Sustainable design

Southeast Asia’s interiors and infrastructure are built on sustainable design

Artisans, architects and urban planners are incorporating environmental urgency into their creations as they work to design a sustainable future for the region

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October 27, 2022
Southeast Asia’s interiors and infrastructure are built on sustainable design
A Kayan tribe woman arranging rattan in Nahajale, Malaysia's Sarawak region. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Adi Nugraha speakers are coated with cow dung. Hard rock, soft jazz, news or sports commentary, listeners tune into their preferred frequency through a shell of freeze-dried bovine faeces. 

The objects are durable, waterproof, and completely odour-free, the designer and researcher at Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology said with a smile. And while the bulbous accessories may appear unassuming, Nugraha’s inspiration followed the beat of a growing environmental issue.

In his native Lembang district, where agriculture is a key sector, cow dung from farms is polluting the air with methane emissions and rendering the river, where local communities bathe and wash their clothes, polluted. 

“The local farmer just simply litter[s] the dung to the river,” said Nugraha. “So the idea was I should use this …  for making something.” 

Indonesian designer Adhi Nugraha’s speakers are made from a cow dung mixture, to tackle the bovine faeces waste problems plaguing his local community. Photo: Amanda Oon for Southeast Asia Globe

His production process is precise. Cow dung is cleaned with water that can be sanitised and reused, and mixed with sago, tropical palm leaf starch that functions as a natural binder when mixed with water. The mixture is then poured into 3D printed moulds. 

Nugraha launched his radios at the inaugural FIND Design Fair Asia, Asia’s largest furniture and design fair.

Visitors to the inaugural FIND Design Fair Asia look at Adhi Nugraha’s speakers made from a cow dung mixture. Photo: courtesy of Craft PR

Launched as a partnership between the government’s DesignSingapore Council and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the event aimed to bridge Singapore’s cultural and trade relations with the European design hub and showcase rising regional stars. The fair’s EMERGE pavilion showcased the works of over 60 selected regional designers, including Nugraha.

As the designers shared creative and cultural ties, their countries were bonded by a more urgent shared issue.

“From public housing to water sufficiency to massive modernisation … [our aim is to] weave sustainability into our design and product development,” said Low Yen Ling, minister for culture, community and youth, and trade and industry, at FIND’s opening ceremony.

Sustainability is no stranger to the design world. But the sector still accounts for almost 10% of global emissions and produces almost 92 million tonnes of waste annually, statistics that sit uncomfortably on the bold claims. As concerns over greenwashing loom, interior designers and urban planners in Southeast Asia are looking to scale sustainable design to new heights. 

Manufacturing, including the making of furniture and other interiors, is a key industry for Southeast Asia. The sector is predicted to generate up to $600 billion for the region before 2030, according to research from the Boston Consulting Group. But this commercial sheen is sullied by environmental concerns. Discarded raw materials and emissions across the supply chain pose hurdes to sustainable production. 

To address these challenges, Southeast Asian designers are increasingly turning towards local materials which don’t require import, such as native climbing plant rattan and bamboo.

Tan Wei Ming’s rattan cushions on display at the Emerge Pavilion at FIND Design Fair Asia. Photo: courtesy of Craft PR

Fellow FIND exhibitor and sustainability-committed craftsman, Tan Wei Ming’s rattan cushions are woven by local Sarawak craftsmen.

Rattan weaving is an integral part of the ancestral heritage of Malaysia, where people used the technique to build homes and hunting tools. Tan’s aim was to ensure her production not only used sustainable materials, but also helped support  local livelihoods. 

Wei Ming Tan’s geometric lamps are made from recycled glass and other materials Photo: courtesy of Craft PR

“I would definitely like to empower the local community,” Tan said at the FIND launch. “[This is] something that their ancestors have been using for years… and [now] they also know that it is something for their livelihood.”

Tan’s second piece at the fair, a pair of synthetic modern, geometric lamps, strikes a stark contrast. Rings of light are mounted onto mottled art deco stands, made from terrazzo polished stones, incorporated with used glass. The terrazzo stones are made from cut-offs from construction materials, such as glass, marble and granite. For the special edition series, exhibited at FIND, Tan hand crushed used coloured glass bottles into glass aggregates to be incorporated into the design.

