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CNBC Transcript: Jason Pomeroy, Founding Principal, Pomeroy Studio and Pomeroy Academy

Below is the transcript of an interview with Jason Pomeroy, Founding Principal, Pomeroy Studio and Pomeroy Academy. The interview will play out in CNBC's latest episode of Managing Asia on 10 January 2020, 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: You're an award-winning architect and prolific champion of sustainability and eco-architecture. Why is it important to you?

Jason Pomeroy: When I look at my children, they are living in an era of climate change. We are seeing record breaking droughts, rising sea levels, the cataclysmic effects of 150 years of industrialization. If we don't do something now, this is going to have serious effects on the natural environment and the built environment at all our future generations. I have to look at my children and I have to look at their school friends, I cannot help but feel this sense of dread and foreboding because ultimately, the built environment is a huge contributor to our carbon woes. That is why I think it is important for us to take action. So, my bit is to try and ensure that whatever I design is sustainable good enough for the people now as well as our future generations.

Christine: So, as an architect, you really want to try to make an impact?

Pomeroy: Completely, completely. I do not think that it is just about me brandishing a black pen, doing pretty pictures and saying, look at what I have done. It is more about what the process of design we can go through to ensure that the essence of the city and the building in the landscape is truly green, deep green. His works have stood out -- the first zero-carbon houses in Singapore and Malaysia and a "Silicon Valley" in Indonesia called BSD City.

Christine: You've been in this game for a long time, how has the concept of architecturally sustainable energy efficient house evolved over the years?

Pomeroy: Well, I think that we have moved away from this kind of greenwashing, thankfully. For many years, sustainable design and green architecture and green cities have often smacked of this idea of being expensive design where you see these far-reaching solutions that have solar panels and wind turbines strapped to its roof, looking all very techno-centric. But people are kind of scratching their heads thinking that is quite expensive. Well, that is because the fundamentals were wrong. That was because the buildings were designed with all these technological advances and they suddenly stuck green stuff on the outside of it.

Christine: Which would seem to be green?

Pomeroy: Which has added to the cost. Yeah, but thankfully there has been this awakening that the green agenda is efficient and affordable design, that by orientating cities and buildings to allow for prevailing winds to come in providing natural lighting and natural ventilation. These are energy saving, water saving opportunities which will reduce the costs. We see this awakening to the idea of sustainable design not being costly design, rather sustainable design being economic.

Christine: Let's talk about you. You're born in the U.K. Your father is British, your mother is Malaysian. What sparked your interest in architecture?

Pomeroy: First, growing up in the U.K., we had a house with a back garden which meant that I could get down and dirty with the creepy crawlies, that meant just playing around with my friends, making wigwam tents. I guess that was my first foray into architecture, trying to augment and adorn the tent with bits of greenery and to fashion this miniature forest were my first forays into the relationship between greenery and buildings.

Christine: Were your parents a big influence?

Pomeroy: Not really! My mother, she wanted me to be a doctor. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, but I didn't want to argue for other people and I certainly was squeamish of blood. So that kind of placed me firmly in the side of the architecture category because I was happy creating things. I was happy to get down and dirty with nature. But it was this fundamental moment when I was at St. Paul's Cathedral with my father when I was eight years old, I went to the Whispering Gallery and we had this kind of bizarre, magical conversation by whispering along the curvature of the walls. I thought, "My God, how could this happen? How could this be?" And rather than him saying, oh, it's magic. He said, "This building was designed by Christopher Wren, astronomer royal and mathematician, surveyor, general to the King, architect, this true multi disciplinarian." Lo and behold, I ended up studying at Cambridge and later in life where there are many Wren-type buildings. And I basically have always had this fascination with architecture and it somehow pervade all the way through to when I was at university.

Christine: Let's talk more about that, because you called yourself a "rubbish architect graduate", so at what point did you realize that that you could become a serious and major force in sustainable architecture?

Pomeroy: How did you get that? That is amazing. I cannot believe you found that information. Yes, I said I was incredibly rubbish architect. When I graduated at 21, I went to work in Malaysia for one of the former Malaysian Institute of Architects President called David Tay. Yes, I just did not have my head in the game. I returned to the U.K. and did my masters at the Canterbury School of Architecture and something kind of clicked. I think it was because of my real blandness, my mediocrity that I thought, bloody hell, I have to I have to sort of buckle down and study. I like to try and do something. I found this somehow passion for kind of this frugality of using water and energy in my building designs. That was it, I found my calling in sustainable architecture.

Pomeroy: What I found was just this incredible entrepreneurial spirit, this thirst for its new green agenda. By the time we set up in 2012, we hit the ground running with some major projects.

Christine So, what is it like getting into the game of sustainability? Did people understand, truly understand what that word meant?

