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CNBC Transcript: Ken Yeang, Principal Architect, T.R. Hamzah & Yeang

Below is the transcript of an interview with T.R. Hamzah & Yeang Architect Ken Yeang. The interview will play out in CNBC's latest episode of Managing Asia on 15 March 2019, 6.30PM SG/HK (in APAC) and 11.00PM BST time (in EMEA). If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC and Christine Tan.

Christine Tan: Ken, as an architect, you first went green in the 1970s. Have you always wanted to be an eco-architect? When was the turning point for you?

Ken Yeang: Well, I originally was appointed as a research worker to work on the "autonomous house" project. The autonomous house project was an idea mooted by American engineer, Buckminster Fuller, for a house that was not connected to the city's utilities. Anyway, after six months on project, I told my boss that all I'm working on is ecological engineering. So we should really be looking at the bigger picture, which was ecology and the built environment. They were not to be interested in what I was indicating, so they said, why don't you do a doctorate instead? So I left the Group and I did a doctorate on Ecological Design and Planning. And when I finished my doctorate, it became my life's agenda.

C: Why is it so important to you to an eco-architect? Why does it appeal to you?

K: Well, It's not me particularly. But I'm doing it because I think human beings are basically destroying the environment. If you asked me about designing for the environment about maybe 10, 20 years ago, it was preventive design to stop things getting worse. But 20 years later now, it is a race and rescue mission. So if we don't do something about it now, then there won't be that many next generations to survive our generation.

C: So after you studied architecture in London, you returned to Malaysia to start your own firm with Tengku Robert Hamzah from the Malay Royal family. What was it like in the early days, managing and running your own business?

K: This was the mid-70s, so people weren't that particularly interested in ecological architecture. And that the engineering support was not there until around the 90s. But I found that the easiest way to introduce ecological architecture into my business was "bioclimatic design", which was to design with climate. Bioclimatic design gives you a very strong armature in which you can add in ecological features. So that's how we started. Now, bioclimatic design effects has energy savings, so for commercially-minded clients, it was much easier to sell. I also found that as an architect having left architecture school, we were not taught how to run a business. And so I had to learn business. I went to attend evening classes at the Malaysian Institute of Management, the Singapore Institute of Management, and I think in the early 2000s, there was a recession. So I did a one week course in Harvard Business School on how to run a service company and that was an incredible experience, I should have done it 20 years earlier. Attending business courses gave me the advantage because most of my colleagues, or my competitors, learn marketing and business management intuitively, through trial and error. So by learning it systematically, it gave me a way to address problems. It doesn't guarantee success but it gives me a greater sense of confidence.

C: It allows you to compete better?

K: Yes, it helps me to compete better and be smarter than them, I think.

C: Was it easy finding projects, eco-projects, in the early days?

K: Oh, very extremely difficult. It wasn't until maybe late 90s or even in the noughties, in the 2000s, that I have clients coming to me specifically to look for a green architect. So right now, I'm doing green projects – I'm happiest now than I've ever been for 50 years and I'm busiest now than I've ever been in 50 years.

C: You actually designed this building that we're now in that houses the National Library. How much work went into the design process? What did you look at first?

K: Well, there wasn't a singular factor. But you got to remember that we won the project by competition. They invited about five architects from throughout the whole world – an Italian architect, an American architect, a Japanese architect, and me, a Malaysian architect. And they chose our scheme. So our scheme had a number of ideas in it and the major idea was that we separate the programming block from the collections block and join the two by bridges. The programming block was the block that brought the Singaporean people to this building. They are induced to come whether through exhibitions, or through poetry reading, or through classes. And then having brought them into the building, they are then introduced to the collections to become readers. And that was the first idea. So between the programming block and the collections block, we created this atrium which is naturally ventilated, which is again one of the nice spaces we have. But the most important thing we did was to free the ground floor. You see, for most buildings, the most expensive and valuable space is the ground floor because that's where you earn the most income. But we freed the ground floor and created a plaza where the library could organize cultural activities.

C: So as a designer and an architect, what are the special features of this building? What are you most proud of?

