CATHERINE LOKE

Architecture Design

Lander Loke Architects

https://landerloke.com.sg/

Architect Catherine Loke is not just an architect. While the veteran architect has nearly three decades of experience under her belt, she is also an educator and activist with a transdisciplinary approach towards life. So while Catherine’s experience and achievements in the architecture field speak for themselves – having been awarded the Women of the Built Environment Award at the RICS Awards 2020 Southeast Asia, and been the first Vice-President of the Singapore Institute of Architects for Council Years 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore since 2017 – in this interview we shine the spotlight on her work beyond that. Our writer Michelle JN Lim finds out about Catherine’s goals as the Founding President of The Circle for Human Sustainability, how she thinks architects can play a part in our volatile future, and the importance of asking good questions.
  • Company Name

    Lander Loke Architects

  • Company Founded in

    2001

  • Name of Founders

    Ian Lander, Catherine Loke

  • Founder Birth Year (Ian)

    1943

  • Founder Birth Year (Catherine)

    1968

  • Education (Ian)

    BArch, University of New South Wales (1967)

  • Education (Catherine)

    BPD, University of Melbourne (1990)

  • Education (Catherine)

    BArch (Hons), University of Melbourne (1993)

  • Previous Job

    Greenway Hirst Page/Progress Constructions, Melbourne – Intern (1990)

  • Previous Job

    Akitek Barat Sdn. Bhd. – Intern (1990-1991)

  • Previous Job

    Lee Kim Tah - Woh Hup JV – Site Architect at SAFTI Military Institute Phase I (1993-1995)

  • Previous Job

    Tan See Kiat Chartered Architects – Project Architect (1995-1998)

  • Previous Job

    Catherine Loke Architect – Principal (1998-1999)

  • Other Pursuits

    Associate of Trinity College of Music, London (ATCL) – performance diploma (1986)

  • Other Pursuits

    Victoria Chamber Singers (1989-1990)

  • Other Pursuits

    Monash University Choral Society – Asst. Conductor (1992)

  • Other Pursuits

    Ab Oriente vocal ensemble – Manager and Singer (2004-2013)

  • Other Pursuits

    National University of Singapore – Lecturer (2017-2018)

  • Other Pursuits

    National University of Singapore – Adjunct Associate Professor (2019-2022)

  • Other Pursuits

    Singapore Institute of Architect – 1st VP (2018-2019)

  • Other Pursuits

    Singapore Institute of Architect – Council Member (2012-2021)

  • Other Pursuits

    Board of Architects – Chief Examiner (2014-2017)

  • Other Pursuits

    Board of Architects – Board Member (for term 2022-2024)

  • Other Pursuits

    Asia Pacific Institute of Experts – Member (2021-Present)

  • Other Pursuits

    The Circle for Human Sustainability – President (2021-Present)

  • 1st Office

    Work from home

  • Period of Occupancy

    1998-Present

  • Number of Staff

    2

  • 1995

    The practice was founded as Group Design Partnership by Lim Tong Kee & Ian Lander

  • 1999

    Catherine Loke joined as Partner, after Lim Tong Kee left the practice

  • 2001

    The practice changed its name to Lander Loke Architects and rebranded itself to reflect the partners' personalities

  • 2001

    The practice started to explore Revit

  • 2003

    Factory & Workers' Dormitory awarded the BCA's Best Buildable Design Award 2003, Certificate of Merit

  • 2006

    The practice started to explore Archicad

  • 2011

    First project fully documented and submitted in BIM

  • 2013

    Video of Alterations & Additions to a Semi-Detached House featured in the Singapore Institute of Architects' Why Architect?

  • 2014

    Alterations & Additions to the RDA Centre – supported the Riding for the Disabled Association, Singapore

  • 2019

    Completed the Woh Hup Technical Hub, including an office building using mass engineered timber structure

  • 2019

    Engaged as Domain Expert and Domain Reviewer for specification writing and review of the Intelligent National Productivity & Quality Specification (iNPQS)

  • 2020

    Tree House featured in the Singapore Institute of Architects' Why Architect? Forum as part of Archifest, to demonstrate how meeting regulatory requirements and constraints are part of the creative process of design

  • 2020

    How we use BIM featured in Graphisoft's Experience Archicad 24 Digital Event in Malaysia and Singapore

  • 2020

    Jurong Lake Gardens MET structure – provided service to Venture Pte. Ltd. on BIM implementation and pre-fabrication design development/modelling/scheduling

  • 2020

    Catherine Loke – winner of RICS Awards 2020 Southeast Asia - Women of the Built Environment Award

  • 2021

    Woh Hup Technical awarded ASEAN Energy Awards 2021, Tropical Buildings, Second Runner Up

  • 2021

    Completed the design and documentation of the Learning & Technology Room at the Kids Club, Hyatt, Maldives, including formulating a Learning Programme and Lesson Plans

  • 2021

    The Tao of BIM–BIM is just a tool; BIM in not just a tool featured in Graphisoft's Building Together Digital Event 2021, a three-day event featuring global leaders in the use of BIM

  • 2021

    The Circle for Human Sustainability was founded by Catherine Loke and 11 other like-minded individuals, to address sustainability holistically and bring about an ecologically responsible way of life

  • 2022

    Supporting the setting up of a Rooftop Urban Farm at Beauty World Centre

Envisioning Little Farms Everywhere

By Michelle JN Lim, 31 August 2022

Let's just dive in and get started. Let’s begin at the beginning: what's your origin story? Have you always wanted to be an architect?

