This article is part of a series featuring the winners of the inaugural iBuildSG Distinguished Fellow award.
Six Built Environment sector leaders, whose professions straddle across academia, architects, builders, engineers and developers, have been conferred the title of iBuildSG Distinguished Fellow. Appointment as a Distinguished Fellow is the highest level of recognition given to senior Built Environment (BE) leaders under the iBuildSG Leadership Engagement and Development (LEAD) Framework for their leadership and immense contributions to the BE sector.
In the late 1990s, the Asian Financial Crisis destabilised the region’s economies and affected most industries. Singapore’s construction market was not spared and demand went down by about 60 per cent. Separately, climate change concerns were growing, with buildings making up a third of the world’s energy consumption.
Bold innovation was needed. The solution was sustainable buildings and the push came from the Building and Construction Authority’s (BCA) Green Mark – an award scheme that recognises environmentally-friendly buildings.
Helping to oversee this drive then was Er Lee Chuan Seng, as chairman of the BCA Green Mark Advisory Committee.
“At that time, a lot of construction companies were doing very badly, so BCA came up with the Green Mark for two reasons: To fulfil national commitments (to carbon emission targets) and to let companies better themselves by learning green building technology,” he shared.
The scheme was a success, recalled Er Lee, now Emeritus Chairman of engineering consultancy Beca Asia. Today, BCA’s Green Mark, introduced in 2005, is recognised internationally.
This has helped Singapore firms secure projects against international competition thanks to their eco-efficient edge.
“It’s something I look back on and feel very good about,” said Er Lee, who reinforced the city-state’s environmental expertise as founding president of the Singapore Green Building Council.
Pushing the next frontier
Er Lee, 65, has had a storied career. He helped develop Beca Asia into a regional powerhouse since he joined in 1989 as a director and championed the engineering profession with numerous board positions. He is also Chairman of the National Environment Agency.
Among his many achievements, he is happiest with the strides made on the green front, with climate-friendly buildings now the norm in Singapore.
His contribution was recognised in 2018 when he was conferred the Public Service Star for his service to sustainability and the environment.
But he is aiming for even greener developments: The next frontier is zero-energy buildings, which have annual net-zero energy consumption for mid-rise, net positive energy buildings for low rise and super low energy buildings for high rise.
With great design, there can even be a net-positive energy building that produces more energy than it consumes, said Er Lee, who led the team that designed the BCA Zero Energy Building – the first such retrofitted building in Southeast Asia when it opened in 2009.
BCA Zero Energy Building
The fight for digital transformation
Despite the growing green movement, there is still some industry inertia when new building techniques and technology are introduced.
The key is getting organisations to see the benefits of going digital – which Er Lee has been doing as chairman of the BCA Industry Steering Committee for Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD).
BIM’s powerful simulations allow builders to check the performance of sustainable buildings during the design stage and ensures pinpoint accuracy across drawing plans. This is to prevent, for example, carpark ceilings being too low.
But Er Lee, an electrical engineer by training, acknowledged that it is tough to keep up with technological changes. “It’s a bit like kungfu – you need to master one stroke before learning the next,” he quipped.
Yet, it is important to embrace novel solutions – a lesson that is especially critical during the COVID-19 crisis. “The pandemic shows that things have to be done more urgently. Act when you can and don’t delay until things get worse,” he said.
The road ahead
In developing projects or in countering climate change with sustainable buildings, he is a strong believer in collaboration.
“I’m just one of the shoulders pushing the wheel along. I might be able to see some things clearer as an engineer, but someone else will be looking at it through the eyes of a product supplier or architect,” he said.
All he is doing, he added, is to help build a bigger and better wheel on the road towards a greener, more advanced built environment in Singapore.