Opening Address by Minister Lawrence Wong at the International Built Environment Week 2019 Opening Ceremony

Sep 4, 2019

I'm very happy to join you this morning for our inaugural International Built Environment Week. Singapore has hosted many conferences for the built environment over the years, but these tended to target specific segments and have a more domestic focus. This year, for the first time, we have pulled together a flagship event to bring together the entire built environment sector.

But beyond the domestic focus, we have also brought together industry leaders and professionals from the region and the world. We are happy to have many overseas guests with us today. I warmly welcome you to Singapore, and I hope that all of you will make good use of this platform to exchange ideas on advancing the built environment sector, and work together on new business deals. 

We have chosen the theme “transforming the way we build” for this conference to remind us of the urgent need for the built environment sector to change and upgrade itself. Compared to other sectors of the economy, the construction sector still lags in terms of productivity and technology adoption. For too much of the construction sector, there is still a lot of it entrenched in the traditional “brick-and-mortar” ways of building. And this is true not just in Singapore, I am sure you see this in many countries around the world.

We need to make a push to transform and upgrade the entire built environment sector. The good news is that infrastructure demand remains very strong, especially in this part of the world. Developing economies of Asia and the Middle East are ramping up infrastructure capacity to enhance liveability and economic competitiveness. Singapore too, despite our maturing economy, has a strong infrastructure pipeline with many major upcoming projects, including housing projects, new airport terminal, and sea port. Opportunities are abounding, and our built environment sector needs to be able to level up to deliver quality infrastructure in a timely and resource-efficient manner. 

At the same time, the pace of digitalisation and technology advancement is rapidly accelerating. It is happening across so many different industries – in finance, in real estate, in logistics. We should harness technology in the built environment sector too. We have been talking for some time about Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, or DfMA, as well as the use of Building Information Modelling, or BIM. Fortunately, these are now starting to take root and replace conventional building processes. In tandem, advancements in robotics, sensor technology, and data analytics are fuelling a new wave of Building Technologies, or what we call BuildTech solutions. 

Recently, I visited ST Engineering. It is a well-known defence engineering company in Singapore, but the technologies and the solutions it has developed in defence can be adapted for the built environment sector too. For example, they have been using drones to inspect aeroplanes, particularly to look at whether there are cracks on aeroplane parts. And they have developed smart algorithms, AI, to be able to capture the images and then detect these cracks. Now, these can be adapted to detect cracks in building facades. So there is a new wave of building technologies that are coming up. These are very exciting developments, which the entire sector should embrace.

There is another important reason why we need to change and upgrade urgently. And that is the threat of climate change, one of the greatest challenges of our time. Buildings sector accounts for nearly 40% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. So we really need to make a collective effort to shift towards a more sustainable built environment, and ensure that the infrastructure we build benefits not just those who use them today, but also future generations who will inherit our planet.

Singapore’s experience and efforts

Together, these trends call for us to build better, smarter, and greener, and that is the collective challenge, as well as the aspiration that we should strive towards. Singapore has been on this journey for some time. We started our transformation journey some years back, and we have made some good progress. I would like to share with you some of the efforts we have made, and our plans going forward for the future. 

Since 2010, we have seen a 15% improvement in site productivity. Much of this improvement can be attributed to our Buildability framework. This is an appraisal system put in place to encourage more productive building practices like DfMA. We introduced this framework merely two decades ago, after studying how countries like Japan, were able to raise construction productivity.

Under the buildability framework, we made it mandatory for consultants to submit their building plans to BCA, and to meet a minimum productivity score based on the productive building methods used. We call this a “buildable design score”. The designers can choose from a catalogue of productive building designs, systems and technologies to meet the score. The consultants will have to submit and it is mandatory. This has worked so far, and it has achieved the productivity improvements that I highlighted earlier; but we think there is still room to improve.

