Why Have Our Young Architects Stop Believing in Sustainability?

It is 9am on a Monday morning.

Michelle, an architect three years in practice, pours over a long list of qualifying criteria next to her morning coffee, contained in a white paper cup branded with a simple green logo. Out of the twenty rows of boxes, she puts numbers in almost all of them. Punching the numbers quickly into the black calculator returns with the result 80. The Platinum Award requires at least 90 points. She could either take the realistic route of convincing her client the cost-effectiveness to go for a lower-tier award, or try to devise some way to conjure those additional points. Resting her elbow on her desk, she stares intently at the score sheet. It will be a long week ahead.

When I was tasked to write this article for the Sustainability Issue, the technologically-dependent millennial in me naturally gravitated towards crowd-sourcing for ideas. What I discover was an uncanny similarity in outlook towards the theme of sustainability amongst my peers where the comments were mostly, let’s just say, not too polite for publication.

Where did all this disillusion and angst come from?

Every young architect I spoke to had a different story to tell, but by weaving their individual encounters together into a broader narrative, I began to see why our young architects have stop believing in sustainability. The first story begins with Michelle and her coffee.

Green is the new Black

These days, everyone and everything, taps the zeitgeist of the green phenomenon with enthusiasm. Developers and Hollywood celebrities build green skyscrapers and eco-houses by the dozens; grocery stores lined their shelves with plethora of green products branded with images of trees and children from third-world countries with looking gratefully back at you. We embrace these products, even if they often cost more. There is even a handful of nightclubs, like the kitschy-titled Greenhouse, that promises you’ll be grooving on their eco-friendly dance-floor[i]. Sustainability, in the surge of eco-consumerism, has turned fashionable.

The Google Ngram, which shows the popularity of phases in the English print over any period of time, for the phase “green products”, looks like this.

Image 1 - Google Ngram

Source: Google Ngram Viewer

Green with Envy

The BCA Green Mark Scheme begin in 2005 to promote environmental awareness in the building industry. It accredits building projects by their Green Mark scores into one of the four categories, Certified, Gold, GoldPlus and Platinum. 75 points earns a Green Mark Certification, 85 points earns a Gold Certification and so forth. Singaporeans, indoctrinated since young by the city-state’s competitive education scoring system, are well acquainted with using this point-based approach to access performance. We took to it like fish to water, making Green Mark synonymous with sustainability here.

Like fashion, it favors the glitzy and the glamorous. ’Green’ has become an effective form of premium branding that the construction industry readily embraced. Developers vie zealously for Green Marks to differentiate their projects while unabashedly declaring their commitment towards environmental protection. Each green building, embellished with increasingly sophisticated fuel-savers and water-harvesters, is built fancier than the one before. CapitaGreen, an office building set for completion in 2013, aims to be “the greenest office property” and “the jewel choice” of Grade A offices in the Central Business District[ii]. Like Michelle’s certified organic fair-trade coffee, its choice of cup material, its design simplicity, even its meticulously selected shade of green, are all part of a well-thought out branding strategy to portray the traits of an eco-friendly product and corporate responsibility towards environmental issues.

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 10.10.28 pm

Source: USF, Inc.

The problem for Michelle, and other young architects like her, lies in her education. Young architects, horned in ideology from five years of architectural school, find themselves in a world surrounded by people trained in spreadsheets. We don’t know how to and often disdain, having to sell something that is so painfully obvious to us. Environmentally responsive architecture is good architecture! In short, our perception of sustainability has been cheapened and marred by economics.

The solution for the education sector is to cash in on green. Two out of three[iii] graduate coursework programme in the School of Design and Environment (NUS) specialise in sustainable building design. The BCA academy offers another seven programmes for practitioners and four to certify Green Mark Managers, Professionals and Facilities Managers. More than 800 participants have signed up while BCA plans to train another 18,000 green specialists.[iv] Nearly $170 million has already been invested in Green Mark and research funds for green technologies[v]. By 2030, at least 80% of all buildings in Singapore will receive Green Mark certification.[vi] Sustainability has certainly become a big business.

