THE INDUSTRIES OF THE FUTURE
Industrial, campus, architectural design
Design for Sociality
Design for Movement
Design for Efficiency
Economics and Sustainability
Not long ago, the innovation expert Alec Ross published a greatly insightful book called "The Industries of the Future." In case you haven’t read it - and you are wondering - no, architecture is not amongst the golden disciplines that we all wished we chose to study back then (even though some barely existed when most of us graduated from high school). From big data to robotics, from hacking into the secrets of the human genome to cybersecurity, the list of novel fields and corresponding new professions is expanding constantly, leaving our certainties behind at a fast pace. However, there is something all these new industries have in common: they need a physical space to happen, a place for people to work, for data to be stored, for robots to assemble, for transactions to quickly reach exchange terminals, and so on. In other words, they need a building, or an infrastructure, which is still, for the foreseeable future, the domain of architects and engineers.
What is the character of a building catered for these industries of the future then? A list of must-have qualities for such a building, based on current pressing issues, future trends, and market conditions as follows:
It must be designed for sociality, now more than ever.
It must be designed for movement: of individuals, goods, data and more.
It must be designed efficiently; we don’t have the luxury to waste space or resources.
It must embrace passive design, the core of any serious sustainable approach.
It must be economically viable; skyrocketing energy and material prices are demanding it (this is also related to resources and sustainability).
A project that sought to address these issues and whose objective was to set itself as an exemplary, flexible and conducive facility for future industries is Tai Seng Exchange, a campus-style development recently completed in Singapore. Designing a build-to-rent space for unknown future industrial users poses several challenges as one must balance flexibility, genericity and the possibility to incorporate specific provisions that may be required. Though a catch-it-all formula does not exist, through careful planning, early engagement with contractors and potential partners, and tapping into industry leaders’ knowledge can help strike the right balance. This was amongst our first commissions, quite a challenging one to start with, having the responsibility of conceptualizing and developing a large 40,000 sqm site housing more than 1 million square feet of gross floor area.
Let’s delve into the key aspects outlined above to find out more.
02 DESIGN FOR SOCIALITY
The future of work is not exactly all remote as we thought at some point during the recent pandemic. There is an intrinsic aspect of sociality in everything we do (we are indeed social animals, as Aristotle pointed out). In addition to this biological aspect related to the basic need for meeting people and socializing, there are two fundamental reasons why businesses thrive when conducted in person: the need for collaboration within teams on one side, and the propelling force of synergy with other players on the other.
Within companies, teamwork is a fundamental way of obtaining results exceeding the sum of individuals’ contributions alone, and external synergy with industry partners translates into new opportunities, attaining a surplus of value that could not be reached within a single firm alone. So we have the (1) biological, (2) collaborative, and (3) synergic facets of sociality when talking about the workplace.
In the design of Tai Seng Exchange, we explored different ways of making space for social interactions, which ultimately has to do with the planning and designing of the communal areas:
The promenade around the perimeter of the campus, where we located 2-storey blocks contributing to the streetscape. Here not only is the covered walkway at ground level, but the upper terrace too are more than transitional spaces. The width and the proximity to the roadside, lush green and public transport node are also important factors to consider.
The landscape deck at the heart of the campus, with benches, pergolas, lush vegetation, and water bodies. This is the core of the development, publicly accessible from the street, and conveniently connected to the tower blocks with dedicated covered lobby-like areas.
The communal sky terraces linked to the lift lobbies of the tower blocks. An extension of the planters defining the façade, the sky terrace is free form shaped and generates a dynamic and vibrant feel. This element is not only an important architectural feature but also an important social space for the users.
The circular drop-off area and main lobbies. An often-neglected space where cars are dominant, we found that people spend more time here than they would think or like. By combining the lobbies and drop off area together in one space, we achieve an interesting critical mass where casual encounters may contribute to create a sense of community and belonging (given by the familiarity to other people working in the same premises).
The campus also has a club conceived by the Developer where tenants can mingle and spend time while bonding teams and meeting new industry peers. This is an important trend whose importance is clear in co-working settings and the similar, but that is also being applied to general developments such Tai Seng.
