Govt studies possibility of underground science city

A study of an unprecedented scale is taking place beneath the Singapore Science Park in the western part of the country. It is for a science complex of about 30 storeys below the surface (at the 80- to 100-metre layer). It will be used to house research labs, offices and a data centre.

The area being studied lies between Science Parks 1 and 2, and the objective is to link the underground science city to facilities above. The feasibility study is expected to be completed by April 2012.

Developer JTC Corporation describes the project as an expensive experiment, but one that is perhaps inevitable, as land here becomes increasingly scarce.

David Tan, Assistant CEO of JTC Corporation, said: “By putting an underground science city between Science Parks 1 and 2, we could actually have two plots of land for development – one at the bottom, underground; the other one on top. The key is really to see how we can use a piece of land twice.”

There are benefits to building underground. For instance, the stable climate allows for greater efficiency of facilities such as data centres. The enclosed environment also ensures a higher degree of safety for storing risky chemicals.

But such advantages come with a price. Mr Tan estimates that building underground will cost 50 per cent more than a similar facility above ground.

Lessons can be learnt from JTC Corporation’s Jurong Rock Caverns, which is an underground oil bunker at Jurong Island. For instance, evacuation plans and ventilation points need to be mapped out in detail, as there are limited access points at such depths. There is also a smaller margin for error as space is constrained by the availability of solid rock.

Construction challenges are also more complex. When building underground, the size and the shape of the cavern are dependent on site conditions and the quality of rock, which may cause some inflexibility in the size of the facilities created within the space. For the Jurong Rock Caverns, each cavern is about 20 metres wide and 25 metres high.

In addition, engineers have to work around the problem of fault lines, and water seeping into the caverns.

Associate Professor (Adjunct) Zhou Yingxin, from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, is a mining engineer who has worked on the Jurong Rock Caverns as well as the Defence Ministry’s ammunition bunker.

He said: “The risks associated with underground construction is not so much that we don’t know what to do with the problem, it’s that very often we don’t know what to expect.”

“You have to build with the ground that’s there, whether it’s good rock or bad rock. Of course you can try to choose a good site. But even in a good site, you wouldn’t know the rock until you see it.

“So you must have a plan to deal with such uncertainties… That’s why you must have very experienced people on site. When they see it, they know what’s going to happen, and they know what to do.”

While most people are used to going underground to get to carparks and shopping malls, there are various issues that architects and engineers have to consider to make underground developments truly liveable. For example, the kind of anxieties people might have with spending so many hours deep underground.

Natural light, greenery and fresh air are some of the things that make cities liveable, and will be as important in an underground space.

Andres Sevtsuk, an Assistant Professor in Architecture and Sustainable Design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said: “We’re biological creatures. We like sunlight, we like environments, we like trees and nature, and we like seeing other people.

“When we build cities, when we build urban environments, I think we usually think beyond necessity, we think of ideal environments, because this is where we spend our lives.”

Creating underground cities is still, in many ways, a theoretical fancy. But over the years, authorities have built increasingly taller buildings and added over a fifth of the country’s land mass through reclamation alone. Going underground is simply the next frontier in Singapore’s never-ending search for space.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 2 Jan 2012

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