I decided to become an architect when I was around 17. I grew up in Malaysia. At that time, I was in Form 5. I've always been interested in a lot of things – I learnt the piano since the age of five, and I also loved animals. So you know, growing up, I thought I'd be a musician, then I thought I'd be a vet. I wanted to do a lot of things, basically. And I also did a lot, of course, art as well, drawing. But I was also in the Science stream, doing Pure Science. I found that architecture is a mix between science and arts. Also for Math, we had to do orthogonal drawings – we had geometry where we were given these shapes where we had to draw the plans, elevations and sections of these shapes. And I found that it was easy for me. So then I started to think, yeah, maybe I'll do architecture.

I was also always very curious about buildings. As a child, whenever we went anywhere, I would always explore the building, and especially the fire escape, you know, I would try to find where the fire escapes were. To me, it was like a secret passage or something. I would always explore the buildings that we went to, and yeah, look for all the places that the public normally don't have access to.

Was there a particular building that captured your imagination during those early years?

Yeah, one of the buildings that I really loved was the Subang Airport. When we went there either to send someone off or to receive someone – at that time, it was totally naturally ventilated. And the columns, the airport was actually really beautiful before they renovated and ruined it. The columns were like this sort of diamond shape, which went up into the roof in one sort of sweeping– you know, like there was no junction or separation between the column and the roof, it just sort of swept up into the roof. And then the whole thing was modular. So there were these squares with the columns in the middle.

Nice...

We were sustainable then, simply because we lived with less. We were not as affluent, so we made the most out of what we had and came up with, to me, more beautiful structures that really, really respect natural forces than we do today.

We were sustainable then, simply because we lived with less. We were not as affluent, so we made the most out of what we had and came up with, to me, more beautiful structures that really, really respect natural forces than we do today.

And I know that this is quite a driving force in your work today, right? You're the Founding President of The Circle for Human Sustainability – could you tell us a little bit more about what this is about and what you're trying to achieve with that?

Basically, we are a transdisciplinary society. It was a kind of a strange journey because in 2017, I was starting to write an industry transformation map (ITM) for architects within the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA). And actually, the journey started even before that.

In 1991 when I was in the fourth year of university, I did an elective on sustainability. We spent quite a lot of time talking about economics. At that time I was in my early 20s, I didn't know much about economics. And I wondered, what has economics got to do with this? At that time, I thought, why are we talking about Adam Smith? And why are we talking about all these things? But it actually introduced me to economics. I read about Adam Smith, I also read people like Gregory Bateson and Rupert Sheldrake, who were talking about how we need to think more holistically, and move away from this mechanistic worldview. At university, I was thinking about all these things, but then after you graduate and enter the rat race, you forget it, you know? So now I look back. That was 30 years ago. And I asked myself, what happened?

In 1991 when I was in the fourth year of university, I did an elective on sustainability. We spent quite a lot of time talking about economics. At that time I was in my early 20s, I didn't know much about economics. And I wondered, what has economics got to do with this?

(nods)

I feel like I've lost the last 30 years, or the last maybe 25 years. Then around the time when the financial crisis of 2008 hit. One day, I was just walking in the street, the sun was shining, and the birds were singing. But this was after the financial crisis. And if you watched the news, or read the news, everything was doom and gloom, like the world was ending because of this massive crash that sort of reverberated throughout the world. But I was walking along, and looking up at the sky and thinking, you know, actually, the world is still here. Everything still exists. But in our minds, there was this massive financial crisis, and people are losing jobs and things like that. So I began to think that we have this huge disconnect between what's actually happening in nature, and what's happening within the human world. Then I started going back to reading about economics, and trying to understand why markets fail.

So in a way, I started going back to my readings from university and starting to look at human behavior and economics again. Around 2017, when the Committee on the Future Economy published their report on the future economy, I read it, and what struck me was that peppered throughout the entire report is this pursuit of GDP growth. In particular, 2 to 3% seemed to be a magic number, because Singapore had already grown so much by then. And then it seemed to be like this endeavor was oh, we need to maintain GDP growth and then what is a realistic figure for us. So if you look at economics textbooks, 2 to 3% is where you have a stable economy, where everybody has jobs, etc. So, in terms of policy there's this drive towards GDP growth.

So then I kind of went back to my roots, I suppose, went to the things that I was thinking about at university and suddenly remembered what it was that I was thinking about then. Initially, I started off looking at what leads to human wellbeing, and then our built environment as well. What are we doing as architects when we design? Actually, we are right at the bottom of the pecking order in the economic landscape, right? Because it is the financing system which drives the commercial world. So, our clients often respond to, basically, commercial pressure. And then we, as architects, we come in at the end of the line, you know, we're not at the policy level.

So I started thinking, how can I change the economic system? That's the beginnings of The Circle for Human Sustainability. Most people were not interested. People were just busy doing their jobs and were not interested in transformation, or even setting any particular direction beyond what is the normal business as usual way of doing things.

(nods)

In dealing with clients individually, they have their own individual design brief. And then somehow, as the architect we get sucked into it, and having to serve the client, it becomes sort of, you know, you focus so much on the project that you forget the big picture. So, at that time, I thought, I can't really change - you know, when you look at sustainability and what's happening, as an individual architect, I can't really change the client's mind. I don't really have the power to change the client's brief to that degree. I can't fundamentally change it. I can only tweak it here and there, but I don't think I can really be sustainable if I just stay within one project and deal with one client.

So I started thinking, how can I change the economic system? I guess that's the beginnings of The Circle for Human Sustainability. Because at that time, I was only looking at architects, then I realised that we were quite powerless. Then, I was trying to figure out what to do. And in a way COVID-19 did us a favour, in a way, because it made us stop what we were doing. And it actually made me reflect as well. What's the best way to actually do what I want to do? And I had a bunch of like-minded people. Initially, when I was drafting the ITM for SIA, we had circulated the draft. Most people were not interested. I think people were just busy doing their jobs and were not interested in transformation, or even setting any particular direction beyond what is the normal business as usual way of doing things.

