princeton University, the one-time game designer specialises in using technologically aided 3D design to create interiors and exteriors that are eco-friendly, innovative, and, above all, responsive to the local climate.

Eschewing non-renewable materials in favour of sustainable alternatives—most notably rattan—Keane and his Phuket-based team have racked up the accolades over the last year, including the Dezeen award for health and leisure and Interior Design New York’s “best of 2020” global award in sustainable wellness design. Now the firm plans to build on this global success and continue developing bleeding-edge design concepts that not only ensure a point of difference but employ the latest building methodologies to deliver cost-effective solutions across the region.

Why it matters

Recent awards recognised Vikasa, a nature-inspired yoga studio in the heart of Bangkok showcasing the flexibility and beauty of locally sourced bamboo. But Spice and Barley—Enter Projects’ latest project—is arguably more representative of its current trajectory. Conceived and designed for one of Thailand’s largest hospitality groups, Spice and Barley is a testament to the firm’s ambition, the quality of local artisans, and the synergy between high-spec tech and traditional construction materials. At the core of the four-storey eatery, which is located on the banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, cascades a seemingly free-form installation constructed of rattan. The 3D-modelled sculptures weave through the 300-square-metre space and flood the ceiling to create fluid geometric shapes in a playful nod to the pouring of the bar’s signature Belgian beers.

If an architect is not dealing with the environmental situation and the fragility of the planet, then they are redundant. As far as I’m concerned, they are committing criminal activity

These innovative and practical techniques—the structures also subtly hide the beer and air conditioning pipes—featuring the climbing palm, native to the tropics, form part of a wider initiative called Project Rattan. The community-orientated project was launched to promote traditional Thai arts and crafts and support the severely threatened industry. According to Keane, the collaborations to date have saved three factories from closure and kept thousands employed, while also demonstrating how versatile and available rattan is as an alternative to synthetic materials.

Enter Projects eschews the use of non-renewable materials in favour of sustainable alternatives in its work

In his own words

“While everyone is paying lip service to sustainability, it needs to happen at a grassroots level. The construction industry is so far behind and, worse still, they are well aware of this fact. There’s simply no excuse for using plastic or creating waste anymore—not just wastage on a building site but in structures themselves. The most important driver for us is to stay on the pulse and respond to global concerns. If an architect is not dealing with the environmental situation and the fragility of the planet, then they are redundant. As far as I’m concerned, they are committing criminal activity.”

Child of nature

New Zealand-born Deb Noller’s idyllic upbringing has informed her vision for Switch Automation, a real estate software company that helps enterprises optimize energy usage

What’s the story?

Deb Noller was fortunate enough to grow up amidst New Zealand’s world-renowned natural landscapes—and it is a connection she has kept ever since.

Although her background is in computer science, Noller spent time in the 1980s studying national park management and later combined that passion for the environment with her IT expertise to launch Switch Automation in 2014.

Conceived with the vision of decarbonising the world’s buildings, which generate almost 40 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, the real estate software company quickly established itself as an industry leader, helping large enterprises apply technology for more energy-efficient business operations.

The business has grown since its inception from a nine-member team based out of Denver to a global staff of 60 located in offices in the US, Australia, and most recently Singapore. Noller is also now based in the Lion City and is currently plotting Switch’s Asia expansion, which to date includes collaborations with Gaw Capital on DUO Tower and 77 Robinson Road, both in Singapore, and Dong Woo Union in South Korea.

Why it matters

It has long been established that buildings are responsible for over one-third of all resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. With real estate being the biggest asset class, sustainable investing in property seems like an obvious thing to do. As is often the case, however, the real challenge lies in the execution. So, how does Switch tangibly work with clients in an industry responsible for so much biosphere degradation?

A lot of buildings ran as if they were fully occupied during the lockdown period. Without the proper technology, it’s not possible to make the necessary changes to save energy while unoccupied

According to Noller, the engineering team tailors a plan to integrate a building’s existing devices and equipment with the Switch Platform to measure, analyse and action data, identifying energy-reduction opportunities. By investing in technology, these building owners and operators eventually increase their revenue models, provide better occupant experiences and operate more efficiently, all while saving resources.

One of the latest additions to the firm’s leading-edge portfolio of solutions is Switch Dx³, an intuitive programme that continuously scans for devices on a building network, highlighting potential network vulnerabilities and integration opportunities. It is also developing an integration with RESET®, a set of standards, assessment tools and services to develop actionable, long-term strategies towards health and sustainability for the built environment.

Switch Automation was conceived with the vision of decarbonising the world’s buildings, which generate almost 40 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions

In her own words

“Covid-19 is going to greatly accelerate the adoption of technology. A lot of buildings ran as if they were fully occupied during the lockdown period because it was easier to do than making adjustments. It didn’t cost landlords anything because tenants pay for the electricity—there’s a level of complacency there. The lockdowns also highlighted that if you’re unable to access your building, you have no visibility into what’s going on. There was a sense of helplessness without the proper technology in place to see what was happening and make the necessary changes to save energy while unoccupied.”

Urban warrior

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, the founder of Landprocess and Porous City Network, is helping inject vital green life into Bangkok’s concrete jungle

What’s the story?

One of Thailand’s foremost sustainability crusaders and a global voice on urban resilience, Kotchakorn Voraakhom is behind some of the most vital public green space projects incorporated into Bangkok’s concrete jungle in recent years. In 2011, the Harvard-educated landscape designer founded Landprocess and later pioneered Porous City Network, a social enterprise working to solve urban environmental problems across Southeast Asia by aiding, engaging and educating climate-vulnerable communities about productive landscape design.

