Like most jet-setting professionals, the Covid-19 outbreak has put a damper on architect Jason Pomeroy’s travel schedule. The UK-born, Singapore-based architect is usually flying three times a week to Europe, the Middle East or around Asia, for work or lectures. He is used to working remotely, but says that not getting on a plane, and realising that much more can be done remotely has been life-altering.
On the other hand, being grounded helps cut the carbon footprint of the architect who has made sustainable design the focus of his work. As the founder of Pomeroy Academy, he creates courses to grow awareness of climate change and how the industry needs to respond to it. With a PhD from the University of Westminster, he is also the author of several books, including Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation and host of TV series Smart Cities 2.0.
What are your thoughts on the novel coronavirus and the impact it’s having on the environment?
It is almost as if Mother Nature has been compelling us to think carefully about our carbon-intensive actions, and when we didn’t give her the attention she deserves, she took the matter into her own hands. I teach in Venice once a year and am usually greeted by not just the magical architecture but also the stench of the polluted waterways. But for the first time in years, the smell has lifted and we are seeing swans taking to the water. I fear the post-Covid-19 backlash; as industry and the markets seek to regain lost ground during the economic crisis, our world will once again become polluted. I am hoping that this temporary ‘reset’ will have taught us to avoid repeating our mistakes and take a more measured approach moving forward.
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How might architectural practices change after this pandemic?
Architecture is a socially-driven discipline, creating spaces which can enhance people’s lives through co-presence and interaction. Time-tested rituals, traditions, ceremonies and events are all social constructs that we love to reference as we shape the spaces and buildings to allow such social and cultural practices to take place. If we are now to deny ourselves of those opportunities for social interaction, then places of culture and sharing will just become spaces devoid of activity and interaction. This fills me with fear and dread in equal measure, and will require us to conceive new models of how we meet and engage with each other in public, which will transform the way in which we shape our cities and buildings. I have no doubt that this step in our evolution will need to find its way into urbanism, architecture and landscape curricula.
Why do you focus on sustainable design in your practice?
We are living in an increasingly high-density world where our cities are responsible for over 50 per cent of our carbon emissions and we are seeing the cataclysmic effects of climate change in our daily lives, with record breaking droughts, floods and bushfires. The quest to find a balance between nature and the built environment may be due to where I have lived. I grew up in London, a great city that has wonderful garden courts interspersed within the urban habitat for wellbeing. I always wondered how high density cities could similarly have skycourts and sky gardens for the benefit of man and nature. This led to my research at Cambridge, and eventually informed the Studio’s sustainable design ethos.
What are some misconceptions about sustainable design?
People often misconceive sustainable design as costly design, as they often suffer at the hands of those who simply add costly green technologies to provide a ‘greenwash’ over conventional building designs. Which is why we take pride in being able to prove through our evidence-based sustainable design approach that a green building is actually a cost-efficient building. By applying building physics, we can shape our designs to enhance air and light to help reduce initial capital costs and onward operational costs; use locally sourced materials to reduce economically and environmentally costly shipping of products, and ensure the design meets institutional standards to safeguard asset class value.
We’ve designed carbon negative homes which generate more energy than the occupants can consume, at the same cost as average houses in Singapore, and are now designing affordable carbon zero homes in the Philippines where, thanks to solar roofs, the occupants will never have an energy bill for the rest of their lives.
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How is Singapore doing when it comes to sustainable design? How can we improve?
Singapore is ranked the most sustainable city in Asia, and in fourth place globally. The Singapore Government is committed to achieving a balanced ‘triple bottom line’ when it comes to sustainability – that is, working towards a vision of Singapore which is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable.
While this framework is crucial, I believe that three other considerations need to inform our sustainable thinking for the future. First, culture, “who we are” and “where we came from”, in terms of fostering a tolerant, inclusive society which reflects us all. Secondly, we need to think about space – the physical area we allow for human interaction, which affects our social, cultural and mental wellbeing, particularly in these times of social distancing. Lastly, technology as a means of enhancing our daily lifestyle from offices, to homes, leisure spaces and beyond.
These considerations frame the sustainable mindset that is needed to shape any truly sustainable society.
A few years ago, you designed Singapore’s first carbon neutral home. What’s special about it?
The B House, so named after its owner, generates more renewable energy through solar power than a typical family of five consumes annually, essentially turning it into a mini green power station. We did this by ‘borrowing’ the environmental techniques of the past, and in particular reinterpreted the essence of the black and white bungalow. Such an ethos is not constrained to Singapore. We are doing the very same as affordable, zero carbon housing in the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan and, most recently, Sweden through our ‘Candy Factory’ project. As governments continually refine their carbon emissions targets we will be seeing more carbon zero developments by necessity to combat our carbon woes. This will not change our focus – we have been designing with this zero carbon mindset for years and are ahead of the curve; especially as we think it is the responsible thing to do.
Why did you set up Pomeroy Academy to teach sustainable design?
I have always been passionate about learning more, and then sharing knowledge. I believe some of the best ideas have already been created in some shape or form, and require us to distil the learned lessons from the past in order to design for the present, and disseminate our knowledge and findings to future generations. I call these the 3Ds:Distil, Design and Disseminate. By virtue of this, I wanted to expand upon our research base, which focuses on zero carbon development, vertical urban theory, modular construction, culture sustainability/conservation and the role of smart cities. This expansion saw us create modules, courses and lectures and form relationships with leading academic institutions such as Cambridge, Nottingham, King Saud and James Cook Universities. Today, we teach at these institutions to heighten awareness of the green agenda and provide students and professionals the necessary skills to make a difference in their respective fields.
(Related: The art of sustainable design)
This article was originally published in The Business Times.