KH Tan’s eureka moment

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/ EdgeProp Singapore
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April 23, 2021 7:00 AM SGT
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Tan: I will use recycled materials in my projects as far as possible, in order to reduce the use of raw materials and waste generated (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Since the start of 2012, KH Tan has dedicated more than half his time to philanthropic work. These days, he spends only about 20% of his time on marketing luxury bungalows or Good Class Bungalows (GCBs). The twin causes he supports are education and medical research.
“I knew sustainability was important,” says the founder and managing director of Newsman Realty, who has built an illustrious career as a realtor focusing on the GCB segment. “But I told myself that I was too busy, and I would only work on it [sustainability efforts] when I turned 60.”
Things changed abruptly one February morning this year. Tan was doing his daily walk and meditation at Singapore Botanic Gardens at around 5am, something he has been doing for more than a decade. And he suddenly felt a change in the energy of the environment. “It was telling me that it needed help as it could not breathe,” says Tan.
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That jolted him into action: Within 10 seconds, he decided to incorporate a company focusing on sustainability. By the time Tan reached his office at 10am that same morning, his new firm, KK Sustainable Design, was already incorporated.
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The entrance into the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where Tan does his daily walk and meditation at 5am every morning (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Alter ego

The company’s name is based on his alter ego. According to Tan, he is KK for about four to six months in a year, during which he is more exuberant, and it is evident to his friends and clients as well. Sometimes when they notice that he is especially cheerful and energetic, they would ask him, “Is KK back?”, relates Tan. As KH, he is up before dawn — typically between 4am and 4.30am — but as KK, he is up and about by 2.30am to 3am.
Tan roped in several professors from National University of Singapore (NUS) School of Design and Environment as his advisers at KK Sustainable Design. Tan even asked his friend Alexandros Washburn, founding director of Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban Xcellence at Stevens Institute of Technology, to come on board as his adviser. Washburn immediately agreed.
As the former chief urban designer of New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Washburn was involved in The High Line (transformation of a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side), which opened in 2009 as a hybrid public park space. He was also instrumental in the revitalisation of Hudson Yards into a new neighbourhood of office towers, high-end condos and a luxury mall.
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Given his unique experience, Washburn was given a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation to write the book, The Nature of Urban Design: a New York perspective on Resilience. Washburn knows Singapore well, and was a visiting fellow at URA Centre for Liveable Cities. “We walked together many times through Gardens by the Bay, discussing nature and the city,” relates Tan. “While he brings a little bit of New York City with him, he says he always takes back more of Singapore in what he learns.”
Likewise, Tan has benefitted from his regular discourse with Washburn. “In Singapore, the government has also realised the importance of sustainability, with its recent announcement of the Singapore Green Plan 2030,” he says. “My aim for the new company is to actively support the government’s moves towards sustainability in Singapore, as well as the wider region.”
Another adviser whom Tan has engaged at KK Sustainable Design is Esther Gai Jiazi, Asia Pacific programmes head (Net Zero) at World Green Building Council and the founder of Joy of Sustainability. She has spent more than a decade as a sustainable design expert and has strong technical knowledge in sustainability and positive psychology. Gai and her team are said to have completed many first-of-its-kind sustainability projects, including net-zero buildings, unique green buildings and eco cities.
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The existing Good Class Bungalow at Chee Hoon Avenue that will be redeveloped into a new “net-zero GCB” (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Towards a ‘net-zero GCB’

