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Green Horizon: Sustainability at the Forefront of Forward-Thinking Design

Words by: Gavin Yeung

Sustainability is at the forefront of forward-thinking design. We speak to designers on how to build more consciously, make more green products and how brands can play a part in contributing to their communities.

Green Horizon_WOHAPark Royal on Pickering, designed by WOHA. Photo credit: Patrick Bingham-Hall/ Skyshot courtesy of WOHA

In 1965, mass media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, "On Spaceship Earth there are no passengers; everybody is a member of the crew. We have moved into an age in which everybody's activities affect everybody else." If those words seemed prophetic more than half a century ago, they ring painfully loud and true today in the midst of multiple global crises—from the COVID-19 pandemic to the compounding effects of global warming.

Yet, McLuhan's reference to Earth as a space-faring vessel also underlines the role that human de-sign plays in our common journey. If the worst of human ingenuity, from industrialization to the wide-spread exploitation of the Earth's natural resources, got us into this mess – how can we use sustainable design to carve a path going forward?

Building a Better Future 

Green Horizon_Tropical Space 01Photo credit: Tropical Space

The first place to look is the building and construction industry, which accounts for a whopping 39 percent of all carbon emissions worldwide, according to a 2017 report by the World Green Building Council. As architects become increasingly conscious of the outsized impact that their building designs have on the environment, they are looking back on past architecture traditions to utilize low-impact materials and finding innovative ways of designing to best suit the local climate, social customs and geography.

One pioneer in Southeast Asia is Ho Chi Minh City-based Tropical Space, an award-winning architecture firm that draws heavily from traditional Vietnamese building techniques. Brick is the chosen material in all of their projects — whether it’s a townhouse wedged into Ho Chi Minh City’s notoriously narrow lots, or an artist’s studio in the middle of the countryside. Their buildings feature brick walls which are arranged to be intentionally porous so that it both staves off the harsh sun while allowing in drafts of wind as a form of natural air conditioning. The prodigious use of brick also references the ancient temple ruins of the former Champa Kingdom that ruled over the area now known as modern-day Vietnam from the 2nd to 19th centuries.

Green Horizon_Tropical Space 02Photo credit: Tropical Space

We want to use as few types of materials as possible. By focusing on one material such as brick, it leaves us more space to think about how to explore [the relationship between] architecture and climate issues,”
explain studio founders Nguyen Hai Long and Tran Thi Ngu Ngon.

Another approach to sustainable architecture can be found in Singapore, where design firm WOHA has been experimenting with biomimicry in building design since 1994. Their most famous example is Park Royal on Pickering, a hotel and office building in the heart of the Central Business District that, upon first glance, seems to have been subsumed by jungle growth in a beautiful, post-apocalyptic vision of a city re-claimed by nature. In reality, WOHA designed a contoured podium topped by a crown of lush greenery, which is drawn upwards into two stacks of overhanging "sky gardens". The building was designed to be self-sustaining through the use of solar cells, reclaimed water, rainwater harvesting and motion sensors, and the building's gardens are a masterclass in seamlessly incorporating nature into the urban fabric for the benefit of all.

Objects in a Material World 

Green Horizon_The Fabrick LabThe Fabrick Lab founder Elaine Yan making tiles out of recycled eggshells. Photo credit: The Fabrick Lab

At a smaller scale, the objects we use in our daily lives can also adversely affect our individual carbon footprints, most pressingly on the impact of the manufacturing process and on the question of how to dispose of a product at the end of its lifecycle. Hong Kong-based The Fabrick Lab has been brainstorming innovative methods to tackle these issues, strongly advocating for a circular economy model that was born out of observing the efficient energy systems found in natural ecosystems. One of the studio's key breakthroughs was the discovery that eggshells — thrown away in their millions everyday — could be stronger than even seashells when the calcium carbonate compounds found within their chemical structure were reconstituted, allowing their use in the manufacture of wall and floor tiles.

"Eggshells can provide a great amount of positive impact when you recycle them because you're replacing traditional carbon-positive material at a construction site,”
explains The Fabrick Lab’s founder Elaine Yan Ling Ng.

"It also diverts waste from landfills. We work directly with bakeries and central kitchens, so it's not like we have to create an extra process in order to harvest this material."

Green Horizon_Hacienda CraftsClockwise from top left: Obi Tube, Calligraphy, Echo, and Busay hanging lamps from Hacienda Crafts

Others have taken a more traditional route, choosing materials directly from nature while preserving their unique forms. Among these, self-described "envirosocial" design company Hacienda Crafts has honed a design ethos that harnesses the craft traditions of Filipino indigenous tribes to create high-end lighting and furniture items. In providing an economic imperative, the company has helped to preserve a number of ancient handicrafts that were on the verge of being forgotten, while simultaneously subsidizing the income of thousands of families in some of the country's poorest communities. The company found makers of disappearing art forms including the Tinalak weaves of the T'boli tribe made from sustainable abaca fibre, of which the patterns are said to be derived from each weaver's dreams; while the motifs of the Maranao culture, a lake people who inhabit the shores of Lake Lanao, are embossed into household furniture such as bar stools and side tables.

Community-Minded Companies

Green Horizon_NorhlaClockwise from top left: Norhla founders Kim and Dechen Yeshi; clothing by Norhla; Tibetan artisans; Photo credit: Norhla 

Sustainable design as a concept also extends beyond the natural world to incorporate how brands can help its communities. The One Village One Product movement was conceived in 1979 by a Japanese prefectural governor as a program to encourage villages to specialize in creating specific local products, such as vegetables, fruits, meat, seafood and liquor, thereby generating revenue for the nations shrinking and ageing rural population. This model has been replicated by Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan since.

More recently, notable new proponents of community-oriented design include Norhla, a yak wool brand from the Tibetan plateau, and Sumphat Gallery, a Bangkok-based platform promoting traditional Thai handicrafts. The former, founded by a Tibetan-American mother-and-daughter duo, specializes in ethically harvested khullu (the winter undercoat of a yak) which is transformed by Tibetan nomadic artisans into scarves, throws, winter clothing and carpets. This effort provides financial incentive for yak herders to pursue the textile crafts that have been passed down through the generations to aid in the preservation of this important artisanal heritage — and by extension, allows the artisans employed by the brand to continue living in their ancestral homeland and engaging with their traditions.

Green Horizon_Sumphat GalleryFrom left: Sumphat Gallery founders Rush Pleansuk and Phillipe Moisan; Nenuphar side table from the brand

The latter, Sumphat Gallery, was founded by Thai architect and designer Rush Pleansuk and French photographer Phillipe Moisan to create luxury homewares with numerous craft communities across Thailand that blend modern design with traditional handicraft techniques. Taking inspiration from various aspects of Thai culture and history, from the medieval Sukhothai kingdom to the craft traditions of the northern Lanna tribe, Sumphat’s designs apply the knowledge and skills of ten villages across Thailand, resulting in a collection that spans ceramics, basket weaving and glass blowing. 

While sustainable design is only just beginning to move beyond its infancy, the inroads made by the discipline towards neutralizing the effects of climate change, raising up communities and safeguarding time-honored craft traditions for future generations is encouraging. As Yan, The Fabrick Lab founder, puts it: At the end of the day, design is really about enchanting the way we live, and making a better living for everyone.”