03 DESIGN FOR MOVEMENT
Buildings are static (an engineer will tell you otherwise, but they move very, very little) however everything around and within them is all but fixed. Human flows of professionals working in the building, visitors, suppliers, maintenance contractors; vehicular roads and access ways catered for cars, delivery trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, emergency vehicles; pipes and cables distributing water, electricity, data; ducts for fresh air and exhaust fumes; downpipes for rainwater, sewer discharge, refuse; other species like birds, insects, spurs (to be careful when placing air intakes for labs close to landscape planters with flowers); this, and more, all to be considered and planned.
It is almost as if the walls, slabs, shafts, and pathways are taking shape from the immaterial and invisible traces, yet to materialize, of all the entities mentioned above. Each with its own specific channels, physical properties, regulations, and requirements. Future buildings will need to be planned around movement more and more.
In the Tai Seng Exchange campus, we proposed a radial masterplan that could help solving some of the planning, zoning and movement segregation needs. A radial masterplan has several benefits:
The possibility of having central distribution nodes, reaching the periphery radially. This is the case with water pipes for example and any other M&E service.
Concentric rings that can be catered to different mobility categories. Think of how private cars, service vehicles, taxis and pedestrians can each occupy one ring mitigating potential conflicts.
Minimizing distances from the center to the periphery and in-between different blocks. This is just geometry, but it translates to dollars saving as we can save in pipes, ducts, cable, trenches (and walking time too).
04 DESIGN FOR EFFICIENCY
Efficiency is everything. As an architect, I’d have many colleagues reading this sentence with a grin. If they are involved in any commercial building of any type or scale, they’ll leave this article only to go back to their drawing table pulling their hair on how to increase the efficiency of the project they are working on. Now, is this a constraint dictated by the overarching power of money and investment returns? Sure is, however let’s note that:
There is no environmental sustainability without economical sustainability, it’s probably time to face this fact as well.
Using less space to accommodate the same functions is a way to reduce how many resources we use and energy we need to extract from the planet in order to construct buildings.
An efficient building will consume less energy during its lifetime.
From a design perspective, there is a certain beauty in establishing the essential, the just-nice instead of the opulent and the redundant. Think how a slender, thin structural column will provoke in us a sense of beauty and lightness as compared to a thick, oversized one.
Our creative force is then not mortified but rather challenged and celebrated. In our Tai Seng project, we used a few planning tricks to optimize the design, for example:
The size of each block is just enough to allow for two staircase cores, with a central corridor (the structural grid has 3 spans so that columns are not in the way of the central distribution spine, with the thought to future possible conveyors for automated facilities that requires more width).
The depth of each block is a sweet spot to ensure (1) enough are per meter of distribution corridor, (2) cater for possible natural ventilation, (3) meet the fire safety requirements of travel distances and (4) ensure natural light penetration.
Now, how to provide all the space needed for sociality and movement, without compromising efficiency? The use of GFA-exempted areas, designed in a creative way, is an elegant and powerful way to go about it. Tai Seng Exchange is adorned with planters and terraces being wildly arranged in a dynamic explosion of curves, hugging the regular and modular floor slabs. The planning authority therefore plays a key part, and a command of the possibilities offered by the regulations is fundamental. Communal areas interestingly, whether GFA or note, while they can’t be rent, and so considered superfluous, are also the spaces that will generate the character of the building contributing to its (also economical) success.
05 PASSIVE DESIGN
This is the core of sustainability. Building orientation, natural ventilation, natural light, exposure to sun, shades to cool down the vertical surfaces, window to wall ratio. Before all the fancy (and expensive) stuff comes in, it is the way we plan buildings that really makes the difference. Some are common sense, diligently applied, some is sophisticated (but ever easier to use) tools that gives you feedback from the project inception, such as plugs-in for 3D model in early iterations.