“I believe that it is helpful if we have the environment in mind, whenever we can, [so that we incorporate it into our design,” she said. “I can imagine the possibilities and potentials.”

Tan Wei Ming at the FIND Design Fair Asia. Photo: courtesy of Craft PR

It’s a similar theme for Nugraha as well. He believes a combination of environmental and social impact is a critical part of a designer’s role.

The organic radio covers began their first iteration as a flowerpot, aimed at addressing the needs of Lembang’s agricultural communities. But given the level of expertise and resources required to produce the moulds, their costs were much higher than the mainstream plastic versions.

“We cannot compete with an affordable product that they can use,” Nugraha admitted, looking briefly dejected. . “[This flowerpot]… it was a failure,”

But by pivoting to higher-end interior design and targeting middle and upper class buyers, designers like Nugraha and Tan are able to train and employ local craftsmen. 

“This way, the local people can contribute. They are the ones who produce it. They will get a share because they are the ones who make it. We use this concept to circulate the economy,” said Nugraha. 

Despite sustainability’s place as a loudly proclaimed priority on the Indonesian government’s agenda, baked by initiatives such as their Green Growth Program, committed to developing environmental sustainability, social inclusion and poverty reduction, according to Nugraha, grand statements rarely translate to action.

“In many developing countries, there is still a lack of concern from the local government on how to tackle [sustainability] especially with the development of people,” he said. “They have many programmes [on] how to build an environmental society, but it’s not really going deep.”

Nugraha believes that designers’ on-the-ground position allows them to act as a vital link between government policy and private markets. Conducting on the ground research by speaking with local communities allows them to better understand what products would best tackle sustainability and social issues and where to direct government funding. 

Building sustainable city infrastructure 

DBS senior team members in front of DBS’s first net-zero building. Photo: courtesy of DBS

On Singapore’s wide and leafy Bukit Timah Road, DBS Bank’s stark black and red logo sits against a curved wall of bamboo slats. 

Southeast Asia’s largest bank became the first in its sector to launch a net-zero carbon building in July, spending around $3.48 million (SGD 5 million) to equip the existing infrastructure with 1,000 square metres of rooftop solar panels, self-powered solar air-conditioning systems, and natural shade from the bamboo exterior.

The Lion City currently has 19 net-zero buildings.

“Buildings contribute over 20% of Singapore’s emissions, and hence green buildings are key to Singapore’s efforts to transit to a low-carbon and climate resilient future,” a BCA spokesperson from the government’s Building Construction Authority told the Globe

“Green modifying” a building allows for existing infrastructures to extend their lifespan in the modern metropolis, as well as minimising waste, according to Erwin Chong, Group Head of Corporate Real Estate, DBS. 

Minister Desmond Lee and Piyush Gupta place the finishing touches on birdhouses which will be installed in the building’s biophilic façade to provide refuge for native birds. Photo: courtesy of DBS

“By retrofitting a building, you avoid squandering the embodied carbon in the existing structure or generating additional embodied carbon with a new structure,” he said. 

But adapting an older building can come at a greater expense than investing in a new-build, according to the BCA spokesperson. 

For Felicity Chan, fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, gutting or replacing a building under claims of energy efficiency, creates more questions than answers. 

“It always struck me how much resources we destroy in any act of rebuilding or renovating,” she said. “It makes it very hard to believe that a project is truly low energy or net-zero.”

Southeast Asian governments still have lofty plans for designing a sustainable future. The BCA is planning for 80% of all buildings by gross floor area to be considered “green” buildings and 80% of new developments from that date to be super-low energy buildings, their spokesperson told the Globe

The city-state unveiled its tallest skyscraper on 27 October. Designed by the architects behind Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa, the superstructure is touted to be one of Asia’s most sustainable buildings.

Adhi Nugraha believes design is a problem-solving tool to tackle the region’s social and environmental issues. Photo: Amanda Oon for Southeast Asia Globe

For Nugraha, future goals are built from the remnants of past rubbish. He is currently researching methods of combining the cow dung and binder mixture with other materials, such as discarded plastic bags or cigarette butts to strengthen the end product. Ultimately, he hopes to integrate the substance into supply chains to better tackle the global environmental concern.

“For me, design is not just, you make [an] aesthetical thing and then you sell it,” he said. “Design is a problem-solving tool.”

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