5 bright ideas for sustainable urban growth | The Straits Times

2022-09-10 01:38:38 By : Ms. Ann Lee

Home-grown construction firm CES InnovFab unveiled its 3D-printed prefabricated bathroom units (PBUs) earlier this week, making a splash at the BEX Asia showcase.

Bathrooms are one of the most complex parts of a home to build as they require more fixtures – such as taps, sinks and shower heads – per square foot than any other part of the home. These fixtures rely on plumbing and waterproofing, electrical wiring and non-slip tiling, which require more manpower and time, thus adding to construction costs.

Since 2014, prefabricated bathrooms, which are manufactured in factories and transported to the construction site to be assembled, have been used for construction in Singapore.

But with 3D-printed concrete PBUs, savings of up to 20 per cent on manpower, time transport and materials are now possible, says Mr Tan Jun Shyong, managing director of CES InnovFab, whose parent company is multinational conglomerate Chip Eng Seng Corporation. Each PBU is also sustainably built using green materials that reduce the carbon impact on the environment.

“Automation allows us to do more with fewer people, increasing productivity with shorter turnaround times,” says Mr Tan, 63, adding that with 3D-printing, almost any design can be printed from a computer, allowing greater flexibility for architects and property developers.

He says that after research and development (R&D) since 2015 with Nanyang Technological University, CES InnovFab was set up in 2021 to supply Singapore’s first commercial 3D-printed concrete PBUs for the building industry.

The firm’s bathroom units at the show, which comply with the Building and Construction Authority’s guidelines under the Lightweight Concrete PBU category, are 1.55m long, 0.95m wide and 3.13m high.

“The 3D-printed walls consist of a double layer wall with supporting lattice between the two layers. The lattice allows for concealed piping and conduits, while also ensuring the structural stability of the wall,” says Mr Tan.

With rising manpower costs and a shortage of skilled labour, automation is the way to go for the construction industry, he adds. “We will continue to push for further R&D to improve the product sustainability and lessen the impact on the environment.”

The built environment relies on concrete and steel, which contribute nearly 15 per cent of global emissions in the form of embodied carbon. This refers to carbon that is generated during the building process from the time the materials are sourced to the completion of a project. And with increasing migration to cities, the percentage of embodied carbon is expected to double by 2050.

Singapore architect Pan Yi Cheng, a speaker at the International Built Environment Week, believes there is a green solution for this: Use timber as a viable alternative – specifically, mass-engineered timber (MET), a building material made from engineered wood products that are remarkably strong.

This includes cross-laminated timber (CLT), where layers of wood are stacked cross-wise and bonded with adhesives; and glued laminated timber or glulam, which is produced almost in the same way but with the grain aligned in one direction.

“We are conducting research on a new MET component called SVES, or Sandwich Variable Eggcrate Structure,” says Mr Pan. “It is made from reconstituted timber made from wood chips and fibres sourced from plantations in South-east Asia. These timber fibres are pressed on a mould with a binding agent to form structures that look like egg crates, which are then sandwiched together.”

The process of sandwiching increases the ratio of strength to weight while drastically reducing the amount of timber used, allowing the product to be used as wall and floor components, replacing pre-cast concrete. It can also be made with recycled timber.

The SVES prototypes were exhibited at the National Design Centre in January this year as part of the centre’s Good Design Research showcase.

In order for cities to benefit from greener construction methods, mindsets must change, he says.

Not only do air-conditioning costs form a huge chunk of bills for households and businesses, but they also leak harmful greenhouse gases which cause the environment to get hotter as heat is trapped in urban spaces.

The International Energy Agency said in a 2020 report that demand for space cooling has more than tripled since 1990, making it the fastest-growing end-use in buildings.

One energy-efficient solution to the ills of air-conditioning is district cooling. This low-carbon cooling alternative provides chilled water via a network of pipes to buildings in an urban area for their cooling needs.

Utilities company SP Group’s district cooling system provides chilled water for air-conditioning to buildings in the Marina Bay area. It uses a thermal energy storage system that freezes water during low-demand periods and discharges chilled water during periods of peak demand. This ensures the resilience and reliability of the network while reducing peak electricity load demand. Melting the stored ice provides chilled water to buildings in place of chillers.

The group was at the BEX Asia exhibition to showcase its digital capabilities and sustainable energy solutions, one of which is its district cooling system. The freed-up electricity can subsequently be used as a fallback for renewable energy, such as solar power during stormy or cloudy days.

Air-conditioning accounts for up to 50 per cent of the total energy consumed in a building in Singapore. Redesigning the way interiors are cooled will have a substantial impact on urban decarbonisation.

“District cooling provides a greener, more efficient way to cool, within our comprehensive suite of sustainable energy solutions,” says Mr Steve Seah, SP Group’s vice-president of sustainable energy solutions in Singapore, who adds that building owners can expect cost savings of about 15 per cent with district cooling.