A net-zero or zero-energy building is one where the total amount of energy used by the building is equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site, that is, there is net-zero energy consumption. This can be facilitated through the use of technology such as solar panels, a hybrid cooling system or high-efficiency windows, or the planting of trees.
For a start, KK Sustainable Design will focus on design and development of net-zero GCBs. This is because Tan has specialised in marketing GCBs for the past 20 years. Many of his GCB clients are CEOs or chairmen of major corporations and business tycoons. “If they believe in sustainable living, they can influence their entire corporation to go green,” says Tan. “That is meaningful.”
Many a time, Tan had felt conflicted when an owner wants to tear down and redevelop a GCB, especially one that is barely 10 years old. He felt that by having brokered the sale of these properties, he may have been just as culpable to this wastage.
He intends to make up for that through his sustainability efforts now. By ensuring that the GCB projects that he is involved from now on are net-zero buildings, he hopes to educate GCB owners on the importance of sustainability. And that will help him start an important conversation with them, he reasons.
The first net-zero GCB that Tan is involved in is one that is sitting on a 15,479 sq ft freehold site at Chee Hoon Avenue, off University Road. Tan is in the process of selecting an architect to design the GCB. He is also engaging a panel of advisers and other consultants to see if they could recycle the materials from the old GCB to be reused for the construction of the new house. “I will use recycled materials in my projects as far as possible, in order to reduce the use of raw materials and waste generated,” he says. “A life-cycle approach is fundamental to reducing the resources used.”
Tan also intends to install a PM 2.5 fan filter unit (FFU), designed to protect against particle pollution less than 2.5 micrometres wide. Such a filter made with N95-quality materials can capture fine aerosols, even smaller than the coronavirus that causes Covid. It is also a low-energy innovation that will help achieve better ventilation and healthier indoor air conditions, he adds.
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Tan believes that we should preserve buildings and consider if we are able to wait another 10 to 20 years before knocking down the old HDB blocks (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

From GCBs to HDBs

GCBs, however, are just a niche segment of the overall real estate market, Tan acknowledges. From GCB, he intends to expand into the design and development of net-zero residential and commercial buildings.
“Globally, buildings account for about 40% of all raw materials, consume about 40% of the world’s energy, and are responsible for one-third of carbon emissions around the world,” he adds.
Today, 55% of the world population live in urban areas, and by 2050, that figure is projected to increase to 68%, according to the United Nations. “So, we need to think about the built environment,” says Tan.
He is also concerned about the future of old HDB estates in Singapore. After all, 78.7% of Singapore households dwell in HDB flats, according to the Department of Statistics’ latest data in 2020.
“I hope that everyone thinks twice before deciding if old HDB buildings should be demolished,” says Tan. “As far as possible, I believe that we should preserve buildings and consider if we are able to wait another 10 to 20 years before knocking them down. To ensure that they remain relevant in the meantime, we could refurbish or renovate these buildings.”
His concern is that demolishing large blocks of old buildings produces massive amounts of waste and destroys the culture and heritage of a community in the area. “I propose using open-air car parks for new developments instead, with multi-storey carparks built into the buildings,” he says.
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Tan has also committed to planting 100 trees for every new project that he takes on. This is part of his effort to support National Parks Board in its “OneMillionTrees” movement — a plan to plant more than a million trees across Singapore in the next 10 years (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Planting trees

Tan has also committed to planting 100 trees for every new project that he takes on. This is part of his effort to support National Parks Board in its “OneMillionTrees” movement — a plan to plant more than a million trees across Singapore in the next 10 years.
He intends to raise $10 million over the next five years towards this cause. “The cost of each tree is about $300, which means I will donate $30,000 to the Garden City Fund with each new project I undertake, to support the cost of the tree and site preparation,” Tan estimates. “Any balance would go towards helping outreach and education programmes to connect local community with our natural heritage.”
He believes that it is critical, first and foremost, to protect existing forests. “Planting new trees is the next best option as trees store a large amount of carbon and will help remove significant amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” adds Tan. “They also create a liveable environment, serve as natural air filters, reduce heat and provide shading.”
The second phase of his plan towards sustainable living is to promote education. He wants to build an institute and create a curriculum that is flexible, ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks; one that is accessible to more practitioners in the various fields, regardless of their academic credentials. Tan’s goal for the institute is to improve the access to information on sustainability. “Many experienced architects and engineers may not yet realise the importance of sustainable design,” says Tan. “I plan to equip them with the right set of knowledge and skills to venture into this space.”
By his own example, Tan hopes to encourage corporations and high-net-worth individuals to embrace sustainability and net-zero energy building.
He also believes that all individuals have a responsibility to take action. “Small actions that we can do include bringing our own reusable water bottles around with us, or even bringing our own containers for takeaways,” he says. “This way, we reduce the amount of single-use plastics that we consume and help save the environment.”