Q and A with Jason Pomeroy (Eco-architect, Urban Planner and City Time Traveller host)

The biggest challenge for the industry when it comes to sustainable design is being able to understand that it’s not what a sustainable building costs, but actually what it saves.

Jason Pomeroy of Founder of Pomeroy Studio, Eco-architect, Urban Planner, Academic

Jason Pomeroy of Founder of Pomeroy Studio, Eco-architect, Urban Planner, Academic

Singapore-based Architect, Urban Planner and Academic Jason Pomeroy is presenting a brand-new 12-part architecture travel series for Channel NewAsia, called ‘City Time Traveller’. His travels across Asia will uncover stories behind some of the most interesting cities, places, buildings and their people.  Insightful and informative, “City Time Traveller” seeks to connect history, culture and everyday life though architecture.

Beyond hosting the travel series, Jason Pomeroy has been known internationally as one of the leading eco-architects. He is continuously working very hard to redefine the concept of sustainable design. Green Asia Force talks to Jason Pomeroy about his view on sustainable design, the future of sustainable design in Asia and its challenges.

GAF: How did you end up specializing in eco architecture?

Jason: I guess I’ve been conditioned by the places where I have lived. I grew up in London, for me one of the great cities of the World that has wonderful parks, garden squares interspersed within the urban habitat. The Victorian terraced houses sticks in my mind as an incredibly versatile building typology that embraces with natural light and ventilation. So when studying architecture at Canterbury I was interested in how high-density cities, like Hong Kong and Singapore, try to salvage open space for social amenity, recreation and try and retain low carbon footprints despite their potentially energy intensive, high-density settings. That led me to doing my research degree at Cambridge, where i explored skycourts and skygardens in tall buildings and high-density mixed-use developments. I’m thankful to be now working in a part of the World that allows me to utilize this knowledge and to see our projects coming to fruition in some major Asian cities, such as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Beijing, and Singapore. I’m particularly passionate about passive design in order to reduce consumption – something that architects and designers have been doing since the beginning of time. Technology has allowed us to forget this, and consequently increase our carbon woes by relying on energy consuming light fittings and air conditioning. A return to basic design principles is the key to successful sustainable design that not only function spatially but have emotional content, are cost efficient and environmentally responsive.

GAF: How confident are you that Southeast Asian architects and building industry players will make the shift toward a more eco-friendly practice?

Jason: I think it is already happening by either boutique developers seeking first mover advantage to highlight energy and water savings in addition to quality design, bigger corporate developers satisfying corporate social responsibilities, or the sheer weight of legislation on developers executing projects in environments with large carbon footprints. For instance, China has the potential to be the forerunner in the future in terms of eco-friendly design. It needs to desperately, as the pollution levels are becoming cataclysmic. According to the World bank, by 2015, half of the World’s new building construction will take place in China, and with one of the largest carbon footprints in the World, necessitates swift action to kerb emissions. The government seeks to reduce energy consumption by 45% by 2020. Coupled with China’s major expansion into renewable energy technologies (they are now the largest producer of solar cells and wind turbines) we will be seeing more green projects from this Asian super-power that seek to reconcile economic progress with more sustainable developments. Singapore is taking bold steps too towards greening the urban habitat. The garden city is quite literally greening many a hardened city surface area through the exploration of skycourts and skygardens. In many respects, I’m delighted to see that the ideas from my recent book (‘The skycourt and skygarden: greening the urban habitat’, published by Routledge) are being executed in reality, with Singapore taking active steps to consider the social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits of urban greenery.

GAF: What do you think about the persistent dichotomy between green building and affordability? Are we breaking this dichotomy down any time soon in Southeast Asia? How far are we from a situation where green building practice is just good building practice and when all architects are eco-architects?

Jason: The biggest challenge for the industry when it comes to sustainable design is being able to understand that it’s not what a sustainable building costs, but actually what it saves. The stigma of green design costing 30% more than normal buildings will continue to be challenged and de-mystified as more and more green buildings are assessed in terms of their capital costs and operational costs in comparison to non-green buildings. Common perceptions that sustainable design is costly will continue to change, with an increased awakening that the costs initially associated with green design are marginal (1-5% over non-green buildings) and yet the upsides considerably outweigh the former. Improved habitable conditions, reduced energy and water consumption and therefore utility bills and greater social mobility all contribute to an increase in savvy property purchasers basing their decisions on such tangible savings and lifestyle improvements.  The World Green Council has also published findings that highlight the heightened tenancy retention, rental and sales value increases of green projects, which further demonstrates that designing green is not only good for the environment but good for the pocket. But it will only be a matter of time that the word ‘sustainable’ will be dropped from a sentence. It is an appendage used extensively in marketing collateral, and the sooner everyone realizes that sustainable design is good, back to basics design that utilizes tried and tested principles from generations before, the better.

Tropic Passive House project by Pomeroy Studio (image credit: Pomeroy Studio)

Tropic Passive House project in Malaysia by Pomeroy Studio. Re-Interpreting a traditional longhouse concept with a new design language (image credit: Pomeroy Studio)

GAF: In Asia, we have a long history of climatically responsive architecture that take into account site conditions. As time goes by, somehow it has been forsaken in the name of progress and modernity. How can we make people realize that in order to be ‘eco-friendly’ we don’t have to look so far but instead dig through our vernacular architectural vocabulary and give them a new design language?

