Singapore’s UTown leads the way in sustainable design

Go for a drink in the long bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and you still feel the presence of the colonial past.

Meandering boardwalk leading to the new Edusports building at UTown.

You move to your table crunching the discarded shells of the complimentary peanuts, order your Singapore Sling from a white jacketed waiter and close your eyes. Somewhere from the past you can hear the slightly off-key voices of round bellied Somerset Maugham types lustily singing There’ll always be an England.

But move past the faux colonialism, through the shuttered windows to the street outside and you find a vibrant Asian city basked in modernity and committed to being not only a regional leader but to working on the world stage.

I first visited the city in the mid-1970s and even then, you could feel the energy and forward momentum that has seen it become a hub for not only international commerce and retail (Singapore remains a network of massive shopping malls), but also education.

For a tiny island with a population of three million, it is home to 12 universities and polytechnics, as well as various academies. There are also multiple private institutions set up by foreign universities as well as international partnership.

My own experiences dealing with the National University of Singapore over the years revealed a world class institution delivering high quality education and leading-edge research. In fact NUS is ranked in the top 15 universities internationally.

While this world class institution provides an extraordinary educational experience for its staff and students, beyond the classrooms and labs, the university itself is working like a living laboratory showing how environmental sustainability can be designed into a large active community. A case in point, is University Town, a new campus developed to demonstrate best practice in environmentally sustainable design and operations.

UTown is a 19-hectare mix use residential and educational hub linked to the university’s main Kent Ridge campus, which not only provides an environment to promote intellectual and cultural development but also a physical infrastructure that promotes sustainability as a community value.

Built on what was formally a golf course the design has retained the natural lush tropical terrain and supports the existing biodiversity.

The campus has four residential colleges, a student residence, an education resource centre, a sports complex, a research and development complex and Asia’s first liberal arts college. A total of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students, staff and researchers work, live and study in this vibrant learning environment, surrounded by an infrastructure that reinforces sustainability as a value.

The campus is a world leader in environmental management, with initiatives that include district cooling plant, natural ventilation corridors and green roofs that minimise heat draw into the buildings (as well as filtering storm water for irrigation), all of which help to reduce demand for air-conditioning in the tropical climate and provide comfortable environmental conditions.

The campus also has an integrated waste management and recycling system (that also acts as a visual reminder of the university’s sustainable commitment) as well as networks of sheltered walkways and dedicated bike paths to encourage sustainable mobility.

This infrastructure will cut an estimated 3.8 million kWh of electricity annually, saving close to S$1m (£570,000) and conserving 250,000 litres of potable water.

UTown is Singapore’s first Green Mark district, awarded by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority, and exemplifies the university’s ongoing desire to lower carbon emissions, conserve an ecologically biodiverse habitat and to ‘create a sustainable pedagogical environment enjoyed by all campus users’.

The project has been NUS’ largest integrated sustainability-centric capital development and is an important cornerstone in the university’s efforts to green its campus. The sustainability principles used in its design and operations will become a ‘template’ for future campus developments.

Not surprisingly, the building and landscape designs of UTown have won several sustainability awards and most recently, the campus itself won the 2017 ISCN Award for Building and Innovative Infrastructure.

UTown shows how NUS (and Singapore) is embracing the future and it offers an example of best practice in integrated sustainable design not only for other universities, but also local communities around the world.

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Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan

Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

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