The certification, in ascending categories, implies increasing commitment towards the green performance of a building by default. Yet, as Green Mark requirements are mostly technologically driven, it is common knowledge that the certification’s true determinant is the amount of money the client is willing to lavish on the project. The commodification of green has sustainability priced into the return of investment. Paradoxically, convincing our clients to go green for sustainability alone is a futile exercise of frustration in which young architects, equipped only with the utopian ideals of a perfect carbon-free world, have zero influence on its outcome.

Green Thumb

Our second story takes us to the drugstores where some fascinating new products have landed on the shelves. Beauty products used to be known simply as “shampoo”, “soap” or “hairspray”. Within the last ten years, consumers have become increasingly suspicious of petrol-chemicals in beauty products and more selective of brands that portray an image of natural or organic consciousness. In an attempt to influence consumers’ perception, marketers reinvent grooming products with food labels such as ‘milk’, ‘pudding’, ‘soufflé’ then repackaged them in containers similar to milk jugs or jam jars[vii]. This didn’t make the products any more edible, but gave the impression that they were safer and cousins to familiar products in the kitchen, rather than chemical components from industrial factories.

We have been dressing our buildings in a similar fashion with the convenience that mechanical system provides. More than half the points attainable in Green Mark comes from electro-mechanical features. Additional points can be scored with green add-ons such as recycling bins, electric vehicle charging points, bicycle bays or landscaping. I was told of a particular project that attempted to score points for bicycle bays, although it was illegal to cycle within the compound. This major obsession with electro-mechanics and visible green features has resulted in the association of sustainability with green technology and a particular green aesthetic.

Does the implementation of these features guarantee sustainability? I do not know. But as far as I know, there is currently only three registered electric cars[viii] in Singapore. Tesla Motors, the darling of the electric car enthusiasts, was denied of green tax incentive from our government and wound up its operations in Singapore without selling a single car[ix].

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 10.13.57 pm

Source: Andy Singer

One afternoon during my fifth year in architecture school, I remember getting a harsh lecture from my tutor for not understanding roof design. The few of us were chided with the over-reliance on the modern glass box aesthetic and neglecting the importance of vernacular roof design apparent in almost all of the region’s architecture. Embarrassed, I spent a good deal of time thereafter making sure I understood how different roof forms in the tropics sheltered its inhabitants from the driving rain while effectively keeping out the scorching sun.

The derivation of these vernacular roof forms was based on the collective historic knowledge of our ancestors, and teaches us the most sensible form a building envelope should take to protect its inhabitants from their particular climatic environment. However, buildings have been chasing the modernist form for the last decade to evoke an image consistent with economic growth.

Fortunately, technological advancement has been impressive. We have invented an array of “eco-products” in order not to guilt-trip ourselves in designing those glass boxes. It is so impressive that even fully air-conditioned glass boxes in the middle of the Arabian desert achieve energy efficient standards.

In an effort to disguise the blighted concrete jungle that we have grown on our island, we dress our streets and motor highways with the gardener’s touch. 1.5 million trees were being planted during the inaugural tree-planting campaign in 1963. But this rampant planting of trees and shrubs became problematic after a while as they disrupted the natural ecology of the surrounding areas. The ubiquitous Angsana trees, chosen for its short maturity period, were planted in excessive numbers along Orchard Road. This resulted in the disappearance of biodiversity and the emergence of the infamous crow problem.

In the business world, it is imperative for companies to reinvent themselves constantly to remain competitive and relevant. Singapore Inc has devised yet another new campaign to turn our “Garden City” into a “City in a Garden”. The most hedonistic showcase to this theme is the $810 million Gardens by the Bay. With its two mammoth glass domes equivalent of twenty Olympic-size pools, we are now capable of supporting imported horticulture within an artificial environment, cooled twenty-four hours daily from our equatorial heat. It is definitely very cool (pun intended), but is it necessary?

