It’s a jungle up there

The Daily Telegraph, July 2008, Features

The Malaysian-born, UK-based architect Ken Yeang is famous for two things: building skyscrapers and pushing the boundaries of green design. It’s an odd idea, perhaps – a passionate ecologist specialising in skyscrapers, apparently the most ungreen of all buildings. But for Yeang, finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems is what excites him.

‘We shouldn’t build skyscrapers unless we have to,’ he asserts. ‘But those we do build are going to be with us for some while, and we must make them as green as we can.’ Environmental architecture is only now beginning to being embraced by the mainstream, but Yeang is streets ahead of his contemporaries in this respect. With the rest of the profession just waking up to add-ons such as wind turbines and rainwater-harvesting, he is setting out to build the world’s first truly green building.

Set within a masterplan by the architect Zaha Hadid, Fusionopolis will be Singapore’s most eco-friendly building. Like Britain, Singapore has set rigorous standards for the environmental performance of new buildings, and Fusionopolis aims to achieve top marks in this area.

What truly sets Fusionopolis apart from other eco buildings is what Yeang calls its ‘green infrastructure’ – a vertical spine of planting that rises up through the 15-storey building. At 1.4km high, it designed essentially as a ‘normal home’ with ‘generational interaction’ between all family members.

Allowance for future extensions and the alterations in the role of individual spaces are designed in. Landscaped garden terraces are located on each floor of the tower. Project designed by T.R. Hamzah Yeang Sdn.Bhd., sister company to Llewelyn Davies Yeang will be the longest continuous vertical stretch of vegetation in any building anywhere in the world. Fusionopolis will become a showcase for Yeang’s ecological ideas.

Yeang believes a building should function as an ecosystem. ‘What we should be trying to do is make a building into a living system,’ he says. ‘Balancing the organic with the inorganic in a building is crucial.’

He is convinced that this is the next stage in the development of green design. The practical advantages of planting in a large building range from passive cooling – whereby plants naturally add moisture to the air, which helps to cool it – to insulation. But there are psychological benefits as well. Greenery improves people’s sense of wellbeing; research has shown that patients who can see trees through their hospital window recover faster than those who can’t. But making a truly ‘green’ building presents multiple challenges, from drainage and irrigation to picking the right species of trees and giving them sufficient daylight.

At Fusionopolis he has achieved the latter with the aid of some fancy wizardry: a diagonal light pipe that uses prisms to deflect the passage of daylight as it hits the building, then directs it into the heart of the building’s interior.

An even greater challenge is to create a truly green city. Today, almost every major masterplan lays claim to being an eco city, although much of this is hype and ‘greenwash’ (as in eco flannel). But Yeang’s masterplan at Rajarajeshwari Nagar in Bangalore, India, is the real deal. A continuous corridor of planting will weave through the 87-acre site across bridges and through tunnels. It works on the same principle as Fusionopolis, except the planting will be horizontal rather than vertical.

For Yeang, these two projects are the culmination of a long-held passion for green architecture – he was in fact one of the first wave of green architects who emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s. He has been researching green building since his student days at Cambridge University where, in 1971, he took part in a project to create an autonomous, self-sufficient house.

In the years that followed he returned to Malaysia where he set up his practice, winning a clutch of commissions to design skyscrapers. Ever since, he has been carving out a niche for himself as the authority on cutting-edge, green high-rise buildings. In 2005 he became a director of the UK practice Llewelyn Davies Yeang.

A lot has changed since Yeang’s career began in the 1970s. Back then he had to design his own building components; today so much environmental gadgetry can be bought off the peg.

What hasn’t changed, however, is Yeang’s drive and commitment. He believes there are many more things in the world to be invented. His present preoccupations include a new type of photovoltaic cell – these convert sunlight into energy – which could imitate photosynthesis, although until this becomes financially viable it will take some time before it can be commercially produced.

He is also looking into inventing a harness that attaches to the knee and which, as the wearer moves, could produce enough electricity to power a mobile phone. What excites him is how he might apply that technology to the functioning of a building. What if, simply by being active around the house, you could power your own central heating?

Some may question whether a real environmentalist should ever build a skyscraper, but he’s unrepentant about this. He very much supports the case for skyscrapers, arguing that these are better than the alternative, namely cities – in countries such as China and Singapore – that expand by growing ever outwards. Their urban sprawl, he says, gobbles up valuable land better served for food production.

But then Yeang is always one step ahead. The next big development, he foresees, is to make food production integral to the design of a building. Does this sound far-fetched? If anyone can make it happen, he can.