“SP Group designed and has been operating the world’s largest underground district cooling network at Marina Bay since 2006, delivering a sustainable and reliable cooling solution with zero supply disruption to over 20 buildings in the area.”

He adds that there has been a reduction of nearly 20,000 tonnes of carbon emissions in the Marina Bay district cooling network, which is equivalent to taking 17,672 cars off Singapore’s roads.

Concrete is the most widely used commodity in the world and supports the growth of cities through housing and infrastructure.

But it is also bad news for the built environment. According to German news agency Deutsche Welle, the manufacturing of more than four billion tonnes of cement is responsible for about 8 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions – more than double the numbers notched up by global flying or shipping.

But what if there were better and greener ways to make concrete? That was the mission of Mr Boediman Widjaja, chairman and founder of Joe Green, a global group based in Singapore which manufactures a range of innovative building materials for the precast wall business, the built environment and for industrial applications.

One of its top-selling ranges is the Lightweight Green Aggregates (LiGrA) line of building materials such as panels and precast concrete. It is made from recycling waste materials such as ceramics, ash, sludge and glass – which, according to the latest report by Singapore’s National Environment Agency, form only between 8 and 13 per cent of all waste recycled. 

Research and development for the manufacture of LiGrA started in 2015, with Joe Green staff collaborating with industrial and academic experts from countries including Japan, China, Russia and in Europe. The final product was ready in 2020. Joe Green now produces about 60,000 cubic metres per annum of LiGrA in the form of lightweight concrete aggregates.

The company displayed lightweight wall panels and structural and non-structural LiGrA products at BEX Asia.

Mr Widjaja, 60, graduated with a master’s degree in business administration in 1989 from the Florida Institute of Technology in the United States, and has more than 20 years of experience in distribution and trading in South-east Asia, Europe and the US. 

“The building materials available in the market today are manufactured from precious natural minerals such as clay, gravel, sand and shale, and imported from overseas. In producing LiGrA from waste, we not only solve the waste disposal problem, but also reduce the exploitation of natural minerals such as granite and sand,” he says, adding that Singapore is one of the biggest importers of such natural resources to cater to the demands of the built environment.

Bryden Wood, a global company of creative technologists, designers, architects, engineers and analysts, has its sights firmly on the future of construction.

The “architechnologists” of the London-based company – which has offices in Singapore, Milan, Athens and Barcelona – combine technology and design to deliver cost savings and shorter time to market, among other outcomes.

Mr Phil Langley, who is the lead for creative technologies at Bryden Wood and a board director, says the teams around the world bring together different strands of design, including algorithmic design and simulation, connected tech, mixed reality environments, big data analytics, robotics and digital manufacture.  

“Our industry needs to change and this is what that change needs to look like,” says the 43-year-old, who is based in London but was in Singapore for BEX Asia, where he presented The Future Of Design Automation For Construction on Thursday at the International Built Environment Week. Mr Langley, who is trained in both architecture as well as computational design, has more than 20 years’ experience in architecture, engineering and construction.

“Our objective is to make the design process faster and smarter which means using the latest digital technology to automate the design process,” he says.

The teams at Bryden Wood work with large commercial and public-sector clients responsible for building and operating assets worth billions of dollars.

The firm builds software that these organisations can use to design buildings and infrastructure, allowing them to explore different possibilities and make smarter decisions. “This approach is different from the traditional architecture and engineering approach in which a single design is developed, often slowly, and which has little flexibility for adapting or changing.”

To build more sustainably, the first challenge in reducing carbon is to make sure clients build the right structure. Mr Langley says: “The wrong building, no matter what construction technology is being used, is the least sustainable thing you can do. Our data-driven approach means that clients can focus on ‘designing the outcome’, not just the physical asset. Better-performing infrastructure isn’t only about the sustainability of materials or energy use, it’s also about the fundamental need, use, and outcome for a building.”

Bryden Wood has so far provided solutions for sectors such as transport, pharmaceutical manufacturing and laboratories, and data centres, and is now exploring applications in the energy sector.

The company has worked since 2018 with National Highways, the British government’s transport arm responsible for the national road network, which has achieved significant cost savings through more efficient design. Called REM (Rapid Engineering Model), the design has been applied to many projects and delivered combined cost savings of about £45 million (S$73 million), with a return on investment ratio of 10:1.

The company is looking to further its data-driven approach to design automation into other sectors and markets. “Our approach in using cutting-edge digital technology to deliver automated design and construction is applicable everywhere,” says Mr Langley. “The problem of how to deliver projects in a more sustainable way is the same all around the world. More intelligent design means more productive and efficient on-site activity, therefore more sustainable construction with less material, less energy use and less waste.”

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