Cited by the The Guardian as one of the 50 people who could save the planet, Ken Yeang is viewed as a theorist, practitioner, architect, and most importantly in his opinion an ecologist. Born in Penang, Malaysia, Yeang attended Cheltenham College in England, completed further study in architecture at the London Architectural Association and received his PhD in ecological design from Cambridge University. Initially regarded as a rogue designer by the architectural community for his eco-designs, Yeang’s experimentation with sustainability has garnered great attention over the years, nowadays marking him as the father of bioclimatic design and a leading expert on all matters of green architecture. Even his own home in Kualar Lumpur, the ‘Roof Roof House’ (1985), stands as an almost proto-type for his experimentation with passive design, incorporating such features as; an umbrella like structure that serves as an environmental filter; a swimming pool that functions as an evaporative cooling device; and doors that allow in morning sun but block afternoon heat. For Yeang, buildings need to be simple, flexible, able to be assembled and disassembled (recyclable), and integrate seamlesslesly with the natural environment – the building should always be influenced by the site specifics of ecology, physical landscape and climate. Yeang as a campaigner for effective green design understands the complexities of sustainability. In his own words he states; We would be mistaken to see green design as simply about eco-engineering. These engineering systems are indeed important part of green design and its technologies are rapidly developing and advancing towards a green built environment and architecture but these are not exclusively the only considerations in green design. Neither is green design just about rating and accreditation systems (such as LEED or BREEAM). These are certainly useful checklists but they are not comprehensive. Eco-gadgetry such as solar collectors, photovoltaics, biological recycling systems, building automation systems and double skin facades are also most certainly contributing towards sustainable structures but as stand alone features, in Yeang’s opinion, they do not make up the entirety of green design. Instead, the key is to design the built environment as a system within the natural environment. Comprising of four principles, Yeang’s eco-masterplan outlines a coherent system that integrates; green infrastructure – natural corridors and networks that link open spaces and habitats for fauna and flora; grey infrastructure – sustainable engineering systems such as roads, sewages and utilities; blue infrastructure – hydrological management, sustainable drainage, retention ponds and storm water management; and red infrastructure – the built environment, enclosures and human social, economic and political systems. According to Yeang, planning in response to these four principles holistically encompasses eco-design, allowing for the integration of the artificial built environment with the organic ecosystem, ultimately taking advantage of the natural sites offerings (climate included), minimising negative outcomes and producing more energy efficient buildings.

Eco-gadgetry such as solar collectors, photovoltaics, biological recycling systems, building automation systems and double skin facades are also most certainly contributing towards sustainable structures but as stand alone features, in Yeang’s opinion, they do not make up the entirety of green design

Regarded as a leader in skyscraper design, Yeang over the span of his working career has researched and designed a number of bioclimatic tall building structures, each demonstrating the potential skyscrapers hold for energy efficient design. In his book Bioclimatic Skyscrapers, Yeang describes the skyscraper as an “intensification of built space over a small site area… the tall building permits more useable floor-space to be built higher, with an opportunity to have better economic return from the land… environmental justifications include a higher concentration of commercial activities in an urbanized location that enables reduced consumption for transportation.” Specifically in relation to tropical Asia, cities will continue to expand and high-rise buildings will be the most common form of structure, thus Yeang emphasises that they must be bioclimatic and energy efficient. To achieve such a request, the bioclimatic tower must be passive-mode, low energy and respond directly to the climate and locality, encompassing regionalist design. Passive measures Yeang utilises in his tropical skyscrapers include:

  • continuous ventilation (to ensure minimum sweat accumulation) by documenting the wind movement of the location and shaping the building’s floor plate and external walls to harness natural ventilation;
  • integrate a multi-storey atrium into the building, using louvers or solar-shading to block the sunlight, while simultaneously channelling ventilation and breezes into the interior spaces;
  • orientating the building to reduce solar radiation entering through the windows, but allowing for natural lighting;
  • incorporating materials that reflect rather than absorb radiation, and which release the absorbed heat as thermal radiation;
  • providing recesses and sky courts to create shade for the interior of the building whilst also encouraging interaction with the external environment;
  • opening the ground floor to the exterior to create natural ventilation and provide workers with a transitional space between the natural heat outdoors and the air conditioned indoors;
  • vertical landscaping, in particular tropical plants, to provide shading, minimise heat reflection and glare, and to encourage plant species diversity that connects with the local ecosystem on the ground level
  • According to Yeang, the implementation of these features can lower the operational costs by up to 40% over the buildings life cycle, simply by lowering energy consumption. Multiple examples of Yeang’s designs in tropical Southeast Asia (eg. Mutiara Mesiniaga, UMNO Tower, Ganendra Art House) are indicative that bioclimatic sky scrapers are reducing energy consumption, reducing emission of waste and lowering the overall heat-island effect on the locality, whilst integrating harmoniously into the ecological and geographical context of the region, due to their climatic responsive design.

Yeang’s determination to confront issues of architectural sustainability and his commitment to produce an all encompassing ecological design for the betterment of society has encouraged the entire architectural sector to consider the ways they can create more environmentally responsive designs. Recognised by over 70 awards since 1989, author of eight books discussing eco-design and Professor and visiting scholar at institutions all over the world, Yeang continues to challenge and develop his theories over time, striving to “biologically integrate the inorganic aspects and processes of our built environment with the landscape so that they mutually become ecosytemic… by doing so, we enhance human-made ecosystems’ abilities to sustain life in the biosphere.”

National Library

National Library - - Ken Yeang.jpg

The National Library of Singapore was built as an innovative and state of the art Library for the tropics of Southeast Asia. Seven years in the making, the Library encompasses Yeang’s pursuit of ecological architecture, utilising passive cooling methods and reduced consumption of non-renewables. Unique in its design, the Library which is comprised of two blocks, has an entire façade of glass – posing a challenge for the designers in terms of minimising the tropical solar heat, humidity, and light. In fact, to allow for optimum temperatures in the interior of the building, no direct sunlight should enter the building between 10am and 4pm. In response, a set of massive sunshades (6metres in length) were installed on the side of the building to control solar radiation and glare, but allow for maximum daylight. In conjunction with the blades, some areas of the building have automated drop down blinds that activate when the sun is too low for the sunshades to be effective. Another large-scale endeavour within the structure is the installation of extensive landscaping, sky terraces and roof gardens. More than 6,300 square metres of the building were devoted to green space, at least 60% of the building’s footprint. The sky terraces harness cooling breezes and the roof gardens and landscaping lower the ambient temperature surrounding the building, a feature that contributes to the National Library having an environmental impact that is lower than that of similar sized office buildings. Other passive and energy efficient measures include the orientation of the building, appropriate building colour, an open plaza between the two blocks to allow for natural ventilation, and motion sensors for lighting and rain detection to moderate energy and water use. Comfort being at the forefront of the design, being a building for the public, meant that three operational modes are used; passive, active (air conditioners and artificial light) and mixed-mode (natural and artificial ventilation), a format as Yeang describes, encourages designers to look at how that electricity is generated but still allows for energy reductions. The National Library was granted the platinum Green Mark Award for its commitment to environmentally responsive design and sustainability.


Image References


Ken Yeang, Eco-architect - Chasing the Bear Films

DoL Lectures – Work with nature, Ken Yeang

Ross von Burg interviews Ken Yeang about EcoDesign and Bio-Climatic Architecture