But there were a small group of people, or individuals rather, who read the draft and continued to correspond or contact me. And then we just carried on the conversation, exchanged ideas and sent interesting articles and things to each other. And then around 2020 or early 2021, I thought, I'm having these separate conversations with a handful of people, why don't I just put everybody together in one WhatsApp chat group. So that's what I did. There were five of us. I just created a Whatsapp chat group. And then we continued to just send each other stuff and debate and discourse within the WhatsApp chat. And then sometime, maybe middle of 2021 we were sort of thinking, individually, we can't do much but we really need to set up some kind of organisation so that we can organise ourselves and do more. So that was how The Circle for Human Sustainability came into being.

What are we doing as architects when we design? Actually, we are right at the bottom of the pecking order in the economic landscape, right?

Oh I see...

We were a bunch of five architects at the time. And now we have 18 members. So we do at least have one economist. We're trying to make our membership a little bit more diverse. Right now it's more architect-centric, but the architects who are there are the ones actually who are thinking beyond architecture. So I think that's actually quite important for architects now, if we really want to be relevant and make a difference in sustainability, we cannot just look at ourselves or talk amongst ourselves, we really need to talk to people of different disciplines, and understand the world more holistically.

So basically, the Society itself, what we want to do is look at everything holistically. We don't want to prescribe solutions, because one of the mistakes that everyone makes is to decide too soon that oh, this is the answer. And then we try and replicate an answer – but it can be wrong. So the most important thing, actually, is to ask the right questions first. And then after that, there could be different answers, or answers that perhaps address some aspects. It cannot be that we just decide, oh, this is the answer and then we push everybody to just do the one thing. That to me would be the worst thing we could do.

If we really want to be relevant and make a difference in sustainability, we cannot just look at ourselves or talk amongst ourselves, we really need to talk to people of different disciplines, and understand the world more holistically.

That's a really good point. What are some questions that The Circle for Human Sustainability is asking itself at this stage?

Actually, when we look at sustainability, what is it fundamentally? The word 'sustainable' actually means that you can go on endlessly. If you just apply that test to anything that claims to be sustainable, just ask yourself, whether that thing can go on endlessly, then you will get your answer. Right now, we live in a very, very complex world. And the answer actually lies in simplifying, instead of building more complexity, or using more gadgets, or pushing towards high tech, the answer is actually to understand what works within natural cycles, and then work with that.

We keep hearing about circular economy and things like that. But currently, the idea of circular economy or what they consider to be circular isn't really circular, because it's still humans doing human things without really engaging nature. The United Nations has this diagram where they say, reduce, reuse, recycle, remanufacture. And then they have this diagram that shows all the stuff that we consume right now. And then we sort of imagine, oh, we can just go around and around and keep reusing all the materials we have. But in reality, humans can't do that. Because it's like when you have a photocopier, right, if you photocopy an original, and then you copy the copy, and then you keep copying the copy of the copy, you will find that the copy gets less and less like the original.

Right now, we live in a very complex world. And the answer actually lies in simplifying, instead of building more complexity, or using more gadgets, or pushing towards high tech, the answer is actually to understand what works within natural cycles, and then work with that.

(nods)

In terms of recycling, in reality, once we've manufactured something, it's very hard for us to actually unmanufacture it. It's like when you bake a cake, you can't unbake your cake. So there are a lot of things in our current manufacturing process of the things that we use that we can't really take apart. And even if we could, you don't get back the same purity of the materials that went into it. So you don't get back the same quality. So at most we can maybe recycle something and then repurpose it. We could probably do it say two times, or at the most three times, after which it really becomes waste, and you really can't do anything with it. When you look at all these processes, they actually require a lot of energy. Right now we are in an energy decline, but nobody wants to face up to it. So it's very important for us to actually understand natural cycles and work with natural cycles. And that would actually solve our energy problem as well. Because nature does things without us having to input energy ourselves; nature will just do it. So, in terms of what The Circle is questioning, basically, we're just going back to very fundamental things, like what actually makes us sustainable, what are natural cycles.

The other aspect we're looking very closely at is human behavior. Because if you look at the past few decades, we have had a lot of scientific information, and lots of data about climate change. And now I think that climate change deniers are probably in a very small minority. And yet, if you look at the action we are taking, it's nowhere near what we need to do to address climate change – not that climate change is the only problem. There are other problems as well. But just looking at climate change alone, the things that we're doing kind of skirts around the issue. So it's important for us to understand why. Why do people, even though we rationally know what the problem is, why is it we can't change? What's the actual problem? It goes back to the economic system again. And actually, economics is about human behavior as well. So we're asking these kinds of questions and trying to figure out what we can do to actually steer things in the right direction.

The word 'sustainable' actually means that you can go on endlessly. If you just apply that test to anything that claims to be sustainable, just ask yourself, whether that thing can go on endlessly, then you will get your answer.

That resonates very much with me as well. From the news and everything, we do know that we have a very serious problem on our hands. But then personally for me, I just face this crippling sense of dread. And then what do I do next? I do nothing. I just tried to ignore it. Because it just feels like such a big problem beyond what an individual can do that it's almost easier on my own nervous system to ignore, or to try and run away from it.

Could I ask how old you are?

In terms of recycling, in reality, once we've manufactured something, it's very hard for us to actually un-manufacture it. It's like when you bake a cake, you can't un-bake your cake.

I'm 32.