Singapore’s weather is inclement. It is a very tough context for buildings to endure, and therefore passive design techniques faces challenges as compared to a temperate climate (where, for example, air temperature deltas are higher, wind is stronger and humidity lower). Nonetheless, there are ways to approach a passive design concept, for example making use of:
Orientation that minimizes solar gain and therefore reduces the cooling energy consumption.
Limited window to wall ratio, using glass mainly where it can help bringing in natural light, but avoiding large glass surfaces (which makes really very little sense on the Equator).
Naturally ventilated staircases, lobbies and communal areas.
Naturally ventilated Car parks, doing away with mechanical ventilation, through fluid-dynamic simulation. The actual experience is very satisfying, nice breeze always coming through the drop off areas via gaps in-between buildings.
Generous shades given by overhangs and canopies.
Provision of lush greenery to absorb heat, protect from sun, cooling the air with evapotranspiration.
Lighting motion sensors and smart technologies to monitor consumption and plan maintenance.
In recognition of these efforts, Tai Seng Exchange won the “Best Green Development” and “Best Smart Development” awards at the Asia Property Awards in 2020, and it is also labelled as a GreenMark Platinum from the Building Construction Authority (BCA).
06 ECONOMICITY IS SUSTAINABILITY
I was once attending a workshop with a group of visiting students from Thailand, graced by the presence of one of the Singapore pioneer architects (I won’t mention his name); when asked what a smart building is, he replied without thinking: a building that doesn’t cost much money.
What we call “smart” often refers to complicated and expensive technologies that somehow make up for the stupidity of the design. I want to quote the Italian master Bruno Munari when writing about luxury: is a golden tap a luxury when the water it dispenses is not clean? So is luxury an expensive faucet or a working water filter (or even better a clean water source). There is a certain beauty in an object, or building, or any human artefact, that resolves a problem, materializing a solution, using little resources and expressing the essence of things (buildings that expresses their structure are some of my favourite all day every day).
In Tai Seng Exchange we deliberately sought to achieve an aesthetic expression based on the massing, the structural rhythm, lights and shadows, presence of lush landscape (on this, the local climate is an ally), without many frills and complicated details. We also wanted to express the industrial character of the building, where efficiency and a straightforward language blend well with the usage. At the same time, we did not renounce to some element of surprise, such as the landscape deck or the waving sky terraces, without which architecture would become just ordinary construction, giving nothing to the city landscape.
07 FINAL THOUGHTS
When designing a built-to-rent multi-tenanted facility, there are some important considerations at the planning stage. The design brief is necessarily more generic since the future occupants are still unknown. While making provisions for a certain promising sector, developers have to grapple with the market up-and-downs, and the ever-accelerating innovations we mentioned above. Therefore, calibrating the specs of the building in the right way is very critical. Flexibility of plans, access for vehicles and machinery, infrastructure able to cater for specific needs (cabling, electricity, exhausts systems for biotechnology related labs) minimally invasive structures (large spans, flat slabs, etc..) are a few of the planning considerations to set out from the onset.
Still, our focus must be on the people who will work there, inhabiting the buildings for a major portion of their daily life (wake time only, hopefully). How they reach their workplace, what are they going to see, how they are going to socialize, the view they have when taking the lift in the evening before leaving the building and going back home.
And finally, a large development of the scale of Tai Seng Exchange, doesn’t belong to the owner only or to the users living within. It belongs to the collectivity in the sense that it’s a public building (anybody can access the central landscape for example) but also in the sense that it redefines that part of the city with its presence, and therefore it must add something pleasant to see and walk by.
The radial planning of the building is not only a way to efficiently organize the building but also a design choice with a profound impact on the way the building is perceived. Try walking around it, and it will always change shape. As you move past a corner slowly a block behind will appear and become dominant. The dynamic way the building is perceived is a deliberate way of creating an interesting and vibrant image towards the city. The lift lobbies are all located around the landscape deck, which at night is nicely lit up, a design decision that had in mind the people going home after a long day before entering the lift and leaving the place, hopefully with a good impression of it.
These intangibles are rarely discussed during busy project meetings, but they are always in our mind and they mark the difference, that will in turn generate value and revenue for the stake holders.