We received industry feedback that the current framework is too prescriptive and does not always encourage innovation. For example, if a consultant and the developer have a new innovative precast solution, it may not fit neatly into any of the existing categories. The solution may still have a high buildability score, but it does not tick all the boxes. So the framework should allow for more flexibility – it should be less prescriptive and more outcome-based. And we will take this feedback on board.

By the end of this year, we will introduce an “Open” option in our Buildability framework, where consultants are no longer constrained by the catalogue of options. You can propose any solution, any combination of precast, prefab or PPVC solutions, as long as these new solutions can meet a stipulated productivity gain. I hope this will be well-received and will encourage more industry-led innovation. 

We will also undertake a more fundamental review of the framework in consultation with the industry. Over the years, our industry has built up expertise in productive building technologies. There is scope to set even higher standards, meaning to say we have to think about raising the minimum scores for our buildability framework. We are also looking to integrate DfMA into all aspects of building works, from structural, to architectural, to mechanical, and electrical and plumbing works, as opposed to the current situation where the use of DfMA is assessed as a separate component. The idea is to see how we can integrate the DfMA into all these different aspects of the buildability design score, and hopefully this change will help the industry to see DfMA as an integral and default way of building, rather than a separate component.

Beyond productive building methods, we are also embracing digital technologies. Such technologies spanned a wide range – from virtual and augmented reality, to online collaboration, to automated production and inspection, to smart facilities management. At the heart of it all is BIM – Building Information Modelling, which can connect the entire building lifecycle to enable a new way of working, where stakeholders and work processes are fully integrated across the construction value chain, and there are many benefits to this. At the design and construction stage, architects, engineers, contractors and fabricators can collaborate more effectively to reduce design conflicts, optimised construction processes, and avoid costly rework. At the operation stage, BIM enables real time monitoring and data analysis to guide facilities management.

This can eventually move us towards a smarter maintenance regime, one that has preventive and predictive capabilities to minimise infrastructure downtime. Much like how assembly lines transformed the manufacturing sector, digitalisation has the potential to fundamentally transform the way we build. So the whole industry really needs to embrace digitalisation. And I am glad in Singapore, we are moving in the right direction. Today, more than 90% of our new building projects have adopted BIM. We expect this to increase in future as more of our workforce becomes BIM-competent through pre-employment education and continuing education and training. 

But there are still obstacles to overcome. For example, different BIM softwares may produce BIM models that are not entirely compatible with each other. And this hinders collaboration on the same BIM model. I am acutely aware that there are representatives from BIM software providers represented here today. I would encourage all of you to really think about providing interfaces for your softwares to talk. I can appreciate that there are commercial reasons why you prefer not to. But I do not think this does any good for the industry. If an architect is using one model, and the engineer is using another model, and the softwares are not fully interoperable, it defeats the purpose of using digitalisation, and it really undermines the shared objective that we all have.

In any case, within Singapore, we are taking steps to see how we can address this gap. We have launched a $4 million grant call for common digital platforms for the built environment sector last year, and we have awarded our first project to Delphi, which is a joint venture between Wo Hup construction company in Singapore and a tech company called Hubble. Delphi will develop a common digital platform to enhance interoperability and to allow users of different major BIM softwares to exchange BIM data seamlessly. When completed, the platform will be hosted by Hubble and will be made available to the industry in phases, starting from the end of next year. We hope this will help make a start in promoting BIM interoperability. It would be even better if the software companies start to make this available and work on your own shared interfaces, so that we do not have to do this in Singapore. In fact, the whole world can benefit from easier and seamless exchange of information across different BIM software providers.

We have talked about digitalisation tools, to embrace the use of digital technologies in the built environment sector. But fundamentally, it is also important for the entire sector to embrace a culture of change. It is not just about using the software for submissions or using the software for the sake of using the software. The software, the digital tools really have to bring about organisational and cultural change, no amount of technological advancement can help if organisations are fundamentally not open to new way of doing things, or if you’re not willing to upscale your workforce to develop new capabilities. I hope that the built environment sector leaders like all of you here, will demonstrate strong leadership in motivating and inspiring change within your own organisations.

