Malaysians do their part to protect the environment

Posted on April 22, 2011. Filed under: Environment and Livelihoods |

-The Star-
To mark Earth Day, StarTwo speaks to Malaysians who are safeguarding the planet.

Cool, comfy homes

DOES affordable housing always have to mean low roofs, thin walls that provide little insulation or thermal buffering, and poor cross ventilation? Not so, if you ask Mohd Peter Davis, who is unrelenting in his drive to “convert” housing developers to invest in a bit more thoughtfulness (besides money), to make their end products sensible for our warm and humid weather.

“It is popular belief that hot houses are a natural consequence of the Malaysian climate. This is a myth, and we have proved in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) that the outdoor temperature, even during the warmest month of the year (typically around March) is within human thermal comfort zone for 14 hours per day.

Comfort zone: Mohd Peter Davis is a fervent believer in housing which provides thermal comfort to its occupants, and has invested nearly RM300,000 to prove his point.

“However, when we data-logged the temperature inside a terrace house, we discovered a completely different environment. The house did not cool down at night, but instead, remained warm from the heat it absorbed during the day. Step into a traditional kampung house, and you can see that it does not retain heat at night.”

The solution, said Davis who is attached to UPM Institute of Advanced Technology, is not to return to building kampung-type houses in our cities, but a smart adoption of measures that can tap the coolness of the night so that it can be “stored” in the concrete mass (the walls, and other built structures).

“Clearly, the overheating in modern concrete houses is caused more by poor design, and I suppose it is far easier to re-educate our architects than to change the climate.”

Davis, who is married to former Mardi animal scientist Dr Zainur Alsmi Sharif, tried for many years to purchase a property that he could be comfortable in. “It slowly dawned on me that if we wanted a naturally cool bungalow, we would have to design and build our own.”

In the early 1990s, Davis purchased a plot of land in Bangi, Selangor, and designed it following basic principles such as orientating the house to keep out the sun, putting in an insulated roof, shaded walls, and incorporated lots of natural ventilation.

“I was also lucky that I was not an architect so I did not repeat their mistakes. I just jumbled up three architectural styles I like, kampung-style with large doors and windows, a British colonial wraparound 2m verandah popular in Queensland, Australia (to keep the sun off the walls), and an insulated American farmhouse roof with six dormer windows (to let hot air out). Form followed function, unlike much of modern Malaysian architecture where looks come first.”

Excluding land cost, Davis spent RM282,000, a princely sum back then, but is all smiles as we walked around the 360sqm bungalow spread over three levels. “At current electricity tariffs, the house should pay for itself in another five years or so, based on the amount of electricity saved from not using air-conditioners.”

Even at mid-day, the interior of the house at ground floor was at around 28°C, when outdoor temperature most likely would have surpassed 32°C. Even the first floor is a great place to chill out with gentle air movement provided by fans.

“The only mistake I made was not doubling the roof insulation to four inches (10cm). Nonetheless, our bungalow has demonstrated that an energy-efficient yet thermally comfortable house can be built here in Malaysia,’’ said Davis. He acknowledges that his residence is nowhere near the definition of affordable housing. However, his passion has rubbed off many architecture students who have grown interested in sustainable design for mass housing. – By Meng Yew Choong

Going car-less

FOR most urbanites, the prospect of not having a car is unthinkable but screenwriter Rusyan Sopian refuses to jump on the band wagon. Having managed all 28 years of his life without a car, he plans to keep it that way.

“I’m just taking a small stand. The roads are jammed up enough as it is, and I don’t want to contribute to that,” he said.

The fact that he works wireless from home or in coffee shops around his neighbourhood in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, however, does mean he can get by without having to brave the daily rush hour on public transport.

Public commuter: Rusyan Sopian works wirelessly from a restaurant. He minimises his carbon footprint by shopping locally and using public transport.

An advocate of integrated township planning, he agrees that living somewhere where all the necessary amenities are within walking distance makes being green considerably easier. When he does need to venture out of his patch, he either carpools or hops onto a bus, cab or train.

Aside from being an eco-friendly way of life, Rusyan pointed out that going public can also save one a fair bit of money. “Some of my friends have to fork out about RM1,000 on car loans, fuel, tolls, and parking fees every month.”

However he agrees that as a daily gripe, local transportation might put off those who travel frequently. “It is pretty disconnected, there are a lot of neighbourhoods that aren’t integrated into the LRT system, and buses don’t run on time, but hopefully with the Greater KL MRT project, things will improve.” By Natalie Heng

Tower of green

BY now, most would have realised that Goldis Bhd is not your average developer. After all, it did go against market trend by building GTower – Malaysia’s first Green Mark-certified building – in a more expensive way, instead of at the lowest possible cost.

