The Jolly Green Giant *
While skyscrapers transform Asian skylines, Ken Yeang is transforming the skyscraper.
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 7/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
When Ken Yeang flew in from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to give the keynote address at Greenbuild 2003, he surprised attendees by launching into the topic of green skyscrapers—a concept that many purists still deem a contradiction in terms. But by the end of the hour-long talk, Yeang had convinced more than a few diehards that it's possible to design high-quality, ecologically sustainable buildings that are also tall.
Yeang's architecture firm, T.R. Hamzah & Yeang Designs International, has pioneered what he calls "bioclimatic skyscrapers," instantly recognizable for planted terraces that make the buildings look like giant Chia Pets. Current commissions include the new National Library building in Singapore, due for completion in the fall of this year.
So, "green skyscraper" doesn't have to be an oxymoron?
It's true that skyscrapers are not inherently ecological. Generally, they use up at least 30 percent more energy and materials than low-rise or medium-rise buildings. However, until we find an economical alternative to high-rises, I'm afraid they will be with us. In which case, we need to make them as green as possible.
Where should a designer start?
It's largely a question of what not to do at first. If we make basic configuration decisions that don't respond to the local climate, we continually need to correct the design with more mechanical and engineering systems to achieve acceptable conditions of comfort. A building like this will never be low-energy.
Is that why you often put elevators, stairs, and rest rooms on the perimeter of a floor plate?
The peripheral position does a number of things. Mechanical rooms placed near the exterior wall of a building can serve as a buffer between the climate outside and tenant spaces at the center of the floor plate. And a stairwell placed near exterior walls can receive natural ventilation—and doesn't need to be mechanically pressurized for fire- code reasons. That reduces both initial costs and operating costs.
Also, take the case of employees or visitors stepping out of an elevator. If they can see outside, it gives them a greater awareness of place, as opposed to entering an artificially lit lobby and corridor, which could be anywhere in the world.
How do you create a symbiotic relationship between buildings and nature, what you term "eco-mimesis"?
Eco design is about integrating buildings with nature seamlessly and benignly, over their entire life span. In a nutshell, a built system should imitate the properties, structure, content, and processes of mature ecosystems. That is: the use of solar energy, the internal recycling of waste, a diverse composition, a balance of biotic and abiotic elements, etc.
Ecosystems include both organic and inorganic mass. And buildings today are almost 100 percent inorganic. We need to find an overarching way of balancing the inorganic condition of our built environment with more organic mass to make a complete whole.
You have quite a passion for growing things.
I studied architecture and ecology for my doctorate at Cambridge and ecological land-use planning under University of Pennsylvania professor Ian McHarg.
Do some designers find free-form greenery too messy?
Plants tend to give buildings a rather "hairy" aesthetic, which may not be everyone's cup of tea. But plant photosynthesis should be attractive to everyone. It creates a healthier microclimate by absorbing carbon dioxide and VOCs while giving off oxygen.
Which plants can make the biggest difference to indoor air quality?
The aloe, banana plant, and philodendron have been shown to absorb formaldehyde. Devil's ivy, green lilies, gerbera daisies, and chrysanthemums are very effective at removing not only formaldehyde but also benzene, trichloroethylene, and airborne microbes. The Boston fern removes 90 percent of the chemicals that cause allergic reactions. Preliminary studies indicate that significant improvement requires one plant per square meter, but this needs to be studied at greater length.
Any plants to avoid?
Plant species that don't absorb carbon dioxide and VOCs and are also allergenic and insect-gregarious.
What about avoiding misperceptions?
Perhaps we need more public education about what's green and what isn't to combat misleading information—there's certainly a lot of it around. The worst is when designers think that all they have to do is stuff a building with recycling systems and low-energy gadgets. Nothing is further from the truth.
Ken Yeang, principal of T.R. Hamzah & Yeang Designs International.
His proposed Elephant & Castle Eco Tower in London is an exercise in vertical landscaping, with plants acting as a wind buffer, absorbing solar radiation, and providing a more humane environment.
At Bukit Bintang Park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the roof canopy's "leaves" overlap to permit cross ventilation.
The proposed Al-Ashima shopping village in Kuwait employs evaporative cooling towers, located over a series of courtyards.
Yeang's Mutiara Mesiniaga Penang building, 2003, features double-volume "sky courts" with aluminum louvers and silver quartz slate to enhance ventilation and deflect heat.
The Contemporary Africa Art Gallery in London would feature a continuous vegetated ramp that spirals up from the ground level.