Thirdly, in terms of building greener, we have made green buildings a priority in Singapore to push for a more sustainable low carbon built environment sector. We have launched the BCA Green Mark scheme in 2005. As you can see from this chart, we have since greened about 40% of our buildings. It has come a long way since 2005. I think we have made some good progress, and we are working hard to meet our target of 80% green buildings by 2030. We are not too far away from 2030, only slightly more than 10 years. We will step up our efforts to achieve these target. 

One major challenge in greening our buildings is the existing older building stock. These tend to have older air-conditioning systems, which are less energy efficient. It results in a very common challenge you will find in Singapore, which is that our buildings are over-cooled. And I am sure many of you would have experienced this. For our visitors to Singapore, you will find that while Singapore is a tropical country, we often say that there are two seasons in Singapore – there is an aircon season and there is a non-aircon season. Many of our buildings are cooled to a temperature where literally people end up wearing jackets in the buildings. It really makes no sense. When we talk to the building owners, they sometimes tell us that people within the building will complain that it’s a little bit too warm, and because the chilling system is not efficient, they have to dial down the temperature so that the whole building can be cool enough for everyone. Some buildings will literally have their thermostat dialled down to 18 degrees to chill the entire building. It’s really very inefficient.

I think for our purposes in today’s conference, they deliberately dialled up a little and encourage all of us to dress down, to make sure that we are really upholding the green ethos and walking the talk. That is a good practice that we should encourage other conferences to have. BCA has been working with the industry to address some of these challenges. This is really a major challenge for us, trying to make sure that our cooling systems across our entire building sector is more efficient, and we do not have to overuse energy in cooling our buildings. BCA has been working with the industry to address this, including facilitating arrangements for building owners to obtain financing to upgrade the cooling systems to more efficient systems, or to use centralised cooling solutions. We will continue to do more on this front and to explore more ways to encourage our existing buildings to grow green. 

We also want to push the boundaries for the next generation of green buildings. Last year, we launched the Super Low Energy programme or SLE. Super Low Energy buildings are those that can achieve at least 60% energy efficiency over the 2005 benchmarks. So cooling systems will naturally be a big part of it, but there could be other ways through solar panels, and other green solutions. I am happy to hear that this Super Low Energy programme has garnered strong industry support. To help the industry source for and implement innovative Super Low Energy technologies, we are now launching the SLE Buildings Smart Hub which is a digital knowledge centre for green buildings in the region. The Smart Hub is an open database of green building technologies supported by building energy data and analytic tools.

I will briefly highlight some of its key features. Firstly, it will have a technology directory which will host a comprehensive library of available green technologies. This will be updated as tech companies register new products. Building owners can refer to an expanding list of possible green solutions and choose the ones that are best suited to their needs. Second, we have an online advisory function, which can recommend a retrofitting plan customised to your building parameters. You can input building information, such as your building type, gross floor area, the air-conditioning system type, then the Smart Advisor will generate a shortlist of suitable upgrades that you can adopt to green your building. 

Currently, building owners and managers can also benchmark your building’s energy performance against other similar buildings through the building dashboard and identify key areas for improvement. This is self-service. Maybe at some point in time, we have to list all the buildings in Singapore and their energy usage, so that we can make it all very transparent and people will know which is the one that is most efficient, and which is the one that consumes the highest amount of energy. But we are not there yet. We have this available so that all building owners, consultants, contractors, developers can start to self-service, make full use of this tool to identify areas for improvement. And I encourage all of you to check it out. This Smart Hub is already available online. 

Finally, we are supporting the development of BuildTech – Building Technology solutions, to push for more innovation in the built environment sector. For example, the Government has set aside research funding of around $50 million to support the demonstration, deployment and test-bedding of promising green building innovations. This is not for basic R&D. It’s really for innovative green solutions that we would encourage building owners to demonstrate, test-bed and deploy in Singapore.