Okay, so you're a little bit older than my children. My children are in their 20s. I can understand your sense of dread. Actually, the sense of dread comes from looking at the system as it is. If you look at the system as it is, then you'll feel as if it's going to collapse, and we're all going to die or we're not going to have food to eat or whatever. But if you looked at it in terms of a different system, then actually to me, we do have the option of making a good future for ourselves. We just had an event on the 16th of July at the Marina Barrage - we talked about natural cycles there. And I actually brought up the work of Gaya Herrington, who has studied, you know, the publication, "Limits to Growth"?

I'm not familiar, but yeah?

If you Google "Limits to Growth", it's a very famous publication in 1972, of a series of simulations. In fact, you can even download the original publication. Basically it was a simulation done by four scientists from MIT in 1972, looking at various aspects of sustainability to determine if we can continue to grow economies without any limit. What are the actual limits? They did a simulation and came up with several scenarios. That report was done for the Club of Rome. And since then it was updated several times. The latest update was in 2004.

So Gaya Herrington, she was working for KPMG (United States) at the time. And she was looking for - since the last update was 2004, are we really on track with the simulations? Where are we? She studied some of the simulations, because she was looking around to see if anyone had compared the empirical data with the projections. And nobody had. So she decided to do it for her Masters thesis. And she found that we are closest to 'Business As Usual 2', which is a scenario where, in the next 20 years or so, we're going to – if we continue to push as hard as we are now, to keep on increasing GDP and increasing industrial production – then some of Earth's systems will give up. Pollution like carbon emissions will keep going up. And we're going to impact food production. So in the next 20 years, we're going to see a sharp decline in food production. And thereafter, there is a lag of five to 10 years where human population will also decline. Because if we have no food, then basically people will die. So that's a pretty bad scenario, if we keep going the way we're going.

Nature does things without us having to input energy ourselves; nature will just do it.

I see...

But there is also another scenario called 'Stabilised World', where we actually ease off our industrial outputs, ease off our consumption. And that will give us a sustainable future where the human population actually stabilises at a certain level, and you don't see this massive drop in food production. So based on that 'Stabilised World' scenario, we are a little bit behind time in terms of easing off our industrial output. We're about 10 years behind time, but that's not too far off. Which means that now actually is the time to do it.

In the Singapore context, because we import everything, what can we actually do, right? We can't not import anything. We still need to import something. But I think that we can very easily cut out a lot of our carbon footprint, just by bringing the supply chains a lot closer, and start to build up local capabilities. So it's kind of like, in a way, going back to the 1970s, or something quite similar, where we still had people here who knew how to make things. You know, people who know how to make clothes. Now we have so few tailors. We don't have any more cobblers; I used to see cobblers on the street mending shoes, but I don't see them anymore. But they were around in the 1990s when I came to Singapore.

There are a lot of things that we can do now to preserve the skills. There are still people who know how to do things and make things. We need to preserve their skills and pass them on, so that we can transition to more locally made things, you know? And what can we do individually? I think we can, like I recently discovered – we were supporting an urban farm at the Beauty World Centre roof. So what I'm trying to do now is see where there are opportunities to set up more urban farms around Singapore, in built-up areas using permaculture. So it means that everyone will be hopefully within a short distance, maybe even walking distance of a small urban farm where you can go and actually volunteer your time and grow your own food, participate in growing your own food. Right now, we're not in a state of emergency yet. Now's the time to pick up these skills and not wait until we are desperate before we try and figure out what we need to do.

We can very easily cut out a lot of our carbon footprint, just by bringing the supply chains a lot closer, and start to build up local capabilities. There are still people who know how to do things and make things. We need to preserve their skills and pass them on, so that we can transition to more locally made things.

Absolutely. What do you think about the political will and also the public will, to make these changes that are so necessary?

What I find quite encouraging is, during the two months when I was working at the Beauty World Centre roof, we had over 100 volunteers come over the course of the two months. And they were of all shapes and sizes, all ages, both genders, or maybe nowadays, I should say all genders. We had children, we had retirees, people of different professions. And everybody came, and were very happy to work on the farm. So what I learned is actually, there is a lot of ground support or ground interest to work with your hands. It's not true that Singaporeans will not do hard labour, it really depends on your purpose. And if you really want to, if you feel something is meaningful, and important, then you do it willingly. I mean, we were out there in the hot sun, of course, we learned not to be, you know, we avoided 12 to 3pm. The first weekend, we were really stupid, and got sunburnt. Because it's like, oh, yeah, go out and work in the sun, right. People who have worked in the sun will not go and work in the sun when the sun's really hot, you know... but we stupid people who are not used to it, we went and worked in the sun, then I got sunburnt and everything.

But basically, once you start working with nature, you actually adjust your timing to suit nature. So now even this idea of working hours, if you start working on a farm, and you're using natural methods, something happens to your psychology, something happens to your mind. You start becoming more in sync with nature, and being aware of weather conditions and things like that. And then you become less fixated with your working hours. In our current work environment, it's like, nine to five, five days a week, whatever it is. But these kinds of working conditions can only work when you have an energy source which you can just switch on and off at will. Then we can ignore natural cycles and natural conditions, because we create all these artificial conditions, which are powered by the energy source that we have.

Everybody came, and were very happy to work on the farm. So what I learned is actually, there is a lot of ground interest to work with your hands. It's not true that Singaporeans will not do hard labour, it really depends on your purpose.

(nods)

I think that once the energy source starts declining – or actually, it's already declining; once we start noticing the decline, then we can very easily adjust our lives to suit. I don't see it as anything apocalyptic or doomsday, if we remain very flexible and very adaptable, and just be very observant of what's going on around us. And then change, adapt yourself to suit the changing conditions. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years, and we have always been creative and adaptable. That was what made us survive. And there's no reason to think that we are going to lose that ability. We do have that ability. And crisis is the time that brings out the best in us. Hopefully! It can bring out the worst as well. But if we manage it, it can bring out the best in us.

