Using land-limited Singapore as a perfect research laboratory for sustainable urban development

It’s hard to walk around Singapore without noticing WOHA’s architectural imprint all over the city. From schools to public housing estates and towering skyscrapers, WOHA has left its thoughtful and inspiring stamp all across Singapore.

The architectural practice sees land-scarce Singapore as the perfect test-bed for innovative urban solutions, transforming the city through the integration of environmental and social principles in their design process.

The company, named after the first two letters of the surnames of co-founders Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, has won global recognition and clinched countless awards through their 72 projects in 10 countries, including the coveted World Building of the Year award at the annual World Architecture Festival.

Persistent Passion

Refreshingly for WOHA, the company’s key drivers are not about the fees or making the most glamourous apartment, but rather the need to address the pressing problems of the twenty-first century and to reimagine the future.

“We want to solve these because these are the things that worry people and keep them up at night,” says Richard.

His passion for architecture comes from “making a positive vision about the future possible and bringing it to the real world”.

Mun Summ agrees, saying that architects “need to be passionate because what they do and build will affect people substantially”.

With projects usually lasting years, an architect’s passion needs to be persistent amidst challenges. Their ideas also need to be nimble enough to be relevant for the long run.

The pioneering public housing estate Kampung Admiralty, built especially for the elderly, is a prime example of how an architect’s plans eventually take shape and affect day-to-day lives.

The project was such a success that Kampong Admiralty beat 535 projects from 57 countries to clinch the top prize at the World Architecture Festival in 2018.

Being a public housing estate, the construction involved three separate government agencies, each with different goals and yet were able to work together and complete the project with WOHA in a relatively short period of three years.

“One of Singapore’s strengths in the world of architecture is that there is a lot of engagement with the government and authorities to finesse the regulations so as not to stifle creativity or make sustainable execution difficult,” says Mun Summ.

“There’s a very good feedback mechanism where we can actually speak directly to the people who write and make these rules and regulations and tell them whether or not they are effective,” he continues.

A prime example was the Newton Suites condominium development, where WOHA was able to build a landscaped area as large as the development site area itself. Convinced that green spaces could be fully replaced in a development. Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authorities decided to enact the 100% greenery replacement policy, based on those principles.

Future Positive

“Singapore is like a research laboratory for innovative urban solutions,” says Richard, “With lots of people working very hard and coming out with really interesting results.”

In a world that is constantly facing ecological limits, Singapore continues to research how to break free of these limits through design and innovation, says Mun Summ, adding: “The country is a perfect template for envisioning how future cities should be.”

With more than 80% of Singapore’s population living in public housing, the home is a key focus in Singapore’s Smart Nation agenda. Computer modelling, data analytics and sensors are used to monitor and measure the environmental performance of public housing estates. And smart planning tools simulate environmental conditions, such as wind flow and sunshine, to determine the placement and orientation of new flats.

“I think it’s one of the few places in the world where different agencies and stakeholders are all motivated to work together to implement this vision of the future rather than everybody having their little kingdom that they don’t want to get involved in this extra work and trouble of changing things,” says Richard. “It’s a very future-positive environment to work in, which is just fantastic.”

The City As An Exhibit

Singapore has played host to numerous events including the celebrated World Architecture Festival and the annual Archifest. These events have been especially important for the industry.

”The city is the number one exhibit,” says Richard. “It’s actually like an expo of future solutions which architects can come and see.”

For many of his peers that visit, Mun Summ relates how they can’t quite believe how advanced Singapore is in many areas.

Such international events serve as ideal professional meeting platforms, bringing together diverse points of view.

“There is a general passion to do new things differently and solve problems,” says Richard. “It is in some ways quite a generator of new ideas and solutions, which then spread across the world.”

Mun Summ agrees: “When you compress everything together, Singapore is a very intense passionate place for new possibilities.”