Young architects graduate into the industry believing they will design great architecture; that they will spend hours exploring massing and forms till they arrive at the best solution for something uniquely contextual; that they can convince clients with passion and dedication to adopt buildings with verandahs and louvers. But the world we inherited only demands a particular aesthetic, which is almost always some version of a glossy green-washed high-rise, with green technology as a band-aid for bad architecture.

Sadly, we still don’t know how to design roofs. But we pretend we do by putting grass on them.

Image 4 - Goats

Green roof tourist attraction in Coombs Country Market, British Colombia, completed with goats. Source: Flickr – Adrimcm

Green in the Gills

As architects, it may be our social responsibility to weigh in on the benefits of passive cooling, but no man is an island. How sustainable principles are embraced and executed depend largely upon the nation’s policies and society’s collective attitude.

In the documentary Success Stories – Lee Kuan Yew[xi], the first Prime Minister of Singapore, also the world’s longest serving one at the time of his departure, hailed the air-conditioner as the most important invention of the 20th century. Like the pursuit of the global architecture aesthetic, the possession of air-conditioning was a symbol of status and upward mobility in the middle of last century[xii]. In 1950s, only the swankiest of establishments offer an escape from the sweltering mid-day heat.

Like the rise of most capitalistic inventions, air-conditioning has since gone supersized. Today, our glass boxes suffer from air-conditioning overkill with thermostats set at 18 to 20°C. To put this in perspective, Singapore’s lowest temperature ever recorded was in January of 1934, at only 19.4 °C. Most commercial buildings use the central air-conditioning system, which lacks the capacity for temperature choice of individual spaces. But our working class has learnt to put up with this, including jackets and shawls in their standard office wardrobe.

In his series of political essays Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation, author Cherian George likens how Singaporeans are comfortable with a high degree of control by the central government to its nonchalance towards central air-conditioning. Governance by the same political party for over half a century has created an unusually high tolerance for the absence of autonomy. This lack in capacity for choice and individual liberties has bred the ailments of apathy and fear towards change in our society.

Change almost always involves risk and uncertainty. Sustainable features painstakingly designed are sometimes abandoned in favor of familiar routines and beliefs. Many buildings designed in the sixties work perfectly well with natural ventilation, but are now mostly boarded up with air-conditioning units. The widespread assumption about energy efficient features such as solar panels and LED lighting is that their investment is a zero-sum game, outweigh by difficulty in maintenance and unpredictable outcomes.

The Singapore Inc mindset embodies efficiency, productivity and wealth accumulation[xiii]. Without deeper ecology and environmental awareness, the risk in change will only be assessed with its price tag. Innovations usually cost more and lack the time-tested reliability of conventional materials or methods. I have been told by young architects that developers have a dismissive attitude towards green innovation and often mock its inclusion in the Green Mark criteria. Like our General Elections in 2011, the buzzword here is ‘track record’.

Image 5 - Conserved Shophouse

What you don’t see in a conserved building. Back alley of shophouse in Club Street. Source: Pbase – Teo Kwang Liak[xiv]

Greener Pastures

They say that the grass is always greener on the other side.

The 2012 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks countries on environmental performance tracked across policy categories, placed Singapore at the 52th position out of 132 countries, behind our neighbours, Malaysia (25th), Brunei (26th), Thailand (34th) and The Philippines (42th)[xv]. In that same year, our GDP per capita was ranked 3rd.[xvi]

Despite all the fanfare on our green efforts, we lag far behind in social consciousness for environmental awareness. Many European countries, like the Netherlands, begin their sustainability advocacy in the eighties and now have viable and effective frameworks for environmental management and protection. The public eco-consciousness is high and sustainability issues are integrated within school curriculum. Chief executives from the Dutch’s largest eight companies meet regularly to discuss business models and policy debates on sustainable growth.

