More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas and by 2030, the number is expected to rise to over 60%.

That will bring about a host of issues involving sustainability, housing and the environment.

Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM), through its Urban Wellbeing, Sustainable Housing and Environmental Resilience Committee (USHER), recently organised its annual PAM Housing and Urbanity Symposium and Roundtable Discussion (H+U 2016).

This year’s H+U theme – The New Urban Agenda – focused particularly on three out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by United Nation member countries on Sept 25 last year to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda.

They are Goal 7: Affordable & Clean Energy – ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all; Goal 9: Industry, Innovation & Infra-structure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation; and Goal 13: Climate Action – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact.

Moderated by architect Wan Sofiah Wan Ishak, the roundtable started off by asking how architects can play a more active role in sustainable development.

Kompleks Hijau Solar, a solar farm in Ayer Keroh, Malacca. Community-run solar farms can generate income to offset housing rent and utility bills, says PAM president Mohd Zulhemlee An. — Filepic

Kompleks Hijau Solar, a solar farm in Ayer Keroh, Malacca. Community-run solar farms can generate income to offset housing rent and utility bills, says PAM president Mohd Zulhemlee An.

Dr Milinda Pathiraja, co-founder of the Colombo-based firm RAW (Robust Architecture Workshop), said traditionally, architects have two fundamental roles – as an artist and a builder.

“These functions are still important in modern times but given the way the world is changing, we may have to take up additional responsibilities.

“At the end of the day, the question is: are architects blind servants of an industry or can we define the industry that we work for?”

Milinda said in order to do the latter, architects need to take up a different function and there were two ways to do it.

The first is via the formal way of being affiliated with governments, authorities, regulators and getting involved in policy-making and development strategies. The second is the informal way through individual practice and playing a social activist role on their own.

“The key here is to encourage practices to have research-based approaches, especially among younger architects, because research is always proactive. So research and practice can reinforce each other and the solutions can then be incorporated into policy-making,” said Milinda.

A People's Housing Project (PPR) flat in Kota Damansara, Petaling Jaya.

A People’s Housing Project (PPR) flat in Kota Damansara, Petaling Jaya.

Mustapha Kamal Zulkarnain, current chairman of Usher, said architects need to take on a more proactive role.

“There is a movement now where architects are promoting ‘architecture for all’ whereby the role of an architect is that of a facilitator, with technical and graphical knowledge.

“The younger generation also needs to learn and relearn new skills, work with people and discuss how designs can work for them by taking into consideration public opinion,” said Mustapha.

PAM president Mohd Zulhemlee An feels that architects should bring the people closer to the profession.

“For too long, we have been too exclusive. Many people don’t understand what we do. I want to break that barrier because architecture is for the people. We are designing for the people and need to know what they want and how they want to live,” he said.

The roundtable discussion also explored the issue of extending financial assistance for affordable housing to include other incentives like reduction of household utility bills and housing maintenance.

Zulhemlee pointed out the need to think about building affordable housing to be comfortable enough without the need for air conditioning.

He also suggested taking it one step further when it comes to reducing utility bills.

“Why not have a co-operative for electricity – instead of giving solar panels, each community has a solar farm so that the income generated can offset their rent as well as their utility bills at the same time?” he said.

However, Lee Jia Ping, Think City programme director and corporate communications head, feels that clean energy is not affordable in the country yet.

“The market needs to have more players to drive prices down. It’s one thing to say we need to have solar power, but if a family is struggling to make ends meet, how can they think of installing solar power?”

Transparent roofing sheets promote natural lighting and help cut down on energy use.

Transparent roofing sheets promote natural lighting and help cut down on energy use.

She has a few suggestions for making clean energy more affordable.

“First, can we make solar panels from recyclable materials so that they are more affordable and easier to produce? Secondly, all PPR (People’s Housing Project) flats need to be built with them and the residents also need to assume responsibility for the project too,” said Lee.

Milinda feels that the idea that sustainable energy and sustainable development is costly is a myth.

“Sustainability, at the end of the day, is about common sense solutions. It’s about bringing in natural light and ventilation, about producing thermal mass, shading facades, sharing of space and so on, and these are not necessarily expensive solutions.

“Rather than developing expensive scientific, technical solutions, it’s about using resources and the environmental conditions strategically. The solution lies not in technical solutions but in design,” he said.

The final question posed at the roundtable centred around public participation in sustainable development.

Zulhemlee said architects should approach the public as a member of the public.

“It only takes one person to want to start something and others will come in to participate. It is important for people to have ownership of a certain programme. Public participation is critical to any programme,” said Zulhemlee.

Lee emphasised the need to build with the people and the environment in mind.

“If we start building boxes, we are impacting physical and mental health, and dehumanising people. We need to start advocating for every architect and planner to tell the developers that if they start building for the people and the planet, profits will come, and these profits are more sustainable and there are models to show that,” said Lee.