For example, it eventually spent up to RM22mil to fit the entire building with double-glazed glass to provide insulation against heat and noise, versus the “cheaper” route of conventional glass treated with window film.

“We had originally budgetted only RM7mil for the glass. Double glazing is not that fashionable, and at that point, the local supplier was almost going out of business,’’ said Colin Ng, head of corporate investment for Goldis Bhd, developer-owner of GTower. Goldis is backed by the resources of Tan & Tan Developments Bhd as well as IGB Corporation Bhd.

Eco-flooring: Green-rated carpeting is used throughout GTower. The carpet base is made from 30% recycled materials, and the top is fully recyclable.

Strategically located within Kuala Lumpur city centre, GTower is by no means anywhere near being an iconic piece of architecture. However, it scores highly on being green, securing the Building and Construction Authority’s (of Singapore) Green Mark Gold certification, a highly coveted certification.

The senior management’s passion in spreading the green way has infected a good number of staff, with a few of them getting together to make vinegar for cleaning purposes from kitchen waste like orange peels.

Other green features of the tower is not readily evident, as it involves engineering works like the redesigned air conditioning chillers that operate at very high levels of efficiency.

Its efficient lifts and escalators reduce the cooling load by 5.4%, while its energy efficient lighting (characterised by the liberal use of light emitting diodes, or LEDs) cut down electricity demand for illumination by nearly 36%.

Its external facade is also amply decorated with “vertical gardens” to cut heat gain, and its rainwater harvesting features substantially reduces the amount of water needed to irrigate its plants.

Harvested rainwater is also utilised as an evaporative cooling agent in the open areas of the building.

The less visible components would be the waste heat convertor that draws upon the heat from the air conditioner chillers to provide hot water for the entire building, including the swimming pool.

The swimming pool also does away with chlorine as a disinfectant, relying instead on the time-tested power of salt to keep microbes in check (yes, guests swim in saline water, not unlike the sea!).

There is also liberal use of pre-owned furniture (after some tasteful reupholstering) and discarded building materials that abound with character, like aged wood panelling. Where old wood is insufficient, Goldis purchased engineered wood made of compacted rice husk, which is considered a waste material before this.

The company also tried to make a difference in carpeting, painstakingly sourcing for carpet with at least 30% post-consumer waste as base material (used carpets, essentially). No supplier of such a product could be found locally, so they had to go shopping overseas for that.

The next challenge was to educate the tenants of GTower (excluding hotel guests) on the need to separate their waste, so that wet waste will not contaminate potential recyclables like paper, as well as to reduce reliance on paper towels in the toilets (hand dryers are provided).

Whatever the case, Goldis is not selfish with its knowledge, and again departs from the norm by willingly sharing it.

“In fact, six members of YTL toured our building recently, while I personally gave two senior directors from the Sunway group a tour to explain the details to them,” said Ng when asked whether he would open his doors to other developers in town.

Goldis definitely understands the power of sharing, as it will lead to the creation of a critical mass which then would enable the green building industry to really take off here.

Ng sums up the situation succintly: “It’s no use being leader of the pack when you are the only one in the pack.”By Meng Yew Choong

Sharing green news

LYNDA Hurley has always loved the lush green landscape and eclectic variety of Malaysian wildlife, but found that there was “something missing” by way of a platform for greenies to share their enthusiasm with the community at large.

That was how ecomalaysia.org, an online environment and green lifestyle magazine, came about. The web-zine, an entirely voluntary initiative, aims at providing a platform for like-minded people to share ideas about eco-friendly homes, holidays, fashion and living in general.

Doing her bit: Lynda Hurley aims to promote green living through a web-zine.

“We’ve put up articles on a variety of topics relating to living a green lifestyle, as well as interviews with people involved in green and conservation projects in Malaysia,” says Lynda who initiated the project with her husband early last year.

A photo gallery allows people to upload and share their photographic masterpieces, whilst a community forum and listing space for upcoming events stands ready and waiting to be utilised.

“The idea is to enable the web-zine to develop a life of its own, with contributions and input coming from the community.”

In between her job at Garden International where she teaches classes on fashion and textiles, Lynda, 57, runs the website along with her teacher-trainer husband Sean Hurley, 60, and web designer Dan Gibas.

Site content, she says, is currently generated by them and random contributors, many of whom saw the site and wanted to be part of it. However, there is a lot more capacity and potential in the site which greenies and green associations can take advantage of.