Pomeroy: No, they did not. And to be honest, people still have this misconception of it being all about wind turbines and solar cells and whatever. But it was through this educational process that we were able to demonstrate what sustainability is. When designing a zero-carbon home, the first thing is to basically explain what a zero-carbon home is. Ultimately, it is about generating enough clean, renewable energy as to equate to the amount of energy that is being consumed by the family. And then also saying, "Look, how much money you've saved" often is that turning point! Ho! I get a good design and I do not have an energy bill for the rest of my life? Kaching! Why not? Why wouldn't I do that?

Christine: So, you hit the right spot?

Pomeroy: I think so. I think so.

Christine: When people talk about sustainability, they often think about the triple bottom line, which is environment, society and economy. Is that the right approach?

Pomeroy: Yes, kind of. I do not think it goes far enough.

Christine: Can you add anything else to it?

Pomeroy: We can indeed, like the triple bottom line that has been discussed. It has been part and parcel of global policies for now, since 1987, when the Brundtland Report was written in a report called Our Common Future, which forms the basis of our notions of what sustainability is. Preserving the environment for future generations, ensuring equity and ensuring that ultimately people feel comfortable and they know that that land and the built environment is preserved for future generations. But in the wake of climate change, population increase and technological advancement, it does not go far enough. Cultural sustainability should be added to the triple bottom line. Space is another parameter that we need to add. With population increase and urbanization, we are losing sight of those open spaces that once allowed us to have a coffee. The cafes, the streets, the squares, the cultural spaces that allowed us to socially interact. So, I would argue that we cannot have a social sustainability of us having a discourse without a spatial sustainability, i.e. the spaces that we are in. We need to preserve open spaces, sky courts, sky gardens, replenishing the loss of those spaces through urbanization. Finally, technological sustainability. We are living in this world of smart cities, smart technologies, and these technologies can enhance our lives so let's use them sparingly. When I think about the evolution of a smart city, I think of the first-generation smart city like Songdo in Korea, where you have a tech rich powerhouse, a government driven, and private corporation supported. But you cannot help but feel that the people have been forgotten about. Whereas in Bandung, you have not necessarily a super wealthy city, but you had an enlightened mayor who said to the people, tweet to me, Facebook me, tell me the issues. And through the algorithms of my digital command center, we will sift through those trending topics and we will solve your problems. Suddenly, the population are feeling empowered and they know that their comments are making a difference. By the time you get to the third-generation smart city like Amsterdam, it is not only about the previous two, but it is also about augmenting space and mobility and embracing the green agenda. And ultimately, that is where we are with the third-generation smart city. It is both smart technology wise, but it is also very sustainable.

Christine: Where do you see the future? Is there a smart city 4.0?

Pomeroy: There is. I think that the 4.0 Smart City is very much embracing the fourth digital revolution, but it is very much about mobility. And I think that we are going to be seeing far more alternative forms of mobility in the future that starts to challenge the concept of the street and the square. We are going to be thinking about things like aerial drone technology and so on and so forth.

Christine: You design Asia's first carbon negative house here in Singapore. You also designing Asia's first carbon neutral prototype in Malaysia. What are some of the basic design principles you embrace?

Pomeroy: It is all about going back to nature. I would equate it to being like Mr. and Mrs. Caveman sitting at the mouth of the cave. Ultimately, cave man and cave woman discovered fire and moved slightly in deeper inside the cave. They were able to illuminate the cave, were able to cook food and keep warm. Ultimately, for the millennia, we have been retreating deeper inside the cave, and now it is time to come back to the mouth in order to embrace what the great outdoors has to offer. Ultimately, that is the basic principle. Returning to the basics of natural light and natural ventilation to reduce consumption. Once we do that, while we start to then use technology to enhance airflow and light penetration and include renewable energy sources to offset the energy demand, that is when we can get to a carbon neutral position.

Christine: Do you always get your inspiration from nature?

Pomeroy: I do and not just nature, also past cultures. Ultimately, looking to the past to inform the present is what we do. I like to call it the three Ds - Distill, Design, Disseminate. You can distill the lessons of a past culture to design for the present and then you can disseminate that for future generations, ultimately, some of the best design ideas have already been done. The Kampong House was the first zero carbon house before the age of air conditioning and artificial light. People were living in these structures that were embracing world technology, without embracing deep overhanging roofs to provide shade and shelter allowed for cross ventilation and were raised up on stilts to avoid flood risk. The basic tenets of what we should be doing as green architects.

Christine: These are residential homes that you designed, what is the demand like for these eco-friendly, sustainable housing?

Pomeroy: That is a really good question, because more often than not, they have in the past been from people who may have the privilege of having reasonable land size to be able to do these things, though increasingly, we love the challenge of being able to do this in the affordable sector. There are developers who are employing us to be doing affordable, zero-carbon homes - $40,000 to $80,000 homes, three-bedroom homes with porch and communal clubhouse facilities.

Christine: What country is this?