Kotchakorn also works as a design consultant for Bangkok 250, a major redevelopment project celebrating the city’s 250th anniversary. Arguably Kotchakorn’s biggest achievement to date is the award-winning Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park. The visionary project in the heart of the Thai capital is an example of how public green space can rise from the asphalt to provide radical environmental solutions. Described as Bangkok’s “first critical piece of green infrastructure”, the 11-acre recreational oasis features state-of-the-art water management systems integrated within the cascading landscape, which retains and redirects up to one million gallons of floodwater that would otherwise flow into city streets.

More: Pioneering leaders of today envision a greener world, appeal to help confront the climate crisis

Why it matters

Many of the world’s major coastal cities could be all but wiped out within three decades, according to a 2019 report by Climate Central. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meanwhile, recently warned that accelerated melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will lead to sea levels rising twice as fast as in the 20th century. This is grave news for Southeast Asia’s major metropolises, many of which are located in delta regions, and makes Kotchakorn’s ventures all the more pressing.

We have seen the impact lockdowns have had on mental health. In the long term, the architecture and planning of cities needs to change to focus on walkability and accessibility — and most importantly greening

The work that Kotchakorn and her team at Landprocess are doing is also helping to improve the carbon neutrality of cities by confronting climate futures. In 2020, global architecture platform Architizer presented the firm the A+Awards Special Honoree Award for its Thammasat University Urban Rooftop Farm project. Prioritising food security, health, and the environment, the team utilised neglected spaces to efficiently and sustainably produce food on 236,806 square feet of repurposed space, resulting in Asia’s largest organic rooftop farm. Rainwater is collected and gradually released across the park’s terraced steps, which, in turn, sustains plants grown as food for the campus canteens. Solar panels, meanwhile, generate the clean energy used to power the pump that irrigates the farm. It’s an ingenious circular economy solution.

The award-winning Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park is an example of how public green space can provide radical environmental solutions

In her own words

“We have seen the impact lockdowns have had on mental health. It proves that parks and green public space are not a luxury; they are a necessity for public wellbeing. Green space has to be part of the urban infrastructure. And yet we cannot change cities in a year or two, so we have to work with existing infrastructure, which has been going in the wrong direction, in the short term. In the long term, the architecture and planning of cities need to change to focus on walkability and accessibility—and most importantly greening. But this can only happen if we completely shift our perception of what a city should be.”

Putting down roots

Troy Carter, the co-founder of Rizome, believes that bamboo has the potential to surpass wood, steel and concrete in structural building applications

What’s the story?

If planting one of the largest carbon sequestration projects on the planet and building the world’s first climate-positive cities sounds ambitious, that’s because they are. What is more surprising—although the company name is a clue—is the material behind this audacious goal: bamboo. After years of research and development, Troy Carter and the other co-founders at Rizome believe the perennial grass, which has been used in constructions throughout the tropics for centuries, is set to surpass wood, steel and concrete in structural building applications.

A Stanford University graduate with a degree in economics, Carter was an early employee at Airbnb and E la Carte before moving on to launch, scale and sell a craft cider business. He’s now applying his startup savvy on addressing the planet’s ecological and climate crisis to plant 10 million clumps of bamboo by 2025 and sequester 10 gigatons of CO2 by 2050.

Why it matters

Cement and steel account for about 7% and 8%, respectively, of global emissions annually, while wood harvests lead to 18.7 million acres of deforestation across the planet every year. Moreover, carbon offset reforestation projects to date have proven to be notoriously difficult to get verified, track, and demonstrate meaningful sequestration. Bamboo, on the other hand, uses only 8% of the land occupied by wood harvests, and its root structure—rhizome—restores watersheds and prevents erosion.

As the shift towards bamboo occurs, every new building will support a climate-positive CO2 drawdown, and create regenerative local bamboo economies in regions that need it the most

Rizome’s harvests and manufacturing, according to Carter, have now reached a level of efficiency that allows them to develop bamboo at the same price as wood. This has been achieved through a vast network of small farmers and indigenous groups throughout Southeast Asia. The bamboo is split lengthwise into long slats and treated with high-pressure borate to ensure longevity and fire resistance before it is bonded into plywood or thick timbers. The firm now intends to scale and provide a consistent supply chain to the largest engineered lumber manufacturers and building developers globally.

More: Pandemic prompts Asian cities to face reality and push for a low-carbon, resilient future

Rizome addresses each aspect of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) throughout the supply chain. For instance, reforestation and employment initiatives in the Philippines, particularly Mindanao, are backed by indigenous groups and farmers—many of whom have suffered the consequences of deforestation through legal and illegal logging across several decades. Indeed, the company plans on being one of the first Sustainable Development Verified Impact Standard projects under the UN’.

Troy Carter believes that bamboo is set to surpass wood, steel and concrete in structural building applications

In his own words

“Engineered bamboo lumber is the material technology that will launch a regenerative urban revolution. We believe that one of the largest disruptions in construction materials in the coming decades will be the widespread adoption of structural bamboo. As this shift occurs, every new building will support a climate-positive CO2 drawdown, and create regenerative local bamboo economies in regions that need them the most.”

The original version of this article appeared in Issue No. 166 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine. Write to our editors at [email protected].