She encourages greenies to log on and join in – after all, the tools are there for a green online community to flourish. All that is needed is for more greenies to start logging on and being part of it! By Natalie Heng

Pedal power

CYCLING may be cheap, healthy and environmentally friendly, but most Malaysians dismiss cycling to work because they think it’s either too tiring, too humid or a death trap.

Azizan Abdul Aziz, 45, thinks Malaysians make too many excuses. That’s why he started his blog, cyclefriday.blogspot.com back in 2008.

He wanted to provide a platform to discuss those grievances and think of ways to overcome them, as well as try to encourage more of a lifestyle approach to cycling.

Say no to gridlocks: Azizan Abdul Aziz wants Friday to be a ‘cycle to work’ day.

“People see cycling as something from their childhood, not something that they can incorporate into their lifestyles. When they get older they graduate to cars and start buying bicycles for their kids. The thinking tends to be that we stop cycling because we grow old, but the truth is that we grow old because we stop cycling,” says Azizan.

Roads are not as dangerous as people think, he says, and it may be tiring the first few weeks but you soon get healthy and then it becomes a doddle.

“A lot of it is about cycling with confidence and having the right protective gear. We need to get other road users to take cyclists seriously and this can be achieved by getting more cyclists on the road.”

It can start for example, by simply getting friends and families on bikes – not necessarily to ride to work or school – but just around the neighbourhood.

“It’s about changing people’s mentality, not just about whether or not cycling is a practical idea for them, but also how they react as drivers when they see cyclists on the road. Getting them to think, for example ‘I’m a cyclist’, or ‘my children are cyclists’ will also go towards making them more conscientious as motorists.”

Azizan, an accountant by profession, was in the line of financial planning when he first started cycling. He lived in Subang Jaya, Selangor, and had been using public transport to get to work in the heart of Kuala Lumpur before his cycling epiphany in 2008.

“It was so frustrating, waiting for buses. You just waste so much time. Then I got talking to some friends about public transport one day, and said more people should cycle instead of adding traffic to the daily public transport or road commute. After that I realised I should walk the talk and gave cycling to work a go.”

His first trip took him one and a half hours covering 25km to get to work – the same amount of time it took him on public transport. After the return journey home that day, he crashed on the couch. The next day he got up, did it all over again and hasn’t looked back since.

On his blog, you’ll see a small blurb on the side for Cycle Friday, where he proposes everyone make Friday a “cycle to work” day. His website has inspired many people to try cycling to work, which has encouraged him to continue blogging about cycling.

He believes in the power a circle of influence can have. “I believe we need to change people’s mentality about cycling. Lets make a difference and get people to realise that mornings don’t have to be about traffic jams, and consider bikes as a viable and sustainable mode of alternative transport.” By Natalie Heng

Low-carbon meals

WOODS Macrobiotics is one restaurant that aspires to tread lightly on the planet. And by serving only vegetarian fare, no meats, it has already chalked up one tick in the “eco-friendly” report book.

The restaurant is owned by June Ka Lim, a holistic nutritionist and pioneer in promoting macrobiotics and organic products in the country. Macrobiotics emphasises a diet rich in whole, unprocessed food, especially grains, seeds and greens.

Waste not, want not: June Ka Lim, a macrobiotics counsellor, not only serves up vegetarian meals at her restaurant, but makes sure the outlet generates little waste.

As macrobiotics espouses respect for the natural environment, the restaurant in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, serves locally grown organic vegetables while the breads are made artisan-style, relying on naturally occurring yeasts in the air instead of chemical leaveners.

In running the eatery, Lim aims to be low-carbon but found it a difficult task since almost all our food is imported – everything from vegetables to spices to flours.

“If available, I’d rather choose to use local ingredients but our agriculture system is not as developed and supportive compared to that of neighbouring countries. The best we can do is to cook without meat and animal ingredients for really low-carbon meals.

“Also, we minimise our carbon footprint by importing ingredients in bulk for local manufacturing. I have produced sauces and spreads from imported ingredients, for instance miso, sambal, sauces for noodles and nut and seed butters.”

Most things in her restaurant are either reused or recycled: kitchen leftovers and vegetable peel are turned into compost; plastic bags are sent to farmers to be reused for crop protection; old curtains are transformed into shopping bags; water from dish washing goes to potted plants; and old magazines become paper bags for customers.

“We serve as a mini recycling centre for our customers who send in their empty glass or plastic bottles and paper for recycling,” says Lim.

To cut electricity usage, the chefs cook with gas and Lim plans to replace electrical lighting with solar lights. Plastic waste is trimmed by using paper packaging for take-aways, breads and cakes. Lim also holds talks on green living and healthy cookery for the public at the restaurant.

All the green efforts certainly support the macrobiotics philosophy of “living in harmony with nature.” By Tan Cheng Li

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