But it takes a different mindset, at times radical and imaginative, to be forefront in green initiatives. Amsterdam was in the news recently for its programme to pay alcoholics in beer to clean the streets[xvii]. The approach targeted a group of chronic alcoholics who had been creating nuisance in Oosterpark. Supervised by social workers, the alcoholics rewarded daily with ten euros and five cans of beer spaced between the day for their work. The programme gives their lives structure, allows their alcohol consumption to be monitored, and most importantly, keeps their anti-social behavior off the streets. Needless to say, all of the ten participants volunteered. The Dutch culture of pragmatism, coupled with optimism and rejections of formal hierarchies, makes it easy for politicians and advocates to push for innovative alternatives to existing problems.[xviii]

Green Horns

Back to Michelle. This time we begin from the story of her grandparents.

Born during the Great Depression and veterans of the Second World War, Michelle’s grandparents were frugal and cautious. They raised her parents to expect hard work and perseverance as the path to success and happiness. Upon graduation, the baby boomers were greeted by the unprecedented economic prosperity of the late 20th century. Their futures turned out better than they had originally expected, filling them with optimism and gratification. Michelle, the Gen Y, grew up during a time of unbounded possibilities where alternative music thrived and new technology soared. Baby boomers everywhere told their millennial children that they were special and that they can be anything they want to be. Instilled with tremendous hope for the future, Gen Y children become wildly ambitious and often, narcissistically delusional[xix].


Image 6 - Expectations of Gen Y

Expectations versus Reality of Gen Y (Part 1) Source: http://www.waitbutwhy.com

Paul Harvey of the University of New Hampshire calls Gen Y the “entitlement-minded workers”,

with unrealistic expectations, strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback and less likely to enjoy their jobs. Their high expectations of easy and early success are naturally, usually unmet. Unfortunately for Gen Y, the frustration of unmet expectations is compounded by the rise of social media, constantly taunting the inflated and highly visible images of their peers’ supposed success. Inevitably, Gen Ys become perpetually unhappy and disillusioned[xxi].

Image 6 - Expectations of Gen Y

Expectations versus Reality of Gen Y (Part 2) Source: http://www.waitbutwhy.com[xxii] 

Scratch at any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.[xxiii] As fresh graduates, the contrast between our academic projects, where clients trust our professional judgment, money flowed free and time is limitless, and the real world is stark. It’s not easy to forsake the romantic belief that buildings only need our marvelous idea to be completed. We have also been resistant to change. For everything we blame the world to be, our struggle could be self-inflicted.

I guess it is of little surprise that Pinterest was conceived by an architecture student. Where else would we hide those fancy images of our idealized world?

Green Light

Image 8 - Green Light

Source: The Great Gatsby (2013)

In the cinematic adaption of Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’ released this June, there is a memorable scene where Gatsby stares longingly at the green light at the end of his dock. The green light was Daisy, his symbol of idealised perfection; the attainment of her would be the ultimate completion of his American dream. The green light was also hope, though distant and barely visible, a physical manifestation that gave Gatsby perseverance to pursuit his dream.

Baz Luhrmann dazzled his audience with the visual splendor of opulent parties that celebrated the decadent and rampant materialism of the Roaring Twenties. In light of the excessive consumerism in our own era, the remake of the cautionary tale is a timely reminder that our economic prosperity could collapse into the emptiness of our propensity for indulgence in superficial pursuit.

However, we need not emerge from the cocoon of our education into this capital-driven society with the same cynicism that Nick and Gatsby emerged with from the war. We need not look towards the future with passivity, because the future is us.

I believe that the disenchantment of young architects could be positive. For all the conceit labeled on this selfie generation, the disillusionment and angst is an allusion to critical questioning of merits and shortcomings of the industry. Young architects are aware of the source of the green light, but just have not found the means to get there yet.

Lastly, we should not indulge in the same fatal idealism as Gatsby. Buildings are not going to build themselves. Nor will everyone turn into tree-hugging Bohemians. It would have been impossible to even begin the sustainability discourse without the Green Mark. The fact that the green phenomenon pushes forth the thinking of sustainable design should not be disregarded, and the economic marketability of ‘green’ can be a mutual benefit for both developers and environmentalists.

Sustainability need not always be only associated with Green Mark, unless we believe it to be so. Societal changes take time but we can accelerate this process. SIA will be introducing the G-Architect Award to honor projects with intrinsic passive design attributes. Eventually, incentives can also be extended to property investors and users to address the capital cycle in its entirety.

