As a label, “green buildings” may be a misnomer. Many people associate sustainable developments with biophilic exteriors, like the vines that enshroud Oasia Hotel Downtown, the dense foliage covering Park Royal Pickering, or sky gardens, such as the three-storey Green Oasis at CapitaSpring.
In reality, green buildings involve more than just incorporating plants. Ironically, the best way to be green is by not building at all.
According to the World Green Building Council, embodied carbon accounts for 11% of global carbon emissions. In Singapore, embodied carbon could constitute up to 40% of emissions due to shorter building lifespans here.
Last month, DBS Group Holdings opened what it describes as Singapore’s first net-zero building by a bank. Located at 135 Bukit Timah Road, the refurbished DBS Newton Green houses over 400 employees from the bank’s consumer banking group.
Taxi drivers frequented the site in the 1980s when it housed the former POSB branch building. It used to offer unique drive-through deposit and withdrawal services, which continued after the current building was completed in 1991. The banking service eventually ceased in 2001.
Before retrofitting works began, the 30-year-old building consumed about 845 MWh each year, equivalent to the annual energy consumption by about 200 four-room HDB homes in Singapore.
With the help of over 1,000 sq m of rooftop solar panels, the refurbished DBS Newton Green is projected to save at least 580 MWh of energy per year, or 70% of the building’s energy consumption before the retrofitting works.
Still, optics matter — and a green building should appear as such. A slatted bamboo facade shades the building while allowing natural ventilation. Sourced from Indonesia, the bamboo can last a decade, says Erwin Chong, group head of corporate real estate at DBS.
The new overhang design houses in its cavities the building’s compressor units, freeing up space for solar panels on the roof. More than half of the building’s perimeter facade is covered with living plants.
DBS says this both lowers the internal building temperature and provides refuge for native butterfly and bird species. The bank selected the plants in collaboration with the Nature Society of Singapore to provide suitable refuge for native butterfly and bird species like the magpie robin, bulbul and flowerpecker.
Return on green investment
Such features may score bragging rights for the organisation’s sustainability officers, but what about the dollars and cents?
According to DBS, it invested over $5 million in retrofitting works for the building, which started in mid-2021.
A portion of the cost was covered by a grant awarded by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) under the national Green Buildings Innovation Cluster (GBIC) Programme.
DBS says it expects to recover the retrofitting costs within four years. Energy efficiency — and not new developments — is Singapore’s main focus.
The Singapore Green Building Masterplan set out last year an “80-80-80 in 2030” target for the built environment. By 2030, Singapore aims to green 80% of buildings by gross floor area, certify 80% of new developments as Super Low Energy (SLE) and achieve 80% improvement in energy efficiency compared to 2005 levels in Singapore’s “best-in-class” buildings.
As of end-2021, Singapore has greened more than 49% of buildings here. This is past the halfway mark of the first target.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s “best-in-class” buildings are able to achieve more than 65% improvement in energy efficiency over 2005 levels.
The built environment is feeling the pressure to go green, but so are their balance sheets, says Gerald Hane, senior executive and general manager of corporate strategy at Hitachi Asia, which offers a range of power-generating and IT systems. “The increased push towards the green agenda puts pressure on local organisations to invest in longer-term sustainable solutions that are likely to cost more than the initial rewards. This outlines one of the greatest barriers organisations must overcome: return on investment.”
When embarking on their sustainability journey, however, organisations also realise they must invest in digitisation, adds Hane. “Only then will they be able to measure the impact of these initiatives effectively and how they align with their business outcomes.”
Hane calls for more incentives in this regard. “Organisations struggle to quantify the impact of these sustainable initiatives, making it difficult to justify the time and money invested.”
BCA announced in March an additional $45 million for the enhanced GBIC 2.0 programme. According to the regulator, GBIC 2.0 will support alternative cooling technologies, data-driven smart building solutions and next-generation building ventilation systems. Industry and research communities can apply for the GBIC 2.0 from the second quarter.
