The green, green class of home

A home that draws energy from the sun, breathes with the wind and drinks from the rain. It’s the stuff of dreams, for an environmentalist at least.

Situated at the prestigious Sentosa Cove, this gem of an eco-home was dreamed up by a Singaporean doctor, who only wants to be known as Dr Lau.

When the home, now in its final design stages, is completed in about a-year-and-a-half, it will boast photovoltaic technology that will generate electricity from sunlight; a rainwater-harvesting system for watering plants and flushing toilets; heat-reflecting paint; and elements such as natural cross ventilation, lush greenery and water features.

“I’ve long wanted to do something like this,” said Dr Lau. “We can live in a sustainable manner and hopefully prevent climate change from getting worse.

“I want to show it can be done, albeit at a higher price.”

There aren’t many Singaporeans like Dr Lau who are passionate enough to take responsibility for the climate change issue by starting, literally, in their own backyards. But with Earth Day falling on this Sunday, there’s no better time to think about doing so.

Architects say that while building one’s own eco-home is not a growing trend — this is far beyond the means of most people — eco-awareness is slowly taking root in the Singapore psyche.

Said Dr Nirmal Kishnani, a green building design consultant with CPG Consultants: “Anecdotally speaking, people are increasingly conscious about energy issues when buying a home.”

This awareness, perhaps more evident in larger residential developments, is starting to have a knock-on effect on developers of residential properties.

Recently, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) launched its first Eco-Precinct, the build-to-order Treetops@Punggol development, which saw 3,356 applications for the 712 units on offer — making it oversubscribed by more than four times.

Industry watchers say the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Green Mark Scheme, a green building rating system introduced in 2005, was a huge catalyst in the building of green homes.

“Prior to the Green Mark, we spent a lot of time educating project teams and clients on how to operationalise green thinking. But with the Green Mark, many technical requirements were collapsed into categories and actions, much like a to-do checklist,” said Dr Kishnani. “Now, some developers come to us and say, ‘I want my building to be of Gold standard’ — and that immediately gives the project team a benchmark.”

Added Associate Professor Lee Siew Eang of the National University of Singapore (NUS) School of Design and Environment, and the director of the university’s Centre for Total Building Performance: “‘Green building’ through individual effort has been on and off on a small scale, but with the launch of the Green Mark, the number of people coming forward to design and meet that requirement has been growing surprisingly fast.”

According to the BCA, the increase in the number of applications for the environmental sustainability scheme for buildings has been “very significant”. Already, more than 50 applications have been submitted this year, more than the total number of applications for 2005 and last year put together.

A total of 34 buildings, 16 of them condominiums, have been accredited in the last two years. Another 27 will be receiving awards in the first half of this year, including — for the first time — a landed residential property.

But even as homeowners catch on to the idea that they can go green at home, the people they hire to build their homes often resist this. Most contractors still prefer to go with conventional designs and offer cheaper, less efficient appliances.

Mr Bobby Han, 41, who decided to integrate a rainwater-harvesting system into his semi-detached home — which employs energy efficient and LED lights, as well as windows, glass roof tiles and light-reflecting ducts to maximise natural light — found the first person he had to convince was his own contractor. The latter complained about his design and called the feature “troublesome”.

“We still have a long road ahead training contractors to understand the issues,” said the energy consultant, whose utilities bill for his seven-member family now averages $200 a month. Similar-sized families living in semi-detached houses often run up costs of more than $500 in utilities.

Knowledge gaps stand in the way of any great leap in the popularity of eco-design, said veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon.

“There are a host of new technologies available, but very few people know about them,” said Mr Tay, citing the harnessing of wind power in homes as one example. This has not taken off here, he said, because “capital cost is an issue where the state must step in”.

But most experts agree the main push has to come from the market itself.

“At the end of the day, developers are looking for buyers who are looking for green homes, but they are still not convinced there is strong demand. This will come perhaps in one or two years, when those who live in eco-friendly homes enjoy the benefits and send the message out,” said Prof Lee, who heads NUS’ Energy Sustainability Unit.

Only when the value of such energy-efficient homes outpaces other homes will “more people scramble for them”, he said.

He observed that, currently, not many projects are conducting enough tests and technical appraisals to ensure the design of an eco-home performs better than a typical home’s.

For example, a greater degree of care has to go into ensuring that building orientation, ventilation and lighting is of such high quality that residents can stay comfortable without turning on the fan or air-conditioner.

The low cost of utilities serves as another market disincentive for energy-consciousness in homes. Said Dr Kishnani: “Many don’t pay attention to wastage because energy is relatively cheap. As a homeowner, I would alter my behaviour when it starts to hurt, such as if there is a higher tariff for excessive usage.”

In trying to speed up the process of “greening” more homes, it is difficult to shy away from asking for more Government intervention.

On Tuesday, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said the Government was considering including the optimal level of electricity that households should use in a national energy efficiency plan. But no deadline has been set.

“I am pretty sure eventually the answer will lie in a hybrid mechanism — part legislation, part energy-pricing and part awareness-building through instruments such as the Green Mark,” said Dr Kishnani.

Mr Tay said energy efficiency criteria must be toughened. “The total energy required per household should be declared. The Green Mark must become more stringent.”

There is also a need for strong legislative policies to bring down cost of going really green, say other industry players. A tax incentive for green credits is one option, said Mr Sim Boon Yang, co-founder of architect and design consultancy firm Eco-id.

“Green policies are still limited at this stage,” he said.

Source: Weekend Today, 21 April 2007

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