Once we start noticing the decline – then we can very easily adjust our lives to suit. I don't see it as anything apocalyptic or doomsday, if we remain very flexible and very adaptable, and just be very observant of what's going on around us.

That's quite comforting, thank you for sharing this perspective. Because it's definitely not how I thought about things, and you're right, because the way I understand the world is how it currently is rather than how it could be.

Yep. The power is within us to make it what it can be.

And it's interesting that you talk about crisis, because in many ways, COVID is that big upheaval, right? It presented many opportunities, I think, for us globally as a human race to question the way that we do things and to re-examine our roles, but then at the same time, I felt that two years on (and one pandemic that is now an endemic after), we are very much settling back into the same routines. Do you feel that that's the case? Or do you feel like it has changed anything?

Yeah, I really feel that it was a missed opportunity. And like what we've seen, or actually, if you look at the news reports, they say, Changi Airport is back to 50% of the traffic of pre-COVID. And it looks like everybody wants to push it back to 100%. To me, it is such a missed opportunity. But there will be more crises to come. So we can be assured of more opportunities. But really, if you look at the projections, especially from the "Limits to Growth", the 'Business as Usual 2' scenario, if we don't change voluntarily, circumstances will force us to change.

If you look at what happened during COVID-19, when everybody was in lockdown, all the animals and things came back to the cities, right? I mean, I love those videos, you know, where they had kangaroos hopping across towns in Australia, and then they had deer and wild animals just coming into the cities. One good thing about that is that if we stop doing damaging things, actually, nature can recover very quickly. So we just need to figure out how to stop doing these things.

If we don't change voluntarily, circumstances will force us to change.

Indeed...

One of the things that I've written about is creating a social economy to balance the current market economy. I've written a bit about that in the article "The Economics of Sustainability". I also gave this talk called "How to Make a Pencil", which is on our website. And I also mentioned a little bit about the social economy. To me, it goes back to asking ourselves a very simple question: what do we need to live? And what do we need to thrive? So actually, what we need to live quite fundamentally is clean air, clean water and healthy food. And what we need to thrive actually is a social network. During COVID, you missed your friends, right? What I missed was shaking hands, you know, just the act. And even now, we have physical meetings and we're not sure whether we should fist bump or shake hands, right? When we meet now, when you go to a meeting, and you meet someone for the first time and you shake hands, you're actually touching that person, right? And then the person is touching you, even though they're a total stranger. So this act of touching, shaking hands, actually is very, very important. And when you finish your meeting, you shake hands again, you touch again.

Human beings really need this kind of social interaction, social connection. So if you look at this fundamentally, how do we satisfy this? Do we really need to burn all these fossil fuels and stuff to satisfy our need for clean air, clean water, healthy food? And do we need all these fossil fuels in order for us to have social interaction? Actually, we don't. And with the energy decline, there's no reason to think that the quality of life will diminish. The quality of life in terms of the material things that we have now, of course, will diminish. But the quality of life in terms of what is fundamentally important to us, I would argue would get better. Because we would actually go back to more direct ways of satisfying these needs, rather than this very convoluted way that we do now. And right now, to satisfy these needs, we need money. But in a social economy, you don't need money.

Do we really need to burn all these fossil fuels and stuff to satisfy our need for clean air, clean water, healthy food? And do we need all these fossil fuels in order for us to have social interaction? Actually, we don't. And with the energy decline, there's no reason to think that the quality of life will diminish.

(nods)

I mean, money is not a bad thing, you know, money has got very, very important functions. And it allows us to interact with total strangers and exchange our skills and services and goods with total strangers. Money as a form of exchange is still something that's quite important. I'm not advocating that we do away with money. But if you balance it with a social economy, where people can go and work in farms and do cleaning, and do all the things that are important to the wellbeing of the society as part of a social economy where you're not paid in money– you're paid in being able to benefit from interaction with other people, and being able to feed yourself because you have a direct access to the food production process, then you can balance your life however you want. So even if you lose your job and you're not earning any money, or if you want to take a break from your money-generating job, you could work in the social economy, and just harvest the fruit there and eat the food from there. You can do it in many ways, you can have a job where you work four days a week, and two days a week you go and work on a farm. Or once a week, you are on the farm and another day you go and do some cleaning work. This will give you a very balanced life, that would be much healthier for your well-being. Not to mention the quality of your food will improve.

You can have a job where you work 4 days a week, and 2 days a week you go and work on a farm. Or once a week, you are on the farm and another day you go and do some cleaning work. This will give you a very balanced life, that would be much healthier for your well-being.

This is maybe quite still a radical point of view given how prevalent our existing structures of exchange are. So I'm curious, because this is clearly something that you believe so strongly in – how do you reconcile it with your architectural practice? Do you see your architectural practice changing and evolving over the past few years as you develop a stronger belief in what we should be doing differently?

Yeah. For a start, my partner and I are quite fortunate that we have built up a small clientele, but quite specific, I mean, with the jobs that we do, our clients actually come to us. We don't go out pitching for jobs. We don't participate in all this free pitching nor do free design. We're quite fortunate. But then, it takes many, many, many years to build up the relationships with clients and get the referrals. You've heard of Marie Kondo, right? So basically, we have this thing where we "Marie Kondo" our practice, if a project doesn't spark joy, then we don't do it. And because our overheads are very low, we run quite a tight ship, we do everything ourselves. That's given us more choices to whether to take projects, because even if we don't take something on, we can still feed ourselves from the surplus from past projects. So in that way, at a project level, we are quite selective on the type of projects that we do.