K: Well the first thing that's self-evident is that the building is climate-responsive. You see a lot of sun shades to stop the heat from coming and entering the building. But you can see how these keeps out the sun from the reading room, and the sun comes up to about 800 millimeters into the space and that's about it. It is a climate-responsive building and the passageways, the lift lobbies are naturally ventilated or have the potential to become naturally ventilated. So it starts out as a bioclimatic structure. Then, the second thing that we are very pleased about is the sky courts – we have huge sky courts facing the Northeast. You can see them over there. They are about three to four storeys high where we have plants grown in the great spaces.

C: As an architect, is your approach different for every project, from building to building?

K: Oh yes, I try and think about as I said, what we can do to give joy and pleasure to people. And it could be a space, it could be a room, it could be a device… but it wasn't singularly one after the other. It was just you know, they all sort of came together. Shoop, just like that. (Laughs) Just like that.

C: Your achievements in architecture include what you call bioclimatic designs as well as ecomimicry. Can you explain these two concepts again? And what was the idea behind them?

K: Well, as I mentioned earlier, climatic design is basically designing with the climate of the place. And by designing with the climate of the place, you end up with a passive mode, low-energy building. Now that's not ecological design, it's a subset of ecological design. So when designing bioclimatic buildings, the next stage is to make it green and ecological. So that's the progression I go through when I'm designing. My latest idea, crucial to everything that we do, is to biointegrate. Now, if we were able to biointegrate everything that we make, we do, we build, we operate and we use with the natural environment, there won't be any environmental problems. But one of the ideas I had was that, if you were to integrate our built environment with the natural environment, then our buildings, our cities and our built environment must be like nature. Now if it's like nature, it's not inert and alienated from nature. So the idea is to imitate the properties of nature – imitate, emulate and replicate the properties of nature. For me specifically, it is to emulate and replicate the properties of the ecosystem. The technique is adapted from biomimicy, so I call it "ecomimicry".

C: These bioclimatic designs and ecomimicry concepts, are they more expensive to build generally? Do you spend a lot of time justifying to your clients and investors how much they have to pay?

K: Well, I used to earlier on. But you see, if a client comes to you for a green building, they expect to pay a little bit more. But for me, for instance I did the Solaris building in Singapore at One-North, and that was delivered at 6.3 percent over the standard cost of the particular building type. Now the justification is that, for that building we have energy and water savings, and we calculate it's about 70 cents per square foot, and that is amortized over eight years. And so after five to eight years, you get a super green building or you get a super-green building which is, by Singapore's standards, Green Mark platinum. But with the energy and water savings, it continues to have energy savings even after you amortized the cost. By saving energy and water, it reduces the servicing charges to your tenants. So these are some of the benefits of the green building. But we really shouldn't look at green buildings as a commercial enterprise, you should do green buildings because it's an ethical thing to do. It's morally right to do. It's the right thing to do.

C: Do you spend a lot of time explaining to your investors and your clients that this is the right thing to do, to get them to see past the commercial aspect?

K: Oh yes. Now, I think not only should we just persuade them and tell them the benefits of green buildings, we should try and make their other businesses green. This way we're actually changing the world in a sense.

C: You want to be an influence.

K: Yes in a sense. Yes.

C: Everybody, when it comes to buildings, often talk about property appreciation. Is there a value you can put to green buildings compared to traditional ones? Do they appreciate faster over time?

K: Oh yes, absolutely because it's very obvious. Now you have two buildings, one is a green building, the other one is a non-green building. The green building has energy savings and the other building is an energy-guzzler. So which one will you invest in? Obviously, invest in a building that saves energy and water. And studies have shown that actually green buildings appreciate faster than non-green buildings. Estate agents say that.

C: As an architect based in Malaysia, do you hope that Asia can lead the way when it comes to sustainable buildings and green architecture?

K: Well, I think certain countries tend to have a greater emphasis on greening.

C: Like what?

K: Well, like Singapore you know, your BCA, your Building and Construction Authority. That's very green. John Keung used to run it until I think he retired. He spent an enormous amount of effort working out the green rating system and developing it as well. I have great admiration for what John does. And then your government implements it. So the most powerful authority's the government. So Singapore is the class example of a city that wants to be green, that wants to be biophilic and to implement greenness.

C: So you think the real push should come from governments?

K: Oh yes.

C: More from governments than the private sector.

K: Oh yes. Private sector, you know, just wants to make money. We are the fourth generation immigrants from Southern China who just want to make money. (Laughs)

C: If you had to design your next building, what would it look like? What new ideas would you explore?

