Welcome Address by Minister Lawrence Wong at International Housing Forum 2017

Sep 7, 2017

A very good morning to all of you. I am very happy to join you here at the International Housing Forum. I understand that we also have some friends here from overseas and I would like to welcome all of you. I hope you have a good time not just at the forum but also enjoying the sights and sounds of Singapore.

Today’s forum is jointly organised by HDB, and four international and local organisations in the field of urban planning and sustainable city development. I am glad to see that the forum has brought together many of you who will shape our future cities and homes.

Around the world, housing plays an important role in building communities and supporting social stability. But, we also know that cities everywhere also face tremendous challenges in providing affordable and adequate housing for their residents.

Just within the last month, I had the chance to meet with two Housing Secretaries from other countries here in Singapore - from Hong Kong and UK. Both were here to see and learn from Singapore’s public housing experience. They both shared with me the housing challenges they faced in their respective countries, including concerns over integration and housing affordability, as well as housing shortages. We are happy to share our experiences in Singapore, but I also told them that Singapore is rather unique because of our context and circumstance.  

Today, the vast majority of Singaporeans live in public housing apartments which they own. It is the result of a decision we took in Singapore when we attained self-government in 1959. At that time, Singapore faced a major housing crisis. There were many people living in the city centre, in slums and squatters, and there were housing shortages everywhere.

The government then decided that this needed a strategic solution and it was one that could only be led by the public sector. We could have gone for other options. We could have said, let us go for housing vouchers. We could have asked private contractors and developers to step up and do more. But, at that time we decided that this was a solution that required public sector action. So, we set up the Housing Development Board (HDB) in 1960 to tackle the issue.

In its first five years of existence, HDB built more than 50,000 flats. This was a significant achievement. HDB’s predecessor was the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) under the British Colonial Government. The SIT over 32 years of its existence only managed to build 23,000 units. In five years of its being, HDB built more than double the number that SIT was able to do in 32 years.

HDB has since continued to build many more homes over the subsequent decades. To date, we have more than 10,000 blocks and one million apartments. But the role of HDB has also evolved over this period.

In the early days, the design of HDB flats were basic and functional with few amenities. People used to say there was the standard “HDB look”, and they did not always say it in a complimentary way. That was the way we were able to build many flats at an affordable price.

But HDB has continued to improve its design, to seek new ideas and progressively involved more of the private sector in its work. Today, HDB takes the lead in master-planning the entire town, and regularly involves private architects and consultants to design the flats, to tap on their creativity and ideas.

HDB has also invested in research and development. It set up the Building Research Institute (BRI), to look at new housing typologies and new technologies for public housing. They work with research institutions, universities and private stakeholders to test-bed innovative urban solutions in our public housing projects. As a result of all this work, the new public housing projects we see around Singapore are very different from those of the past. They have beautiful and distinctive designs. They are set in lush green spaces, have seamless connections to amenities, and open community spaces for interaction.

The role of HDB has been a very unique one. When we look at public housing in Singapore today, it is not just the achievements of HDB alone. It is really the work of HDB with its partners – all of you here today from the built environment sector. It is a public-private partnership involving many stakeholders. HDB’s role is not just to build flats but to coordinate these public-private partnerships and lead the built environment sector.

While we have succeeded in housing a nation, we recognise that we cannot rest on our laurels. The greatest risk in any successful venture is that of complacency - we assume that the formula has worked well in the past, and so we can operate on the same formula; everybody operates on auto-pilot and we continue with the status quo. That is the biggest risk we face going forward. The task for us now – HDB, as well as all of you here in Singapore looking at the future - is to look ahead and see how we can design and build the next generation of HDB homes. Homes that are better, smarter and more sustainable for Singaporeans.

I will elaborate on four areas which we are looking at here in Singapore. I hope they will also be relevant and useful for our friends from overseas.   

First, we want to have better designs for a more people-friendly built environment. This is a constant challenge particularly in Singapore as we are a compact city and have limited space. We do not want to be a high-rise concrete jungle, where the living environment becomes alienating and stressful. To avoid that, we need well-designed buildings, homes, neighbourhoods, with greenery and spaces that relate to the human scale. It is not just about the aesthetic design of the building. It goes beyond the building form itself. More important is the design of common spaces and greenery within the building and all around the estate, designed to facilitate social interaction.

How can we achieve this? That is something that our architects and planners are continually working on. Fundamentally, we believe that building form and structures can shape human action and behaviours. So when we think about good design, we are also looking at it to improve it through research and evidence. It is not just based on the architect’s instincts. We are grounding our design based on research and evidence.

For example, HDB did a study with the National University of Singapore (NUS) and found that the interaction amongst neighbours happened most frequently in lift lobbies. Everyone from around the block comes to lift lobbies and that is where they interact. This is true from my own personal experience growing up in a HDB flat too. In fact, it was more true in the past when we did not have lift landings on every floor. In the past, we had lift landings at every five floors. I happened to live on a floor with a lift landing and my unit was just next to it. Everybody will come down to the lift landing and you get to know all your neighbours.

HDB took these findings and refined the way common spaces are designed.  Recent flats in Dawson featured common spaces located near lift lobbies with seating areas. These spaces provide opportunities for residents to come together and mingle with one another. The whole concept for the project at Dawson was inspired by the theme of “villages in the sky”. That is really what we are trying to achieve – to have better flat designs that bring people together and strengthen the kampong spirit even in our high-rise HDB apartments.

HDB will continue to work with private architects and researchers to move in this area and improve the design of our flats. For example, it is working on a collaboration with SUTD on The New Urban Kampung research programme. The programme will study how the demographics in HDB towns will evolve, and also look at residents’ behaviour and responses to their living environment.