As an architect, I always think architecture is a physical manifestation of human values. When I look at what I was talking to you about just now, what are our fundamental needs, what leads to our wellbeing, what makes us thrive, then how it translates to the physical, right? What kind of built environment do we need to provide people physically so that they can engage in those kinds of health-giving activities?

We don't participate in all this free pitching nor do free design. So basically, we have this thing where we "Marie Kondo" our practice - if a project doesn't spark joy, then we don't do it. And because our overheads are very low, we run quite a tight ship, we do everything ourselves.

(nods)

Actually, I draw a lot of inspiration from people like David Holmgren who is one of the inventors of permaculture. In fact, in Australia and around the world and in Singapore as well, here and there, there are permaculture farms. And there are people who know about permaculture - and in Malaysia as well. And in permaculture you can actually have very productive farms with a very, very small land area, even smaller than one acre, but let's say even if you just take one acre or half an acre, you could easily set up permaculture farms everywhere in Singapore. Around buildings, between buildings. And it can be set up at very low cost, because you're just working with nature. You don't need electricity, you don't need artificial irrigation, just rely on the sun and the rain. And rely on the people with know-how. And then for harvesting and things, you can involve the community. There are little farms here and there already being set up.

We really need to move away from the 19th century urban planning strategy of zoning things in such a rigid way. Right now, Singapore, we have this agricultural zone at the Sungei Kadut area, Lim Chu Kang area. We still have this mindset that we have to do our farming at that one spot. But actually, we can do farming everywhere.

And when you do farming everywhere, you can actually cut out all the transportation and packaging. Straight away, if I were to give you a bit of data - the next time you go to the supermarket to buy food, just think of how much energy went into what you're buying. It takes 10 kilocalories of fossil fuel to make one kilo calorie of food for us. That's crazy, right? No other animal on the planet can expend more energy to get its food – it would starve!

We really need to move away from the 19th century urban planning strategy of zoning things in such a rigid way. Right now, Singapore, we have this agricultural zone at the Sungei Kadut area, Lim Chu Kang area. We still have this mindset that we have to do our farming at that one spot. But actually, we can do farming everywhere.

That's so true.

The reason this happens for us is because our food source is so far away. So that's one thing. Second thing is industrial farming requires machinery that runs on fossil fuels. And it requires fertilisers and pesticides, which are made from fossil fuels. Then after that, because they're so far away, you have to package it so that it can arrive to you in a state that can still be consumed. So you have the packaging, you have the transportation, the refrigeration. And then of course, we have processed foods. We still want to eat this kind of processed foods. So you put all of that together, then it arrives in Singapore, and then what you put in your mouth, and the energy you get out of it is only 1/10 of what was put into all of that.

For Singapore, we will always have to import because of the population that we have here. But we can actually cut out a lot of the fossil fuels from the process of getting food to us. If we have farms everywhere, we can actually take care of a lot of our fresh produce. The perishables we can plant locally, and then we can just import the dried things. And the grain – we cannot grow grain, because you need a large area to grow grain. We can't do that. But we can still import our grain, we can import some of our spices, and some dried food and things like that. So I think that it is very workable and possible for Singapore, instead of having just an agricultural zone, if we have little farms everywhere, around and in between buildings within walking distance of everyone, then everyone can actually be involved in producing a certain degree of our own food.

I always think architecture is a physical manifestation of human values.

(nods)

It does something to your psychology, when you start doing that. Before this year, I knew nothing about farming. And then from May until now, I've been learning a lot from the Beauty World Centre rooftop, working there for two months. Then a couple of weeks back I found a farm near where I live, just two minutes walk away. I go there every weekend now. And it really does something when you put your hands in the dirt and do the farming. You don't realise it when you haven't done it – you don't realise how much you need it. When you do it, there's a certain – I don't know how to explain it. I think there's a certain happiness that flows into you when you see plants grow and when you feel and touch them. It does something to you. People right now are talking about how stressed they are, working long hours for low pay, etc. Really, the answer is that we need to adjust the system so that earning money is not your only option and you can supplement your livelihood with something else that actually brings you joy and allows you to socialise with other people and see your own food grow.

With this energy decline, it doesn't necessarily mean that our wellbeing and happiness will decline. In 2017, when I was writing the ITM – or trying to write it anyway – I was looking at the happiness index that economists have been studying. If you look at Singapore, since 1960s until now, our GDP has been growing. But our happiness hasn't changed. It stayed the same. So that means that our happiness has no correlation with GDP growth, right? But that's good news, right? If you think about it, we are going towards a GDP decline now, with the energy decline, because energy and GDP go hand-in-hand. Our system is such that GDP is fuelled by consumption and production, using natural resources. So GDP and energy go hand-in-hand, there's no way to decouple it.

But that's good news. Because if we are looking at energy decline, that means our GDP will also decline. But since there's no correlation between GDP and happiness, it means that our happiness doesn't necessarily decline. So it's within our control to actually organise ourselves and our built environment such that we cater for the fundamental things that we need, and our happiness can actually increase.

There's a certain happiness that flows into you when you see plants grow and when you feel and touch them. It does something to you. We need to adjust the system so that earning money is not your only option and you can supplement your livelihood with something else that actually brings you joy and allows you to socialise with other people and see your own food grow.

Yeah, that's quite a reassuring thought.

