As urban populations grow so does the demand for materials and resources to support them. Where such resource demands were once satisfied by local and regional hinterlands, they are increasingly global in scale and reach. This phenomenon has generated materials flows that are trans-continental and planetary in scope, and has profound consequences for the sustainability, functioning, sense of ownership and identity of future cities. Seen from this perspective, the project for urban sustainability must be global in ambition, but cannot be a matter of applying a universal set of rules. Rather, sustainability requires a decentralised approach that both acknowledges the global dimension and is sensitive to the social, cultural, aesthetic, economic, and ecological capacities of particular places to thrive and endure.
The Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) under the auspices of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC) in Singapore tries to adapt such thinking into the area of urban development and construction in various scales. Sustainability is an open system that must be capable of being located. If we want to build sustainable cities, we have to understand them as well as being open and located.
The Chair of Architecture and Construction at FCL will concentrate its research on alternative construction materials and their application in specific contextual settings, taking into account of availability of materials, human resource capacities, and skills. The ‘alternative’ aspect of this focus emerges from an exploration of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking. This approach will inform a laboratory to test new ideas and how to combine already existing materials and knowledges.
Being located in Singapore, the “hinterland” could be considered as the Southeast Asian region, including the “magic” triangle of some of the fastest developing territories in the world today with India, China and Indonesia. Within a radius of only 4000 kilometers, covering only 9.8% of the globe`s surface, one third of the world`s population can be found with 2.5 billion people (3.4 billion by 2025) and the steepest urbanization rate worldwide placing highest pressure on global environmental sustainability.
Fig.1: the “magic” triangle around Singapore: India, China and Indonesia
Urbanized settlements in this area have average growth rates of up to 5%, which is comparable to the African continent, where the urban population doubles every 10 to 15 years. The prognostications for the “magic” triangle show a population increase of almost 1 billion people in the next 15 years. Along those numbers, an increased demand for basic resources like food, water, safety, and shelter will occur. The two decades to come will certainly be formative in the further long-term development of those territories. But will developing countries like most of the African nations continue to be depended on imported building materials? Statistics show, that in most developing countries, next to the import of energy, the import of building materials and machineries is responsible for the bulk of trade deficits. The aim must be to re-invent indigenous building methods, construction technologies, and material use and with it coming to an understanding of appropriateness and sustainable thinking.
Can grass composite materials replace structural elements made out of steel or timber? Can building materials made out of soil and their application be placed as a wide spread alternative building technology? Could waste be a future resource for the building sector? Next to empirical research, meaning gaining knowledge through observation, the Chair of Architecture and Construction quantifires those hypothesis through scientific engineering. Including other partners, test scenarios and standards are being developed to quantify and compare the results to already established building materials. The research focuses on full-scale material applications based on workshop environments, including students and other researchers from various fields and backgrounds. With the method of re-engineering the Chair of Architecture and Construction extracts and enhances certain material characteristics and properties. Together with industry partners, new production machineries and lines need to be understood and discussed in order to arrive at the ultimate goal of introducing new alternative building materials and their modes of application for the building sector.