K: Central to what I do now is what I call "ecomimicry", which is emulating and replicating the attributes and properties of ecosystems. The most important attributes that we should try and emulate are "ecosystem services". Ecosystem services are things that nature does for us without any human intervention. For instance, nature does photosynthesis. Nature sequests the pollution and produces pure water. Now, if we're able to imitate the production of ecosystem services, that would be the most wonderful invention we can achieve.

C: Have you done that yet?

K: Oh, it's impossible because no human being can do it at the global scale that nature can do. What we could do is to augment nature. That means we enhance the habitats within the built environment so that the habitats produce the ecosystem service within the built environment. So that is the idea that I'm working on now, how to augment the built environment with biotic constituents and habitats.

C: Will it happen soon?

K: It's happening in some of our projects. We just did a masterplan for a site in the island of Réunion. Réunion Island is a French island east of Madagascar and we did a masterplan there. What we did was, we weaved the green aspects with the built aspects like this. (Claps his hands) So this is built such that they are intertwined, so that the green augments the built environment. At the moment for instance, like in London and New York, the green area in Central Park and the rest of New York is just in earth. While in London you have a spotty relationship of the associated squares and that's all you have. And then of course you have Hyde Park, but they are all disparate [green areas]. They are too far away [from the urban areas]. So the idea is that, what we're trying to do now is to try and augment, add, weave and integrate the biotic with the abiotic. So this is in our masterplan for the Réunion Island and we're doing that now in our other projects.

C: Many engineers and architects these days are capitalizing on this eco trend. They are claiming their buildings are environmentally-friendly. From where you sit, having done it all your life, what's your biggest frustration as an eco-architect when you see everybody capitalizing on this new trend?

K: I think the biggest frustration is that a lot of people, both clients as well as colleagues and architects, are not ecology-literate. Once you study ecology, your whole perception of the world changes. When you look at a piece of green, you're not looking at a patch of grass, you're looking at it as a natural system. So I think one of the most important things, and one of the things that really frustrate me, is that lack of understanding of ecology. Now I think my generation is probably too late because a lot of them have not been brought up that way. To ask them to become ecology-literate is almost impossible. So I think the next generation of architects and community has greater hope for the future. They should teach ecology in school, they could teach how ecology impacts our social, economic, political and institutional systems. But that's a tall order and I'm not sure how we can effect that. But somebody has to do it.

C: How do you hope to impact the next generation?

K: Well, as architects and designers, we are not particularly powerful people. So we do it through a number of ways. One is through proselytizing our ideas by communicating and lecturing. I gave about 40 public lectures a year, almost once a week. That communicates my ideas to a wider community. Secondly, is by leadership. That means, you show by example that basically, this is how it's done, this is the way to do it and if you subscribe to the idea that we should design in an eco-centric way based on the ideas of ecomimicry, then these are the possible ways to do it. But to me, the other frustration I have is that I have an agenda of things that I have to do with ecological design, before I start pushing daisies. So I don't think I'm able to achieve this full agenda. Running out of time, really.

C: People often use the phrase, "reuse, reduce and recycle". A little bit too simplified, you think, when it comes to building these sustainable buildings? Are there other things to take into account when building these green structures?

K: It's a start. Reduce, reuse and recycle. But we should restore as well. Restore the existing environment and after we reuse and recycle, we should reintegrate back into the natural environment. So that to me makes a cycle.

C: So another two R's.

K: Well, yes.

C: Restore and reintegrate.

K: Let me tell you my joke about R's actually. Somebody asked me what I do with my life and I said, the four R's. The usual three R's of reading, writing and arithmetic. Reading because I'm a compulsive reader and I read everything in front of me. Writing because I love writing and I've authored a number of books. Arithmetic is basically about making some money. But what is the fourth R? The fourth R is architecture. (Both laugh) So these are the four aspects of my life.

C: So nobody has complained that you've got your alphabets all wrong?

K: People do that all the time, I think. But let me just talk a little bit about design because green design's what I do, but it's not the only thing in design. A designer must fulfil a number of factors. The first factor's function. A design must work. If it doesn't work then it's a useless piece of hardware. So function's very important. Second is that you must meet criteria. Now those must be within cost, within budget and must be well-built to meet the authority's requirements.

C: Do you pay special attention to the materials that you use?