It's within our control, basically. You said that when you look at what's going on, it's easy to feel demoralised. But the answer is within each one of us. You were asking about political will, well, politicians get their power from us. So it is up to us to tell our elected leaders this is what we want. We want to have a balanced economy, we want to have these options, this is what we want to do. And then that will become policy. But right now, if we go to our politicians and we complain about losing our jobs, then of course they are under pressure to deliver jobs, which means that they're under pressure to deliver GDP growth. The whole thing then goes into this vicious cycle. So it's up to us to start the virtuous cycle and send the message to our elected representatives to say, hey, there's another way to do things, this is what we'd like to do. And this is how we want the policy direction to go.

The answer is within each one of us. Politicians get their power from us. So it is up to us to tell our elected leaders, this is what we want. We want to have a balanced economy, we want to have these options, this is what we want to do. And then that will become policy.

So given this very strong belief in finding a more sustainable way into the future, how has it shaped your philosophy towards architecture?

It hasn't, well... architecture, or as architects, we are actually about problem solving, right? For architects, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. And basically, what I believe is that the profession will become more and more important, because when we enter a period of instability and transition to a different system, we need people to think out of the box. We need people who don't just follow model answers, and can look at a situation and go, hmm, how can I come up with something that works here or works there?

I do believe that architects and architecture have to play a significant role. And we cannot play a significant role if we just continue business as usual and just continue doing things as we have been. We need to question the status quo, and really look at how we can fundamentally deliver what society really needs.

What I believe is that the architectural profession will become more and more important, because when we enter a period of instability and transition to a different system, we need people to think out of the box. We need people who don't just follow model answers, and can look at a situation and go, hmm, how can I come up with something that works here?

I see. And I think it was really cool that, when you talked about how the, the urban farm at Beauty World Centre shaped you, it's really made quite a big impact on the way that you look at things now. And I'm wondering, is there an architectural project that has done something similar in terms of introducing a turning point in your career, in the past 30 years?

I would say actually, the funniest thing is maybe the smallest projects.

Yeah, tell me more about that please.

Maybe I can share two of the smallest projects. One was a tree house. And then the other was a Fab Lab in a Kids Club. So the tree house, actually, initially, we didn't start off with the project. Initially, it was a builder who, part of his CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) program, he was donating a tree house to a kindergarten, but they ran into a problem with the authorities' submissions. Well, basically, as I said, in the current system, the requirements are suited to buildings. So when you look at the tree house, is it a building? And then when you try and interpret the codes, and you try and interpret the statutes, it satisfies certain definitions of what a building is, which meant that it had to comply with all the codes.

But when you go through the codes, they are meant for buildings and not for tree houses. For example, the fire code, when we went through it, we were looking at it and going, what's the purpose group? Is this an institutional building? And if we went under institution, we'd have to apply for 15 waivers. And we went to consult FSSD (Fire Safety and Shelter Department) a couple of times. Initially, it looked like we'd have to go by the book. And then that's ridiculous, because we're not going to put hose reels and exit signs and stuff like that on a tree house. But anyway, we got some assistance from URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority), to see how we can work within the constraints of the codes and public safety and still do something that doesn't have silly things that just shouldn't be in a tree house.

We went to consult the Fire Safety and Shelter Department a couple of times. Initially, it looked like we'd have to go by the book, which means we'll have to put hose reels and exit signs and stuff like that on a tree house. And that's ridiculous.

Wow...

So anyway, we managed to resolve that with FSSD by understanding what their concern was. And their primary concern was smoke logging. So instead of having a roof, we changed the roof to a mesh to allow the smoke to dissipate completely. And also, because there's no more roof then it's not weather proof. So that was another concern that the fire department had – that if you make the roof weather-tight, then people will start putting things there, combustible things and using it. So once we understood what their concern was, then we could adjust the design. And in looking at that design, we then thought– oh, the other thing was NParks. Because there's a tree protection zone, so we couldn't put the tree house on the tree. So it was between two trees. It was a house between two trees.

But then we thought, how can we still give the children the experience as if they're in a tree? How can we surround them with foliage, because now we have this mesh going around the tree house, so we introduce planting. So that when you go into the tree house, you will be surrounded by foliage. It was a way to manage the compliance and safety but still deliver an experience that would be psychologically similar to being in a tree.

The principal wanted us to go and talk to the children as well. We spent one afternoon with them. We gave them an activity to make a cardboard model of the tree. We only had two hours with the children. We did a pre-cut, simplified version of the design of the tree house, then we pre-cut different pieces. The children were between the ages of 3 to 12, so we also had to take into account that they were very young ones there. So they cannot, we don't want it to end up cutting themselves. So that's why we had pre-cut pieces that could be glued and slotted together. And then we got the kindergarten to break them up into groups so the older ones could help to supervise the younger ones. And then they could colour and decorate this tree house model themselves. Each group did a different design. And we also explained to them, because the tree house is under construction at that time. So it had to be hoarded off. They weren't allowed to go into the construction site, because it's dangerous. But we showed them photographs and working drawings, explained to the children, what's the plan, what's the elevation, what's the section. Then we explained to them what's an architect, what does an architect do, and how does an architect translate something that we imagined in our minds into something that's actually built? How do we communicate with the builder, so that the builder knows what to do. That was quite fun actually, the project wasn't just about building or designing the tree house, but it was also about introducing the children to architecture.

And then subsequently, we did this Fab Lab in the Maldives, which was an interior project. And that was with the mass engineered timber specialists that we work with on a larger project. But he was doing this project in the Maldives, where they were doing this Learning and Technology room, where they were bringing in a 3D printer and a laser cutter. And they wanted not only the design, but they were looking at the program for the children because we had had that experience of the tree house. So then our scope of work was actually quite interesting. We weren't just the interior designers, but we also designed the learning program.

