Saturday, 28 April 2007

Buildings which melt back into nature

Sustainable construction or architecture is about building with nature.

One of the crucial principles of sustainable development is for the constuction materials to be recycled or reused for new construction. Natural materials such as wood or straw, given enough time, will eventually decay and "melt" back into the environment. Mortar or concrete of course cannot decay but can still be reused as aggregate for driveways, walkways or foundations.

The next time you see a renovation work being carried out on a building in your neighbourhood, stop to observe. Most of the construction waste will be all mixed up in a pile waiting to be carted away to the landfill. For bigger renovations, a lorry would just drive right up to the building and the waste thrown straight in from the building. Sometimes the workers will separate out the metal rods and pieces to be sold to the scrap dealer. Old wood and concrete blocks have no resale value. Perhaps the paint on the wood makes it difficult to reuse or recyle them?

We put in a lot of effort at recycling plastic bottles, newspapers, cardboards, used papers etc from the office and house but there does not seem to be any effort into reducing construction waste ending up in landfills. This is an area which I hope USM can pursue rigorously in the future. It is probably going to mean the contractors are going to cost in or charge for the effort to recycle the construction waste. But that is the price we will have to pay to reduce depletion of natural resourses. I believe this has to be tackled from the design stage. The designer of the building (whether new or old) must be required to incorporate reuse of the old construction materials (I would add "wherever possible", but that sounds half-hearted).

Early this month, I was at the Berjaya Langkawi Resort to facilitate a Futures Workshop. The resort is designed very much with nature in mind. Tall beautiful trees provide lots of shade to the wooden kampung-style chalets on stilts. The chalets are built into the hillside maintaining much of the vegetation and terrain. You are not allowed to drive your own vehicle to the chalet but motorised transport is provided by the hotel.

One of the things I did was to find out whether I could 'survive' without the aircon on. I opened all the windows and doors and stripped to bare minimum (don't ask how minimum), switched on the fan and tried to take an afternoon nap after a long trip by bus and boat from Penang. I was barely comfortable, sweating slightly despite the tropical architecture, the wooded and shady environment and the sea close by. After less than one hour, I sensed an intruder in the room. To my horror, a monkey had crept into the room and was already reaching for the 3-in-1 coffee satchets on the top shelf. That's really going back to nature. And there goes my cross-ventilation - I had to close the front door.

The principles of sustainable developments suggests shady trees, use of natural ventilation and lighting, appropriate use of light colours for buildings and roofs to reduce heat absorption, proper orientation of building, shading devices, and so on. These are principles we hope to apply when USM develops its new Research Park (Garden) - that is the vision of Dato Dzul, our Vice-Chancellor, to put our stamp on sustainable development. I am looking forward to that.

As a bonus for you, this is a shot of one of those tall slender elegant trees reaching for the sky in the soft morning light in Langkawi.

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