Pomeroy: In Philippines. In Indonesia. Ultimately, what we are challenging is this whole preconception of the affordable home. Why should it be having this stigma associated with it when these individuals buying the homes could very well have the same communal facilities that one would be able to get in a condominium? Also, what we find in the affordable housing sector is that often, they may be using public transportation, but they should not be in a position to not have the chance of having a car sharing scheme. We have been designing these affordable homes where the club communal facilities could also have a car sharing scheme powered by solar. We want to see more affordable homes in the zero-carbon sector.

Christine: So, demand is growing but not at the rate that we want?

Pomeroy: Not at the rate we want. Not at the rate we want. Ideally, we would be seeing far more homes in Asia that are zero-carbon in the affordable sector but slowly but surely, where we are seeing that whether it is in Pampanga in the Philippines or Batam in Indonesia. Whereas in Sweden, where we did the candy factory project, zero-carbon almost feels like the convention. And it is about then stepping above and beyond in those sorts of areas.

Christine: You know you are right because there is this misconception that when you have a sustainable home and eco-friendly home, it's very costly and very expensive and you are trying to debunk this. Tell me about the actual costs, can it actually be cheaper? Can it be actually cheaper or comparable?

Pomeroy: It can. It can be comparable or cheaper. In the case of B House in Singapore, we were able to come in at the same budget as a conventional structure within this part of Singapore. We had already benchmarked and know under pain of death from my client. She basically said, "Can you do what you did in Malaysia with the Idea House?" I took her around to see this. I said, "Sure." And then she said, "There is one thing: it must be at the same cost, if not slightly cheaper than the conventional home in Singapore."

Christine: That was a big challenge.

Pomeroy: It was a big challenge, but we met the challenge. And we said, yes, go on then, let's have a go. And we did. It came in slightly under budget. Slowly but surely, people are coming around. That is because we are able to demonstrate the amount of energy and water being saved, the costs associated with this and the construction cost being the same, if not less.

Christine: Does that mean you make money at the same time, or do you really have to reduce your fees as well?

Pomeroy: That is a very good question. I think that no matter what, we designers always get screwed somehow over the fees. We do not charge all fees necessarily based on kind of percentages. This is kind of the time and resource that we take to do the project. So, yes, I mean, I would be laughing all the way to the bank if we were able to be kind of charging percentages all the time for large scale kind of 20 thousand homes. But that doesn't happen. I guess we have to be conscientious of our client's budgets. We have to be conscientious of the time that we take as well. And we find the happy course in between.

Christine: You are in charge of 24 staff in Asia. How would you describe your leadership and your management style? What are you like as the boss?

Pomeroy: I think you would better have to ask that question of my team. I think I am very passionate. I think I am very focused on a task. Sometimes, I cannot see the wood for the trees. And so, I am having to kind of pull myself out. Take a deep breath and then go back in again. I would say that I give a lot of freedom for the team to be able to design. I think that there is a tendency for architects and designers to hold the black pen very, very tight and basically execute a vision and then say this is what is going to be drawn up. But I do think that if there is a solid set of design principles that you can then leave to the team to develop. I think that can nurture something better. Also, the teams are separate insofar as that they are master planners, landscape architects, architects, interior designers and graphic designers where they all kind of work collaboratively together. I would say that there is an incredible creative energy there because of this multidisciplinary approach. I think that is a very enjoyable.

Christine: Do you think you are demanding?

Pomeroy: Yeah, I do. I do think I'm demanding and sometimes I hold myself up as my best and only critic. I am incredibly hard on myself. Sometimes, I kind of use that as the kind of the benchmark which may not necessarily always be right. You know, nobody is perfect, everybody has flaws. I have many flaws, but I try work at them. I try and take a deep breath and I try and sort of settle down. If I was doing less, I think maybe that would be providing socially more. Less is more, I guess. I think it is because I have been doing so many things. I mean, maybe it is time that I kind of take a step back and think, okay, so what takes priority and just focus on that. But it has been very hard for me to do that. There was one, for instance, pulled off grid, which is a floating waterborne community. I was appointed as a visiting professor to the University of Venice. And in exchange for learning about floating waterborne architecture, I provided lectures in zero carbon development and we created this floating city concept, which then became a book, which then became part of a TV series. And this project morphed into something far bigger. It is interesting how these projects of passion suddenly take on a new form and grow legs and starts running. So, yeah, those do come along, and we love those because it helps us with our research.

Christine: Finally, as a sustainable and eco-architecture, is there a dream project out there you want to take on? What exactly do you want to create?

Pomeroy: A museum to Christopher Wren, basically my hero, my idol, the person who spoke to me through the curvature of the wall and provided a glimpse of sustainability before sustainability became a buzzword, who provided the hallowed grounds that I would walk through when I was in Cambridge. Yes, a museum to Christopher Wren.

Christine: I wish you all the best in getting that project.

Pomeroy: Thank you very much.

Christine: Jason, thank you so much for talking to me.

Pomeroy: That is a pleasure, thank you. Thank you.


For more information:
Clarence Chen
Communications Manager APAC, CNBC International
D: +65 6326 1123
M: +65 9852 8630

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