This will help us better understand how residents and the community respond to changes in the physical landscape so that we can adjust our housing designs in tandem with the changing needs and aspirations of residents. That is one important area of work – pushing the boundaries of design. Not just for the sake of design or building form but better design so that we can bring people closer together to forge stronger community bonds.

Second, we will push for more advanced technologies to build and maintain public housing in Singapore. This too is a national priority. Productivity in construction continues to lag behind other sectors. This is true in Singapore and all over the world. In Singapore, it hits home particularly hard because we cannot sustain current ways of building with high reliance on foreign workers. It is not sustainable.

Hence, we need to move towards more advanced and productive technologies. This is something HDB has been working on for years as well. One key thrust of HDB’s productivity drive is its adoption of precast technology since the 1980s. Today, up to 70 per cent of HDB’s residential buildings’ concrete structure are precast.

Last night, HDB announced that it will be expanding its use of concrete Prefabricated Bathroom Units (PBUs) and concrete Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction (PPVC) methods to boost construction productivity for public housing projects. By 2019, HDB will adopt PBUs in all new flats launched, and concrete PPVC method in 35% of its projects. This will help to push productivity in not just public housing but for the construction sector as a whole in Singapore.

Later today, HDB will also be signing an MOU with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to develop a Smart Integrated Construction System. As part of this system, we are looking at developing a central digital platform for everyone in the construction chain – from architects to contractors to material suppliers – to be plugged in to this same platform, real-time for seamless project management. We are looking at a tracking system to virtually manage the flow of construction materials into the worksite, which will help to speed up construction and productivity.

We are also looking at developing an automated Crane System with sensors which can calculate the quickest and safest hoisting path. This will reduce the construction time needed, and minimise the need for workers to manoeuvre a crane from high ground.

Besides construction, HDB is also investing more in new technology for maintenance. We are conducting trials for robotic systems for cleaning and painting of external facades, which can improve the safety, productivity and quality of what is typically a labour-intensive and time-consuming manual process. These are both existing work and new innovations that we are working on to push the boundaries of construction technology as well as building maintenance technology which is again, an important priority for us.

Third, we want to build more eco-friendly and sustainable towns. In the early days, HDB’s focus was to build the flats. Now HDB also looks at resource planning - optimising resource efficiencies to build more sustainable towns.

For example, the whole Punggol town is being developed as an eco-town, where we are piloting several initiatives for sustainable living. Within Punggol, the upcoming Punggol Northshore housing district will have many sustainable features including smart waste management technologies, homes that are equipped with energy management systems, and smart lighting in the common areas which can be adjusted according to human traffic patterns to reduce energy usage. Going forward, HDB will be looking at more of such sustainable innovations in all of its new projects.

We are deploying more solar panels on rooftops. By 2020, we will have solar panels in more than half of our HDB blocks. Some of you may ask, why not 100 per cent? HDB has a very scientific way of looking at where the solar panels can be located. Not all blocks have enough surface for solar panels. Not all blocks have enough solar radiation to generate enough solar power. They have identified the appropriate blocks and think that more than half of them will be suitable for deployment of solar panels. In fact, we are also looking at redesigning the rooftops of new HDB blocks, so that solar panels can be more easily installed.

HDB is also looking at pneumatic waste conveyancing systems particularly for new housing projects. This will reduce the manpower required, and minimise other environmental and sanitary issues associated with the traditional open refuse collection methods.

We are even exploring the use of district cooling in HDB precincts – underground district cooling. If that is feasible, then residents have option of getting cooling solutions from the grid without having the need for their own individual air-con compressors. These are both existing and new solutions that we are looking at which will push the frontier into more eco-friendly and sustainable HDB towns.

Finally, we are preparing for the changing needs of society, especially that of an ageing population. We know many Singaporeans would like to live closer to their parents. They would like to take care of their parents in their golden years. They hope that their grandparents can also help take care of their children too.

We launched 3Gen flat typology to promote inter-generation bonding. These flats are designed for multi-generational families to live together, and come with more bedrooms and bathrooms than our usual flat typology to provide added comfort and privacy. Initial projects of these 3Gen flats have been well-received, with 3Gen flats being fully taken up in some precincts.

We have provided more flexible public housing offerings to our seniors. For example, we introduced the 2-room Flexi flat typology, which comes with options on flat size, lease length and fittings. Seniors can choose lease lengths of between 15 and 45 years which is appropriate for their needs. They can also choose among various packages of fittings, and can also choose to have lower kitchen countertops if they are wheelchair-bound or grab bars customised for the elderly so that it is easier when they move around.

Beyond building typologies and flat fittings, we have just launched our first integrated development with studio apartments for the elderly in an area in the north called Kampung Admiralty. This integrated development brings together housing for the elderly with a host of facilities, including medical and eldercare facilities, as well as community parks and dining and retail outlets. It even has a childcare centre, to promote inter-generation bonding. Hence, the whole project is designed to bring residents and their families together, and foster and nurture the community spirit which I highlighted earlier.

This is the first time we are doing such an integrated development. If it works well and we get good feedback from this development, we will see how we can extend it to other parts of Singapore.

In conclusion, these are four broad areas of work that we are focused on here at HDB. Not just by ourselves but together with all of you – our partners in the built environment community.

Just as we have successfully housed a nation over the past 50 years, we must now design and build the next generation of public housing for the next 50 years. We must continuously innovate to build better designed homes with more advanced construction methods, more sustainable towns and more inclusive communities.

There is exciting work ahead for all of us. We look forward to doing this with partnerships with the industry, academia and professional organisations, and walk this journey together with all of you. I hope that this forum will be the start of many more fruitful conversations to exchange ideas, to exchange best practices that will help all of us build better homes for our people. Thank you.