Jason: Aesthetics may change with time but the basic spatial and socio-cultural needs of man have remained the same for hundreds if not thousands of years. I’ve had the privilege of researching and exploring many different Asian civilisations, and the buildings and places they created. They have been forged through an almost Darwinian process of natural selection, where only the strongest space planning principles survive. Superfluous detail or fancy gets quickly erased in history – what is retained is what is often key to a people’s living habits. In Asian cultures, we see the heightened importance of the kitchen as the matriarchal centre of the home, the verandah as a social space, and the courtyard as the provider of natural light and ventilation. These elements transcend geographic location, and we can see similar models in Thailand aswell as India. But adornments and motifs may come in the form of religious or local crafts expression that provide a distinct local cultural flavour. One of the reasons my Studio has been at the forefront of redefining the concept of sustainable design is by considering such spatial, cultural and technological sustainability in addition to climatically responsive needs. Globalisation has contributed to the gradual erosion of Asian cities sense of its own cultural past and therefore ‘self’, with the imposition of modern materials, modern technologies and modern social practices with little relevance to the local traditional culture. Cultural sustainability seeks to ensure that local traditions are retained along with the way that they manifest in local architecture and its cultural motifs. The traditional can then blend with the modern through a technological sustainability that considers innovative building materials sparingly, or even traditional materials used in a modern way (bamboo for instance, has a compressive and tensile strength greater than steel).

GAF: You are known for your continuing research on zero energy building development and have successfully built Idea House in Malaysia. How ready do you think our building professionals are to be involved in such projects (for example in Singapore case which arguably can be considered the leader of green building movement in the region)? Could such idea be supported well?

Jason: I think there is still quite some way to go. I started the Idea house project, which is the first zero carbon house in Asia, in 2008. At around this time, the British government were coming out with legislation that would see all new residential properties being carbon zero by 2016, and all new civic buildings by 2018. This was far reaching for the UK, and so for our small, humble R + D prototype in Malaysia, it was certainly advanced for its time.  Thankfully, there was the shared foresight with a forward looking developer who wanted to have first mover advantage, but it was certainly a challenge trying to be able to simply explain the raison d’etre of zero carbon development and its tangible benefits to the consultant team and industry stakeholders – i.e the ability for the development to be able to offset the (lower) carbon footprint driven through passive design, through on site renewable strategies. I was fortunate to be able to pre and post-project demonstrate its embodied carbon zero status in addition to its operational carbon status through a book and a documentary, which helped spread the importance of this sort of development in the interests of effectively never having an energy bill again. Having said this, we are now in 2014, and I can still see there being a reticence from developers, as the assumption that it still costs more than the ‘business as usual’, and therefore building professionals are not willing to push the envelope. We are therefore thankful to be designing a pair of carbon negative bungalows  / communities in Singapore  / overseas (i.e generates more energy than the occupant can use) at the same cost of the average landed bungalow / community. The actual renewable energies ( solar cell technology) only accounts for less than 1% of the project cost, as the design is highly passive and naturally consumes less energy. The sooner designers realize that the key to zero carbon design is a return to highly passive structures with optimized thermal performance, the sooner we can de-bunk the myth that it is more costly, and we can have a greener built environment.

Passive Eco Pod project by Pomeroy Studio (image credit: Pomeroy Studio)

Passive Eco Pod project in Port Dickson (Malaysia) by Pomeroy Studio (image credit: Pomeroy Studio)

GAF: How has the process of the making of ‘City Time Traveller’ enriched you as an architect? Can you share with us any particular interesting findings from the numerous trips that you have made so far?

Jason: I feel the process of making the TV series has certainly enriched me. Every new city and every new finding makes one realize how much one doesn’t really know – we are constantly learning! It helps that my practice is very much an evidence-based, interdisciplinary sustainable design studio that combines design and research  – a balancing of a creative vigour with an academic rigour! So, this grand tour of Asia’s most historic cities and their architectural structures has similarly been a perfect opportunity for the Studio’s ongoing research into socio-cultural dwelling practices that transcend geographic boundaries, which is then similarly applied to the sustainable developments that we design in Asia and further afield. The places I visited have spanned the breadth of time, ranging from the 7th century ancient city of Varanasi rich in spiritual content, through to the 21st century city of Tokyo that is a hotbed of technological ingenuity laid upon age old socio-cultural practices. I’ve also seen the majestic Palaces of Hue, and the magical ruins of Ayutthaya. What transcends culture though is an indigenous civilisation’s understanding of basic environmental and social needs, embodied in many of these historical buildings. Shelter from the elements, natural light, natural ventilation, locally sourced materials and a spatial ‘encoding’ as to who can come in and occupy a particular space, and who must stay outside, can be found in all. This insight as to how people once lived before the advent of technology, and how many of the basic principles of the past can be distilled to sustain communities for the present and future is what has become applicable in our design method from the macro scale of the city to the micro scale of the dwelling.

You are able to watch the episodes of City Time Traveller on Channel News Asia website.

More information about Pomeroy Studio can be found on their website.

By: Devisanthi Tunas



About the author

Devisanthi Tunas is the co-founder of www.greenasiaforce.com, an online platform which promotes sustainability awareness and green building solutions in tropical context. She is a Singapore based architect.