Innovation

Smart and green urban living on the horizon

23 November 2016 by Kristie Thong

Cities, where countless opportunities for growth exist, are home to more than half of the world’s population today. According to the United Nations, over 50 percent currently lives in urban areas, a figure that is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050.

With growth comes compromise. While city dwellers in many parts of the booming Asia-Pacific region enjoy the perks of thriving cities, the opportunities often come with stress, noise and discomfort.

In Singapore, a joint collaboration aims to address the key housing and lifestyle challenges of urban areas, and  to develop sustainable solutions for greener living in tropical cities.

Made possible by a $2.25 million contribution to the National University of Singapore (NUS) from real estate developer City Developments Limited (CDL), two new research laboratories  –NUS-CDL Smart Green Home and NUS-CDL Tropical Technologies Laboratory (T2 Lab) – have been launched to study smart building technologies and sustainable solutions catered for tropical climates.

The Smart Green Home will focus on engineering innovations to enhance green living indoors, while the T2 Lab will study the different ways in which  architectural design and construction can cater to existing and future buildings in Singapore.

CDL CEO, Grant Kelley, says: “By investing in research and development, we aim to unlock the potential to create innovative products and solutions for our future homes, solutions around interiors, facades, and building materials integral to a sustainable, climate-resilient cityscape.”

Artist’s impression of the NUS-CDL Smart Green Home. Credit: NUS School of Design and Environment

Smart Green Home: the smart home of the future

Situated within a new building at the NUS School of Design and Environment, the Smart Green Home will be built as a 100sqm full-sized home for piloting innovations in a real-life environment. With at least one facade designed for plug-and-play experimentation, the Smart Green Home will look at human-centred smart materials and technologies that can contribute to the existing and future household needs in Singapore.

The Smart Green Home, which is slated to be completed by December 2017, will become an important aspect of Singapore’s research and national development, says associate professor Lee Siew Eang of the Department of Building at NUS School of Design and Environment.

Some research projects that will be undertaken include nanotechnology, which when applied to specific materials used in homes, can reduce their need for cleaning and maintenance, enable them to become non-slip thus improving safety, help them resist fungal growth and improve air quality and health, as well as provide acoustic absorption for better comfort.

Researchers will also look at envelope systems – in layman terms, the external wall of the apartment building, which comprises concrete surroundings, windows and doors – that integrate sensor-based controls and analytics based on the needs and comfort of occupants while being energy efficient.

For example, they will be experimenting with integrated systems that can regulate the use of windows automatically and activate air filters when the PSI exceeds 300 outdoors, or close all windows and doors when noise pollution is at its peak.

“We will be looking at integrated solutions that meet the multiple functional needs of a home. This may include lighting, thermal comfort, air quality, noise control and more,” says Lee.

Research related to sustainable and smart green homes is not new in Singapore. However, having a real-life environment for testing is.

“Research that is conducted in standard laboratories takes a long time to reach the market because technologies and innovations are not showcased in the right environment. Smart Green Home is a platform that can change that, and demonstrate to the industry and public how these systems work and how they can add value to our quality of life,” says Lee.

Artist’s impression of the NUS-CDL of the T2 Lab. Credit: NUS School of Design and Environment

NUS-CDL T2 Lab: acclimating to the tropics

Expected to be launched at the end of 2016, the NUS-CDL T2 Lab will function as a customisable research space to study new ideas related to healthy green living and future lifestyles in tropical climates.

Run by the NUS Department of Architecture, the design-focused laboratory will be located on the NUS Kent Ridge campus. It will study how passive and active building systems can be used to reduce carbon emissions, with researchers exploring how passive building systems – such as daylight and natural ventilation – can be integrated with active ones, such as air-conditioning.

The lab will also test technologies to examine the adaptability of the Singapore home to population trends such as ageing, safety and security and work-life balance, and identify ways to mitigate environmental impact on the residents.

Lau Siu Kit, senior lecturer from the Department of Architecture at NUS School of Design and Environment, who is involved in the research and development of the lab, explains that the idea for the T2 Lab was conceived through two driving forces: the increases in population density and energy in Singapore and the growing awareness and emphasis placed on sustainability and global efforts to combat climate change.

“There is an increase in awareness of sustainable buildings and cities among students at the school. Globally, countries have pledged to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. The T2 Lab comes at a good time, with many opportunities to establish NUS and Singapore as a leader in the area of sustainable living,” he explains.

Projects that the T2 Lab will be taking on involve experimental studies on integrating building facade design, construction and operations that gel with Singapore’s tropical climate. Researchers will study the incorporating of solar panels with building facades, such as roofs and vertical wall surfaces, and assess the feasibility of using sun-shading shutters with solar membranes and panels.

“We want to know more about these technologies and use them well in the tropics, so that this knowledge can be transferred to the industry and general public. It is our hope that our research can benefit people living in Singapore, through energy savings and ecological improvements,” adds Lau.

Steady progress

These research initiatives are a much-needed step towards a more sustainable future for Singapore. Apart from the emphasis on smart, greener and healthier living, the capabilities developed by the two NUS-CDL platforms “will also set new benchmarks for the building industry”, says CDL’s Kelley.

The NUS-CDL Smart Green Home’s focus on smart technologies, together with T2 Lab’s experimental design studies for buildings in the tropics, is a concerted effort to use engineering and design to demonstrate what greener and healthier living in Singapore can be, and to drive industries towards sustainable models for the future.

Lee says: “What we are driving at is not a talking fridge or smart kettle. We are looking at something basic and intrinsic to the needs of the future of Singapore. When you construct a building, you want it to last for many decades. And if you don’t put thought into the construction, you’ll have to live with it or tear it down, and it will cost a lot more. We have to go back to the basics.”

These research platforms may only be the beginning, but they represent one of the first collaborative local efforts between the public and private sectors in the area of sustainable development. With Singapore recently identifying sustainability as a key focus for public research funding in the next five years, emphasis on sustainable urban solutions is the way to go for the future. 

Edited by Kritika Srinivasan and Goh Wei Ting