“We are seeing sustainable construction projects that aspire to be net positive”

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    Nirmal Kishnani participated in the Concluding Debate at the 4th International Holcim Forum on “Economy of Sustainable Construction” held in Mumbai, India in April 2013.

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    4th Holcim Forum in Mumbai, India 2013: Concluding debate discussing workshop findings (l-r): Werner Sobek, University of Stuttgart; Nirmal Kishnani, National University of Singapore & Marc Angélil, ETH Zurich.

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    Nirmal Kishnani, Program Director, Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore – keynote address at the Holcim Awards 2011 Asia Pacific ceremony.

Nirmal Kishnani recently talked about sustainable construction in the context of South East Asia and Vietnam, and also endorsed the Holcim Awards competition for its role in visualizing what a more sustainable future might look like. He participated in the concluding debate at the 4th International Holcim Forum on Economy of Sustainable Construction held in Mumbai in April 2013.

Last updated: September 13, 2013 Singapore

Nirmal Kishnani is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture, School of Design and Environment and also Program Director of the Master of Science in Integrated Sustainable Design at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The program aligns an interdisciplinary curriculum towards ecological concerns and teaches sustainability principles to architects. He is also Chief Editor of FuturArc journal, which focuses on green architecture in Asia, and resident jury chair of the FuturArc Prize and the FuturArc Green Leadership Award that he helped to establish. His areas of interest are environmental psychology (perception and behavior in the built environment); climate, comfort and consumption; and sustainable buildings (processes and outcomes).

Q: What do you consider to be the future trends of sustainable construction?

A1: The focus of greening in Asia thus far has been on resource efficiency and the deployment of technology as a means of achieving efficiency. We know now how to make our buildings less wasteful, how to improve energy performance and how much these improvements cost. But there is also an emerging interest in the social aspects of greening; we are starting to ask questions about community and wellness, how people reconnect with natural systems, with heritage and with each other.

A sustainable building not only reduces cost, it also enhances the life of its occupants. This is an important re-framing of the green agenda towards the wider ambition of sustainability; it compels us to see people, plus the systems that support people, as a key pillar of greening.

There is another important shift on the horizon. We are seeing projects that aspire to be net positive. It is no longer enough to do less harm; these projects seek to do good by repairing and regenerating the neighborhood. Real change will come from this widening of priorities and actions, of seeing beyond short-term cost and profit. For this to happen more widely, however, governments in Asia must step in. They must align development of the built environment with explicit long-term goals that includes the well-being of their people in the widest sense. This includes natural and community networks that people rely on. In practice this means that the design of a building starts with an understanding of networks.

The green approach will try to reduce the burden that the building places on this network. A sustainable development goes the extra mile to improve the network. There is a resort in Sri Lanka, for instance, which has been designed to make room for biodiversity; an endangered species is now one of its permanent residents. In an office building in China, the storm water that passes through the site is filtered and cleaned as it moves towards municipal reservoirs.

Q: Based on your experience of sustainable construction and green building, what do you see as the benefits of competitions such as the Holcim Awards?

A2: We need to transition from the framework for greening towards a more holistic approach for sustainability. The Holcim Awards competition provides a means for visualizing how this might happen, what that future will look like. It showcases ideas and solutions that are relevant to all segments of society, across different wealth strata, climates, cultures, urban, and rural settings.

This turntable of new ideas and outstanding approaches is then shared with a global community of like-minded peers who are committed to sustainability. This in turn offers a way of focusing attention and driving the awareness of home-owners, suppliers, investors, governments and many other stakeholders.

The Holcim Awards is a particularly interesting competition, since it seeks projects that had not started construction or manufacture before the competition opened: it gives us the opportunity to learn a lot from how each project is adapted prior and during implementation – or to understand why some projects do not make it to fruition.
For some projects, winning a Holcim Awards prize has funded construction and the further development of the project. For others, the endorsement of a Holcim Award has been an important factor in securing project finance. The Holcim Awards competition also provides a snap-shot of the “state-of-the-art” for sustainable construction, and now over three completed cycles, also shows how the challenges and solutions have evolved over the past decade.

Q: What are your impressions of the current status of sustainable construction in Vietnam?

A: Vietnam is facing tremendous challenges of urbanization and growth. The rapid pace of change means that a balance must be found between economic growth – the material and social benefits that this promises – and the long-term well-being of people and the networks that support people. These two agendas are not necessarily contradictory however the process requires an understanding of the vulnerability of communities and natural systems.

I am a great admirer of the Vietnamese people, their culture and resilience. There is much wisdom in the old ways of this country. There is also much energy and enthusiasm for new ways. Some of the more interesting young Vietnamese architects are able to artfully combine old knowledge with new aspirations and lifestyles. They understand the importance of the city but also value the countryside. I am hopeful that their voices will be heard.

4th International Holcim Awards

The Holcim Awards is one of the most significant competitions in its field in terms of reputation and international scope. The fourth cycle of the competition offering a total of USD 2 million in prize money is now open for entries. The competition seeks leading projects from industry professionals and bold ideas from the “Next Generation” that contribute to sustainability within architecture, building, civil engineering, landscape and urban design, as well as construction materials and technologies. Entries must be submitted online at www.holcimawards.org by March 24, 2014.

Want to know more?

Further information on the Holcim Awards competition is available at www.holcimawards.org – or send your question to helpdesk@holcimawards.org.