We designed the cabinetry and things that were going to be built, but it was right in the middle of COVID. Everything was being fabricated in Singapore and shipped to the Maldives. The builder sent us dimensions of the site and we modelled everything in BIM (Building Information Modeling). People say you can't use BIM for small projects but we use BIM for everything. We were modelling the cabinetry, ceiling features and the wall features, all the parts we were modeling in BIM to 1 mm tolerance, because we had precise dimensions of the room. We modelled all the parts and we actually scheduled it so that the builder could work out the materials that he needed to get. Then everything was fabricated in Singapore, and then shipped to the Maldives. And then they had one guy here who had to go ahead of time because there was a one month quarantine. I was teasing him that he had a one month holiday in the Maldives! Unfortunately, he was confined to his room. So it was not such a nice holiday to go to the Maldives but not be able to go out.

But anyway, then everything arrived and they assembled it all there. And everything fit. I was actually a bit worried whether things would fit but he got there, the measurements were okay, and all the parts fitted properly. Then after that, we also did lesson plans, because they had the laser cutter and 3D printer. Because it's a resort, the children who go there would only be there for a few hours. The parents are not going to leave them there for days and days. And also they would just go there once, they wouldn't be going there on a weekly basis. So we looked at what could be done within a two-hour period.

Learning from the tree house experience, we came up with this origami architecture program. For the younger children, they made things like animals. We had a program for three- to five-year-olds, and then six- to 10-year-olds and then above 10-year-olds. The older ones could use the laser cutter to do more complex cutting to make paper models of castles and geometric objects. The younger ones will be making birds and fish. We also did the lesson plans, and we delivered to them an entire program that they could run. They were wanting to open up the resort. At that time, actually, it was still COVID so there were no tourists at all. They were getting ready to open up, and wanted to have a program that was ready to run the moment they opened the hotel. That was a very interesting project because I also do a lot of teaching actually, I teach at NUS. So my alter ego is also in education, and I could actually use that part of myself to formulate this lesson plan for them.

Yeah. It's interesting that even though this interview was supposed to be about your career in architecture, we sidetracked a fair bit. I love that because it's a much more accurate representation of your various interests and beliefs. You're very much a transdisciplinary person in terms of how your career has developed over many years. It's not just about your identity as an architect because you also have a firm grounding in education. I've heard that you even arbitrate on disputes between architects and contractors?

No, I'm not an arbitrator. I've served as an expert witness on some cases. Our practice also offers bespoke contracts for our clients. Architecture is actually a very, very wide field. And creativity is not just about designing buildings, creativity is about designing everything. Depending on what our client wants, we will also design the procurement system for them. If something is better procured a certain way, then we'll look for different ways to procure it.

We are currently looking at different ways to procure for a small project now, like do we need to construct this thing? Can we reuse? Can we use used, prefabricated parts? Does our client need to build this thing? Can they just hire it for a certain period? We don't just look at, oh, the client wants this then we design it, but rather, we look at what is it they're trying to achieve? And what's the purpose of the building that they want? And does it need to be new? Or what can we make it out of? The whole process is creative, actually. The way that you procure a project will determine how you design it as well. So sometimes we do in the reverse, sometimes we consider the procurement first, then we go okay, what do we need to design? What do we need to document, knowing that we're going to procure it this way?

The whole process is not a linear one. The creative process is not straight, right? You just sort of go in all directions, and then see what works and how do we put things together. At the end of the day, what we want is to meet the client's aspirations for the project.

The way that you procure a project will determine how you design it as well. So sometimes we do in the reverse, sometimes we consider the procurement first, then we go okay, what do we need to design?

I think this is such a nice place to end off on, in terms of how creativity is so broad-based. And that's why it spills over into every aspect of life and now you're even also thinking about what is the best way to live, really? And what do we need for our wellbeing. So it all ties up together.

Yeah, that's why I think that architects need not worry about being relevant in the future. We will always be relevant as long as we are creative, and as long as we look around us and look at what is needed, and then respond to it, and then we'll always be relevant.

Architects need not worry about being relevant in the future. We will always be relevant as long as we are creative, and as long as we look around us and look at what is needed, and then respond to it, and then we'll always be relevant.

Before we end this interview, I want to ask you a slightly frivolous question: what do you think about when you're not thinking about architecture and sustainability? What's the most frivolous thing that you do in your day-to-day life?

I'm actually thinking about sustainability all the time.

This is commitment, Catherine!

Well, it's our life isn't it? I think about it at different scales: at an individual scale, at a precinct scale, at a national scale, and then at a world scale. My everyday life is everything that I do. Now I look at everything with this lens of energy. I think about how I can do this if I didn't have energy, or didn't have as much. Then how do I still do this? I obviously cannot use the same things that I'm using right now. But how could I do it some other way or use something else?

I would say the most frivolous thing that I do is some evenings, I would watch something on Netflix. But if the show is a little bit too mindless, then I get a little bit frustrated and think, why am I wasting my time on this?

I would say the most frivolous thing that I do is some evenings, I would watch something on Netflix. But if the show is a little bit too mindless, then I get a little bit frustrated and think, why am I wasting my time on this?

Time and energy to power the TV!

Yes, exactly.

Well, thank you for this very honest answer, Catherine. And it's just really inspirational to hear about the kinds of things that you're thinking about, which are also very relevant to us all. It's a good starting point for many of us, I think, who don't know how to think about this and where to begin with it.

Yeah. Anyway, whoever wants to continue the conversation with me, just send me a connection request on LinkedIn. And then we can continue corresponding and discussing stuff.

That's wonderful. Thank you so much. Yeah.

Thanks a lot, Michelle.

Have a great day, Catherine!

Thanks, bye!

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