Reducing CO2 through eco-architecture

Reducing CO2 through eco-architecture

Buildings are responsible for a significant percentage of global carbon emissions, which is why trillions of dollars will be poured into green architecture in the next decade. But for pioneering Malaysian practice Hamzah and Yeang, ecological design has been its focus since the 1970s.

A 1.5km-long continuous walkway, lined with cooling, leafy green vegetation, wraps around the Solaris building in central Singapore. It spirals up the 15-storey office building to a 3,000 square metre, oasis-like roof garden. The foliage and landscaping convey the spirit of green architecture, but many of its innovations are invisible to the eye. Rainwater harvesting, a climate responsive façade, a naturally ventilated atrium, louvered shutters to provide shade from the sun; all these combined provide a 36 per cent reduction in energy usage. 

Solaris, completed in 2011, is emblematic of the work of Malaysian architect Dr Ken Yeang, who is recognised as a pioneer of ecological design. His multi-award-winning architectural practice, Hamzah and Yeang, founded in 1976 with Tengku Robert Hamzah and headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, has overseen the creation of many flagship buildings round the world. These include a £300 million extension to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, which provides 20 per cent green energy to the rest of the building. The Suasana building in Putrajaya, Malaysia, features a ‘double-skin’ façade to provide solar shading and reduce heat transfer inside, a naturally lit seven-storey atrium, and vegetated zones to attract native fauna.

Eco-architecture and biophilic design have gained prominence in recent years, in response to climate change – buildings account for 42 per cent of carbon emissions – and a shift towards spaces that foster a connection with nature. Staples of biophilic design include natural light and prominent green spaces, and it has been found to boost productivity and wellbeing. Sustainability is also in demand from developers. The next decade offers $24.7 trillion of green building opportunities in emerging markets, according to the World Green Building Council.

Dr Ken Yeang, co-founder of Hamzah and Yeang

When Yeang was charting his path as an eco-architect in the 1970s it was a different playing field. He felt that the wider ecological context deserved to be developed as the theoretical basis for design. “Back in 1976,” says Yeang, “nobody was interested in green design.” Then, in the 1990s, “everyone jumped up and said, ‘We need to do something about the environment’. But it wasn’t until about 2004 that I had people asking me to design green buildings for them.” Today, Hamzah and Yeang undertakes projects from the US to India, and has offices in China (an HQ in Beijing and six regional branches) and London. At any given time, it has about 18 projects underway. 

After 50 years as an architect, Yeang has come to realise that business acumen is just as important as technical ability. “Being successful as a researcher does not mean being successful in the business world,” he says. In 1976 the big firms dominated and Yeang had to diversify his skills to compete. When you study ecology, he explains, you look at the world differently and it is the same with business: “Early successes I had as an architect from 1976 to 1990 were because I took evening courses on business management. But it wasn't until 2002 that I attended a one-week course at Harvard Business School, titled ‘How to lead a professional services company’. It was one of the best things I have ever done. I said to myself, ‘I should’ve done that 20 years earlier’.”

Being successful as a researcher does not mean being successful in the business world

Yeang likes to cite the Pareto principle – or the 80/20 rule. It demonstrates how 20 per cent of the industry gets 80 per cent of the business, and 80 per cent of the remaining companies scramble for the remainder. “It’s important that you design your marketing and business focus to be within that 20 per cent,” he says. “But really you have to go for the 4 per cent, which gets the cream of the crop.” An openness to evolve as well as a willingness for reinvention are vital in order to stay at the top. Around 2018, Yeang overhauled his company for this purpose. The number of staff was reduced from 100 to 42, and divided into seven teams that manage two or three projects each. He speaks to each group every day for 20 minutes.

The Suasana building in Malaysia features a ‘double-skin’ energy-saving façade andvegetated zones to attract native fauna.

Each building that Yeang designs must integrate or benefit five core ideas: nature, human society, built environment, energy systems and water. Some experiments don’t go to plan – Yeang describes an early project where water would overflow from planters in heavy rain, damaging carpets and requiring compensation – but this is part of the rollercoaster of being an architect. Currently, he is the busiest he has ever been. “It’s stressful,” he says. “You have to do a lot of work before you get paid. It’s delivery intensive. And you have to deal with clients – one wrong word, you can upset people. You are always fighting fires.”

Dr Ken Yeang

Co-founder of Hamzah and Yeang, architect, ecologist, planner and author.

Awarded a PhD in architecture from the University of Cambridge


Founds Hamzah and Yeang with Tengku Robert Hamzah in Kuala Lumpur


Builds the seminal bioclimatic experimental house Roof Roof House


Receives the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (and other awards) for the bioclimatic skyscraper Menara Mesiniaga


Completes the carbon-efficient Solaris building in Singapore, bringing to life his concept of continuous green eco-infrastructure


Working on various projects featuring vegetated green walls, green walkways, a series of vegetated sky terraces and other ecological features, including the Spire Edge, a 21-storey office tower in Gurgaon, India 

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