To bend the rules, we must learn them first. To remain relevant and influential, we need to learn the tricks of other trades. If spreadsheets are going to run this world, then we might as well get acquainted with it. After all, some of history’s greatest architects are polymaths. Leonardo da Vinci was also celebrated as a painter, musician, mathematician, anatomist, geologist, writer and engineer. I suspect he was also great at selling his ideas.

But of course, I could be speaking with the same unrealistic optimism characteristic of the millennials. Back to our young protagonist. Michelle tells me that her supervisor has given her the green light on her recommendation to the client.

All images and text belong to © 2014 Singapore Institute of Architects, Singapore Architect #279

This article was featured in the Singapore Architect magazine issue #279(not all images are used in final publication)

See this on www.jaxepan.com




[i]The New York Times Online – ‘Green’ Nightclub Trend Comes to New York by R.M. Schneiderman, 25 November 2008, accessed December 2013.


[ii] Inside (Capitaland), Issue Mar 2012, accessed December 2013.


[iii] Building Performance and Sustainability course and Integrated Sustainable Design course

[iv] BCA 2nd Green Master Plan, accessed December 2013. http://www.bca.gov.sg/greenMark/others/gbmp2.pdf

[v] Green Mark Incentive Scheme for Existing Buildings (2009) – $100 million

Green Mark Incentive Scheme for New Buildings (2006), $20 million

Ministry of National Development R&D Research Fund $50 million.

BCA 2nd Green Master Plan, accessed December 2013. http://www.bca.gov.sg/greenMark/others/gbmp2.pdf

[vi] Building and Construction Authority Website, accessed December 2013.


[vii] SmashBrand – Old Packaging Can and Should Learn New Tricks, by Kevin Smith, 28 March 2013, accessed December 2013.


[viii] The Straits Times – Only 3 Electric Cars on the Road, by Christopher Tan, 28 February 2013, accessed December 2013. http://ride.asiaone.com/news/general/story/only-3-electric-cars-road

[ix] ZeMotoring – Tesla abandon Singapore, no thanks to the Government, 13 February 2011, accessed December 2013.


[x] Flickr – Adrimcm, taken 8 August 2009, accessed December 2013


[xi] Success Stories – Lee Kuan Yew is a RTHK production released in 2001.

[xii] The New York Times Online – Singapore Cools Off, and All Must Pitch In, by Wayne Arnold, 2 June 2002, accessed December 2013.


[xiii] The Straits Times Online – Think ‘Singapore family’ not ‘Singapore Inc’, by Leong Kwong Sin, 11 May 2013, accessed December 2013.


[xiv] Source: Pbase – Teo Kwang Liak, accessed December 2013.


[xv] Environmental Performance Index – EPI Rankings, accessed December 2013.


[xvi] World Economic Outlook Database International Monetary Fund, data from October 2013.accessed December 2013.

[xvii] Huffingtonpost Online – Amsterdam Pays Alcoholics Beer to Clean Streets, by Nicolas Delaunay, 19 November 2013, accessed December 2013.


[xviii] The Guardian Online – Going Dutch: why the country is leading the way on sustainable business, by Oliver Balch, 10 September 2013, accessed December 2013.


[xix] Waitbutwhy.com – Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy, September 2013, accessed December 2013.


[xx] Name ‘Lucy’ in original image removed for relevance

[xxi] University of New Hampshire – As College Graduates Hit the Workforce, So Do More Entitlement-Minded Workers, by N.H Durham, 17 May 2010, accessed December 2013.


[xxii] Name ‘Lucy’ in original image removed for relevance

[xxiii] Quote from George Carlin

[xxiv] Additional credits to the following young architects for contributing their opinions and knowledge to this article – Eldyn Cheong, Samantha Seet, Thian Teik Guan, Lim Huiying, Thomas Wong, Sean Mulcahy, Michael Tan, Gareth Wong, Kim Sunyoung, James Lim, Edison Pwee, Neth Chong and Ermanno Cirillo