So far, we have funded over 30 projects since the launch of this green building innovations programme. One example is PSA, the Port of Singapore Authority. They are building a new terminal in Tuas, the western part of Singapore. And in one of their buildings, they are now deploying building-integrated photovoltaics or BIPV. BIPV are vertical solar panels that replace the building’s original facade cladding. It’s more than just a vertical solar panel, it actually replaces the building’s cladding. This saves building materials and labour costs, and also reduces building lifecycle costs through solar energy generation. In fact, it’s an important technology for Singapore. As we like to say, we are alternative energy disadvantaged. We have very few options for renewable energy in Singapore. The most promising option is solar power. But with solar power, you need a lot of land, and Singapore doesn’t have the luxury of space. So we have been trying to find all the different options where we can deploy solar panels and the one easy solution is building rooftops We've been looking at possible building rooftops to deploy solar panels. But even that is quite limited.

But if there is technology to now deploy solar panels vertically, I think that is a potential game changer. Because if you look at buildings, there is naturally a lot more vertical space than there is horizontal space. So if we can start deploying more vertical solar panels, then we can ramp up the adoption of solar power in Singapore. So BIPV provide an alternative to buildings with limited rooftop space for conventional PVs. It can also help balance energy generation and consumption. Because BIPVs and roof-mounted PVs – the horizontal PVs – tend to achieve peak power generation at different times of the day. Because the sun is at a different position at different times of the day. The good news for architects is that BIPV also come in different colours. So aesthetically, you can do something with it, and architects have more design options. In fact, the colours you see on the screen are just tentative colours, the final building may look very different, depending on the final design.

To encourage more of such project, where the industry co-innovate with the research community, I am very happy to announce that we have decided to enhance the green building innovation fund with a $20 million top-up. I hope that more developers and researchers will come forward to make use of this top-up and deploy, test-bed innovative new green solutions in your buildings.

Earlier this year, we also launched the Built Environment Accelerate to Market programme. This is to bring together inventors, start-ups, industry and firms to fast track the innovation process for new built environment solutions. So it’s an accelerator programme for start-ups or companies with new solutions to accelerate their solutions in the market. And the response has been encouraging from both local and overseas collaborators. More than 10 teams from this cycle of the accelerator programme will participate in tomorrow’s Demo Day, which will feature interesting challenge statements as well as promising solutions. 

How we do this is we get a company to issue a challenge statement. It could be a government agency; it could be a developer. They issue a challenge statement, and then we invite companies, start-ups, or companies that have interesting solutions to offer to meet this challenge statement. For example, Straits Construction called for a tracking and warning system to help improve work site safety. One of the tech start-ups, Tagvance, has answered this call, and is now working with Straits Construction to develop an IoT-based solution through the use of sensors, long range wireless communication, and Bluetooth. This IoT network will track and relay positioning data of workers and the site’s layout, to a central monitoring system and flag out potential safety risks. It’s not a very complex solution, but it’s one way in which companies in the built environment sector with existing problem statements can put out to the industry, and we can harness innovation, new ideas from the broader industry and get more solutions into the built environment sector.

There are many more of such exciting innovations in our Built Environment Accelerate to Market programme. So I would like to invite everyone to visit the Demo Day tomorrow, and experience first-hand the vibrancy of our BuildTech community. We are building up this BuildTech community. It’s nothing like FinTech yet. Let’s be honest, FinTech is much more well-developed and very vibrant. But I think there is potential for us to grow this space.


Finally, to conclude, I think for too long a time the built environment sector has been a laggard in productivity and technology adoption. Like I said, it’s not unique to Singapore. You see this everywhere in the world. Our processes for building tend to be very fragmented, and the old ways of building had been entrenched for far too long. We’ve made some progress over the years. But we really need to double down our efforts to build better, smarter and greener. And so in this regard, I hope that Singapore and this conference can offer a regular platform for firms, industry leaders, and users to come together, brainstorm, exchange perspectives and best practices and generate new solutions.

We look forward to continuing this partnership with all of you towards a more productive, sustainable and innovative built environment sector. On that note, I thank all of you and wish you a very fruitful conference ahead.