K: Oh yes. It has to enable disassembly and recycling. So the second is criteria and green is one of the criteria. So in other words in design, green is only one small aspect. The third aspect of design is that it must be immensely beautiful. Of course it's subjective but that's why we're architects. We try to make things as beautiful as we can. But the fourth criterion, to me, is the most important one – you must make people happy. You must give pleasure to their lives. Can you imagine if we design a building which makes visitors and users happy, and enhances their quality of life? Then our whole reason for being an architect is justified. So when I start designing I don't look at how green we should make it or the criteria we have to fulfil on that site, on that particular location. We talk and discuss about how to make people happy without spending an immense amount of money on this particular project. And that's how we start designing.

C: So you've got your name behind more than 200 buildings across the world.

K: Well, plus and minus.

C: What's next, an eco-city? Is that your vision?

K: I do a lot of masterplanning work so we design eco-masterplans as well. My ambition is to be, well it's a little bit of hubris here, like the Thomas Edison of the ecological world. That means that I want to invent and create something that will be immensely useful to all of humanity forever. And if I were to achieve that then I've done something meaningful.

C: Do you think you've managed to achieve that?

K: To some extent because I have invented a lot of ideas like ecomimicry, ecocentricity, biointegration and I got this thing called "sustainability equation". So I have a set of ideas that I've worked out, which I think is important. Then I try to interpret these in my design through architecture. So when I finished my doctorate, there was period of hiatus between the time I finished my doctorate, and what I'm doing now in the last three years is writing my latest book. I was really practicing architecture, and trying to see whether I could interpret the ideas I have about ecological architecture in building form. So in some ways, a lot of work is experimental.

C: As an eco-architect, you've been hailed by The Guardian as one of the 50 people who could save the planet. It's a huge responsibility. Do you think you can do it?

K: Well, I think it's very nice for the Guardian to say that but I take that with a pinch of salt. It's always allowed when people say nice things about you. And then people say horrible things about you. So you have to take the rough with the smooth, really.

C: Kind of puts you in a superman cape, doesn't it?

K: Well, not exactly either. I think there might be probably about two dozen of us in this world who design truly authentically ecological buildings. We all talk to each other, we all share ideas and we all swap ideas. But it's an ongoing endeavor I think. Not every experiment is successful, you learn from the last one and then you improve on it. So it's an ongoing life I think.

C: You're 72 years old, studied Architecture in London, came back to Malaysia and started up your own architecture firm with your business partner. How would you describe your leadership and your management style?

K: Well, I think the secret of success is focus. Focus means you cannot be everything to everybody. So we can't do everything as an architect, you cannot be an Albert Hall concert pianist, an Olympic runner, a Top Gun aviator and a monk in Tibet at the same time. So you have to focus on certain things and that to me is the secret of success. You can't do a lot of things, but you can do a few things and do it extremely well, and do it better than anybody else. So this desire to do things extremely well, not of a lot of things, but do them better than what I think everybody does, is I think, the key to success.

C: As an architect, do you think you make a good businessman? Do you find it hard to balance between the need to make money and the need to stick to your professional believes?

K: To make money basically means that you have to sell something at a higher price than what it costs you to make, and that's what I do all the time. Then you make judgments on how much more I should sell it for. So that's what I do all the time. Now if I wanted to make pots of dosh, I wouldn't be an architect. I would be something else, you know. Sell hubcaps or something like that. (Laughs)

C: You're in charge of about 80 staff in the office. Is it easy to find good people to work for you? What do you look for when you're hiring people?

K: Different strokes for different folks, really. I want the best designers I can get and the best managers I can get. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what your skill does. The two most important things I look for are leadership, very few people have leadership, and secondly, entrepreneurial ability. I know if I'm dead and gone, the goodwill that was with me when I was alive will not last forever. It will last for maybe six months, so they have to reinvent themselves. So I send my architects to take business courses. And several of them have degrees and diplomas in business management. So if something happens to me, they can take over the firm, they can reinvent it and they can survive.

C: So you're preparing for succession planning already?

K: I've been doing that for years. (Laughs)

C: And finally, given all the work that you've done in your lifetime, what sort of legacy do you want to leave behind?

K: That my mum loves me. (Laughs) No, I'm not sure what legacy because whatever you do, it's only good for a short while. Whenever we invent something and post on the internet, I was told it's only good for 73 days before somebody plagiarizes it. And so I hope the ideas that I've developed and given to the world would be durable and bear fruit. That's my legacy.


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