Designing for A Human Future

In a conversation with ETHOS, a co-founder of WOHA Architects explains what is needed to realise a sustainable and liveable future in today’s cities.

Designing for a Human Future_Oasia Hotel Downtown 1_banner-teaser

Oasia Hotel Downtown (Credit: Patrick Bingham-Hall)

Date Posted

24 Nov 2022


Digital Issue 9, 24 Nov 2022

How does your architectural practice engage with sustainable development?

I have been in practice for 32 years, and our firm WOHA Architects is over 28 years old. My co-founder Richard and I were at university in the 1980s, when the world was recovering from the energy crisis of the 1970s. Back then there was a lot of interest in environmental design and science, and this is why it has always been important to us to find ways to design responsibly and with environmentally sensitive and energy-reducing solutions. While such thinking became unfashionable in the 1990s, we have chosen to stay true to this design ethos, and it has become a distinctive focus in our practice.

We focus more on public and large-scale projects, rather than houses and private developments, because we feel there is a need to tackle issues that impact a greater segment of the population in Singapore. Over the years, we have expanded our approach to include master planning and city planning, incorporating global issues such as climate change and carbon neutrality.

In 2016, we published a book called “Garden City Mega City” which applies our design philosophy and strategies to address global warming and rising sea levels. We developed a matrix and series of ratings to measure the success of buildings, as well as cities, with regard to sustainability, and how they can be transformative and take on a regenerative direction. These indices offer architects and city planners an alternative to other indices that are more economic in nature, or which measure development in terms of real estate values.

We came up with several indices. The first is a green plot ratio, in which we measure how an architect might create value through an area designed for greenery and nature. Then we have a community plot ratio: how much of the area of a building is designed for public use. There’s an index for ecosystem services: how a building can contribute towards the ecosystems that are necessary to regenerate the planet—for example, how much it can regulate temperature and pollution or how much biodiversity it can bring back into our urban environments. And then there is the self-sufficiency index, which looks at to what degree a building (or a city) can provide its own clean energy, food, and water.

These indices can be used both at the scale of the building, all the way to the city level. We believe that the aggregation of buildings can contribute to a city’s overall environmental targets: they can amount to more than the sum of all the buildings on their own, because buildings complement one another in different ways.

An example of this is the Oasia Hotel Downtown, which is one of the buildings we designed. It uses the skyscraper typology but achieves a green plot ratio of 1100%: which is 11 times the site area. Post-occupation surveys show that it contributes a similar quality of biodiversity as neighbouring parks such as the nearby Duxton linear park. While a building such as this is usually thought of as a glass, steel, and concrete structure, it has the quality of a park, made even more effective when it is adjacent to a park. It performs the equivalent of 30% of a low-land rainforest in terms of regulating temperature, regulating air pollution, and providing oxygen. This proves that a building can function like a forest. An aggregation of buildings of this nature could provide significant ecosystem services in a city.

The aggregation of buildings can contribute to a city’s overall environmental targets because buildings complement one another in different ways.

How can the private and public sectors work together to advance sustainable development?

If we leave it to either the private sector or public sector alone, the battle is lost. You need both to go hand-in-hand, with a clear, common understanding and discussion at the broadest level. The private sector will always have a commercial agenda and try to make profit. But it is also very important for them to have good environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals and targets. The public sector is clearer about the long-term public good. At the same time, governments also need to calibrate their investments to cater to the needs of nature and the environment, which we in turn need in order to survive as a species. We need to rechannel this push and pull in different directions to move us all in the same direction. We can tweak policy to nudge the private sector to contribute more to sustainable goals. The state must determine what is necessary for the commercial world to do and require it through policy.

There should be a consensus on what needs to be done. One example is replacement greenery in Singapore. Thanks to Singapore’s early Garden City movement, we have become a green paradise—which has contributed to the branding and standing of the city—and we have moved on from there. But the initial motivation for this movement was more from a liveability and even aesthetic point of view: about getting rid of the slums and poverty, and cleaning up the city to attract investors and visitors. Today, we know that greenery does a lot more, it contributes ecosystem services. We can use this new understanding to further extend what our buildings can and should do, and nudge our developers to do much more.

Another area in which this could be transformative is energy. Singapore is land limited, and we don’t have a large area for solar farms. But if you aggregate all our building roof areas and put on solar PVs, we could make up 15% to 20% of our energy needs, We need something like 40% of the area of Singapore to be energy self-sufficient, but that’s already a significant contribution. We could also make use of other areas like water reservoirs and coastal water and areas available for interim use, such as the Southern port areas or Paya Lebar Airport once they are vacated. If we keep adding up these areas, we can move towards renewable energy in a substantial way.

We need to work backwards from our targets rather than assume it cannot be done. Technology changes very quickly. If we put land that is currently being safeguarded for future purposes to use for current clean energy needs, even temporarily, it could tide us over until other clean energy sources (such as green hydrogen or fusion energy) become available.

We need to work backwards from our targets rather than assume it cannot be done.

Is it possible to pursue sustainable development without compromising liveability and prosperity?

We can do both without sacrificing one or the other. We can pursue sustainability in tandem with liveability, and they in fact reinforce each other. Just like Oasia Hotel Downtown, the greening of Singapore contributes to both liveability and sustainability, by lowering ambient temperatures and combating the urban heat island effect, producing oxygen, sequestering carbon and other greenhouse gases, as well as providing habitat for animals and increasing biodiversity.

At the same time, sustainability is a growing new industry. Creating new forms of energy is business. The green sector can be a new growth area for Singapore. This green industry, green finance, is something very new, and it can be a new business sector for Singapore’s economy—so we don’t have to choose between sustainability and prosperity.

We all know the climate crisis is an existential issue for mankind. But it’s not enough to be aware of it, it is imperative to acknowledge the urgency and find solutions to address it. We need to reconsider and tweak our value system. If we continue to think purely in terms of dollars and cents, then we have a big problem in our hands. We need to accept that humans are part of nature. We need a biocentric worldview in which we must co-exist with nature. Otherwise, the human species would eventually be extinct. Our planet will survive. We will not. So this is not just about the survival of plants and animals, this is about human survival!

We cannot keep going in the same direction, with minimal disruptions and marginal changes. We need this major shift in perspective to move forward.

This is not just about the survival of plants and animals, this is about human survival.

In pursuing a more sustainable and liveable human future, what role can Singapore play as a city?

There are two points I want to make for policymakers and planners in Singapore. One, we shouldn’t see being small as a handicap. Instead, we should take advantage of this and be a model city that punches above our weight.

Two, if Singapore can thrive as a very liveable and self-sufficient city, reducing its ecological footprint to the actual size of the city, it shows that a city need not depend on a hinterland for food, energy and water. Some of our current arable land in our planet used for food production to feed humans can be rewilded for nature, striking a balance between human and nature.

Singapore is an important prototype in this regard, and we have the right institutions, talent and setting to be an example for other cities in the world, showing how we can make this future possible.

We can pursue sustainability in tandem with liveability, and they in fact reinforce each other.


Wong Mun Summ co-founded the Singapore-based architectural practice WOHA in 1994. He is a Professor-in-Practice at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture, where he co-directs the Integrated Sustainable Design Masters Studio.

WOHA sees their projects as active components that participate in larger urban and natural systems. Their award-winning projects include PARKROYAL Collection Pickering, Kampung Admiralty, SkyVille @ Dawson and the Oasia Hotel Downtown in Singapore.


Back to ETHOS homepage