Cooling solutions offer the best potential for greening here, says Hitachi’s Hane. “The International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that electricity demand for cooling in buildings could increase by up to 40% globally by 2030, if major efficiency improvements to cooling equipment aren’t made.”
Have we been building wrong for the past 50 years? As building owners looked to create comfortable environments for their tenants, they had to purchase, install and run cooling systems — all by themselves, says David Mackerness, director at Kaer, which provides so-called “coolingas-a-service” (CaaS) systems.
“This was a complicated process that involved various consultants, contractors and operators and came at significant upfront costs and ongoing maintenance and operational costs,” he adds.
Mackerness likens Kaer’s CaaS to the services of Netflix and Spotify. “Kaer assumes all financial and operational responsibilities, while the building owner buys cooling [systems] at a fixed rate on a pay-as-you-use basis. Through CaaS, building owners can outsource a non-core yet mission-critical activity and simply dictate the temperature conditions they want to achieve.”
Mackerness says Kaer’s clients have at least halved their carbon emissions through CaaS.
Some, like the Singapore campus of the Insead Business School, even run on 100% renewable energy. “In 2013, Insead was evaluating opportunities to improve the campus’ sustainability benchmarks; its traditional air-conditioning system proved to be a major hurdle,” says Mackerness. “Kaer installed a new cooling system and Insead was able to cut the energy consumed by the cooling system by 70%.”
Insead moved to 100% renewable energy in 2021 by relying on rooftop solar panels and green energy supplied by a “mainstream utility provider”, says Mackerness. “Today, it has been given the Green Mark Platinum award from Singapore’s BCA, the top award for green buildings by the industry regulator.”
Another of Kaer’s clients is airport ground handler dnata. Under a 15-year tenure, Kaer is retrofitting the chiller plant and air-side equipment in two buildings here: dnata Catering and dnata Cargo.
The project features a pilot study on refrigerants with low global warming potential (GWP), says Mackerness. “GWP rating is a measure of how harmful a climate pollutant is. The old refrigerants have a rating as high as 1400, whereas we are using a refrigerant that has a rating of 6, drastically cutting down the environmental impact of the buildings’ cooling systems.”
On retail property, Kaer has partnered major mall and office developer Lendlease since 2013 to improve its properties in Singapore and Malaysia.
Among Lendlease’s properties is PLQ, a mixed-use development consisting of three office towers and a retail mall totalling some 1.34 million sq ft. According to Mackerness, the CaaS model has reduced PLQ’s energy consumption by 30%.
Other Kaer clients include utilities conglomerate Sembcorp Industries and insurer Great Eastern.
Connecting to the grid
Highly urbanised Singapore has already put in place one of the most comprehensive policy packages for buildings in the region. One expert points to “many ongoing projects” in collecting and analysing energy performance data for buildings, which is “crucial for any policy and project development”.
Now, Brian Motherway, head of the IEA’s energy efficiency division, challenges Singapore to think bigger. He calls for an update to Asean’s electrical grid — legacy infrastructure that “has not changed for over a century”.
In its place, a “smart grid” will monitor and manage electricity from various generation sources to meet the varying demands, says Motherway. “Smart grids coordinate the needs and capabilities of all generators, grid operators, end-users and electricity market stakeholders to operate all parts of the system as efficiently as possible, minimising costs and environmental impact.”
That said, Motherway acknowledges that “building-to-grid-interactivity” is still new to the region. “In order to increase investments, we need to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and demand flexibility.”
He adds: “We already know the benefits of energy efficiency in buildings very well. Besides saving energy and reducing emissions, it improves people’s lives, health, well-being and productivity; it creates jobs, improves energy security and increases disposable income.”
Investors must realise these benefits and governments must enact favourable policies for this to happen, he says. “This should include clear targets and commitments set by the government, as well as regulatory mechanisms that can set minimum requirements for energy efficiency. Incentives can encourage further investments for projects going beyond minimum requirements and innovation.”
Photos: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore, Hitachi Asia, Kaer, IEA