Archive 2012

AAA Black Talk 7 - Ken Yeang


In celebration of the Sydney Architecture Festival, the Australian Architecture Association hosted two very special Black Talks by one of the fathers of ecological architecture, Dr Ken Yeang. Speaking in both Sydney and Melbourne, Dr Yeang provided an insight into the thinking and theory that shaped his ideas on architecture and urban planning.

Almost forty years ago, the Malaysian born architect was one of the first to undertake a PhD on the subject of ecological design at Cambridge University in the UK. His completed dissertation was later published under the title ‘Designing With Nature: The Ecological Basis for Architectural Design’, and was received within the design community as a radical new way of looking at architecture and in particular at how to approach tall building design in a sustainable way.

The talk began with an outline of the key criteria that feature in his work, humans plus nature plus the built environment. In his eyes all are inextricably linked to one another and inform the way a building or urban environment should be shaped.

Beginning with one his earlier projects the Roof Roof House (1985), in Ampang Malaysia, Ken explained how this project was an opportunity to explore in built form, his ideas about how to address regional climatic conditions. He highlighted how the lessons learnt from less successful elements of the house informed the refinement of detailing for later larger buildings.

Continuing on with further examples the audience was able to trace how each work refined strategies for how to address issues such as solar access and shading, the capture and direction of wind for natural ventilation and how increasingly Ken Yeang was seeking to create built systems in large buildings that emulated ecosystems in nature (bioclimatic architecture).

Yeang went on to explain how his work has increasingly incorporated integrated greenery. This not only improves air quality, it also supports biodiversity by creating habitats for local flora and fauna, as well as providing a visual link for the building user to the surrounding environment.


Much of the thinking behind Ken Yeang's built and competition work, developed out his studies of urban design concepts such as place making, linkages, vistas, creating communities, figure ground relationships, spaces between buildings and greening or landscaping. He wondered how these concepts that work across a ground plane in an urban environment, could be flipped vertically in a tall building.

Through early examples such as the IBM Plaza (1985) and Menara Boustead (1986), both in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, and the more recent DiGi Technical Operations Centre (2010) in Shah Alam Malaysia, we could see how Ken has experimented with ideas about bio integration. One of the lessons learnt from the DiGi Technical Operations Centre was that vertical green walls required high levels of maintenance, fertilisers and were energy intensive for water propagation. He commented that he would not choose to incorporate large-scale vertical green walls into his future projects. Instead  their experiments in integrating greenery have led to the understanding that continuous integrated green ramps alleviated many of these problems. Continuous green ramps emulate a more natural integrated system of greenery, drawing parallels to a green corridor in urban planning.

A recently completed project in Singapore, Solaris (2010) is his greenest completed building to date and clearly demonstrates the refinement of Dr Ken Yeang's ideas developed over the past few decades.

What Yeang made very clear in his talk was that mechanistic strategies like integrating active systems such as solar, energy and water technologies are not enough on their own to address the creation of a truly ecologically sustainable building. They need to work in symphony with design that incorporates an understanding of the need to address the local climatic, ecological, sociological and economic conditions in which they are built.



At the end of each talk, participants had a chance to ask Dr Yeang questions. One of the common themes of audience questions addressed the financial cost of developing ecological buildings. Ken responded that the average green building would generally cost between 4% to 8% above the cost of a standard building. He felt that the longer-term advantages derived for the environment, the developer and end user, far outweigh this marginal rise in design and construction costs.

A further theme of questions was how he felt we could repair the damage we have done to the environment. Ken feels that address the issue we need to change the way we teach architecture and design. In particular we have to re-examine our attitudes to the way we use materials. We cannot continue to use and throw away; we must re-use, recycle and better understand the life cycles of materials that we use.

While Ken does not dispute the usefulness of green building rating systems such as BREEAM, LEEDS or Green Star, he does question why building designers and urban planners do not seek to better the bench marks set by these systems. It was clear that he felt architects and designers could do more, that these technologies should not be a means to an end for ticking boxes. Instead these benchmarks should be viewed as a bar to exceed.

Overall questions asked by the audience highlighted the impression that Ken Yeang has an optimistic view of the role designers can play in ensuring that our impact on the environment becomes increasingly benign. He claimed that the truly green building does not exist yet. He envisages a future in which design will naturally incorporate a sustainable agenda. He feels that the challenges are not insurmountable and the next generation of architects and designers will be increasingly equipped to address them.

The impression gained from both listening to his talk and his responses to the audience, is that Dr Ken Yeang is man of humility, with strength of conviction that compels him to question the status quo. This is not an individual who seeks architectural stardom through the creation of iconographic buildings. Rather he is a man with a mission - to inspire and encourage innovation and demonstrate within his own body of work a commitment to making the world a better place to inhabit.

The AAA would like to thank Ken for giving both Sydney and Melbourne design enthusiasts an insight into his ideology and for providing us with a chance to examine some of the challenges we need to address in ensuring a sustainable future.

We would also like to thank our supporters; the Australian Architecture Association Fund, the University of Sydney, the Sydney Architecture Festival, RMIT University, Sanctuary Magazine, Wiley Books and AAA volunteers.

  • Article by: Vanessa Couzens
  • Images by: Vincent Lam