Designworks: Coming up with sustainable and low-energy buildings

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 5, 2021 - April 11, 2021.
Paramit in the Forest, which was completed in 2017, has a total built-up area of 160,000 sq ft (Photo by Design Unit Architects)

Paramit in the Forest, which was completed in 2017, has a total built-up area of 160,000 sq ft (Photo by Design Unit Architects)

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For Design Unit Architects Sdn Bhd director John Bulcock, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), low-energy and sustainable designs are a central feature of his philosophy and approach to architecture.

“We are a small company by design and vary from about four to seven people, depending on the workload. We like to keep to this size as it enables us to take control of all aspects of every project, with both partners hands-on and leading every project. This approach is the same for both large and small projects,” says Bulcock.

The firm’s philosophy is to encourage maximum contact with nature through its designs. It believes that working in an environment that includes greenery and natural light improves mental health and productivity in commercial buildings.

Bulcock has 36 years of experience as an architect, planner, interior designer and landscape designer. Since 1994, he has been involved in a variety of projects in Malaysia, India and Southeast Asia, including residential, commercial and institutional buildings as well as sustainable master planning of resorts and townships.

At the age of nine, Bulcock’s ambition was already to become an architect as he was interested in drawing, painting and making models from boxes. This eventually evolved into making larger things, engaging in spatial problem-solving, creating architectural models and developing meaningful spaces.

His passion for architecture is what inspires him to continue doing this work. “It is the power of architecture to communicate and stimulate, producing meaningful, fulfilling and important work that affects the lives of people who experience our buildings, both clients and passers-by,” says Bulcock.

“Architects create spaces where people live and work, and we take this responsibility seriously. I believe the famous quotation by former British prime minister Winston Churchill is true, ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’, which sums up the importance of architecture.”

He considers good architecture to be psychologically stimulating, to relate to the climate, and as having a meaning and soul behind it. “If it does, the architecture will touch and stimulate us and give meaning to our daily lives. However, if it does not have these qualities, I think it is merely an economic activity,” he says.

Bulcock: Architects create spaces where people live and work, and we take this responsibility seriously (Photo by Design Unit Architects)

“There are many good young architects who understand passive design and designing in the tropics, as well as have an eagerness to design in a sustainable way. There is a definite movement towards this approach and reducing our reliance on air conditioning that creates the urban heat island effect in our tropical cities.”

Bulcock opines that in the future, a deeper and more meaningful understanding of green architecture will develop and this is where the climate is crucial in the design concept. “I doubt the pandemic will not have much change unless it is prolonged over many years. One possible effect is that some people will realise that working from home is beneficial to their daily lives, with the time management and productivity advantages, and this may conceivably translate into less commercial building space,” he adds.

“However, I’m not a strong believer in this as people will always need to physically meet, and find this more beneficial, at least for creative work. Immediately though, it negatively affects one of the few elements of buildings we regularly touch, such as door handles and handrails, which are important design elements in buildings.”

Paramit Factory in the Forest

Two of the firm’s more notable projects are the Paramit Factory in the Forest and Aemulus at the Runway in Penang.

Located on a five-acre site, Paramit Factory in the Forest is a 160,000 sq ft manufacturing plant and office built for a Silicon Valley-based electronics company that specialises in medical and satellite equipment. The project, which was completed in 2017, is conceived as a forest that penetrates, surrounds and steps over the building to create maximum contact with nature.

“All office levels provide direct access to the green roof gardens and both office and factory look into a large green shaded courtyard that can be used for meetings, coffee breaks or relaxation,” says Bulcock.

According to him, a green courtyard separates the office and factory with views of and access from both, while a bridge over the courtyard links the office and production area. This circulation route becomes a space for meetings, breaks and lectures. Rainwater cascades from roof spouts increase awareness of tropical storms and serve as storage tanks for landscape irrigation.

The building’s design is aimed at creating a stimulating and meaningful working environment for all employees — to let the forest be the face of the building and the company. Forests, which are critical to both macro and microclimates, are also vital to one’s psychological well-being.

The client wanted an energy-efficient and climatically responsive bu\ilding. Thus, the cardinal sustainable design principles were energy, water efficiency, daylighting and biophilia, which are fundamental human needs for that connection to nature.

Aemulus at the Runway is a 58,000
sq ft manufacturing and office building built for an electronics company (Photo by Design Unit Architects)

Bulcock explains that the building is designed to shield against the hot sun, while allowing diffused natural daylight to filter into the building. The office and courtyard are shaded by a louvre canopy that provides effective solar protection during the hottest part of the day.

“The factory skylight design was optimised to achieve an evenly day-lit work environment, and the simulations and daylight measurements in operation show that the factory floor achieves an evenly day-lit work environment without glare throughout the year. Dimmable daylight responsive LED lighting and individual task lighting ensure that the required light levels are obtained,” he says.

An innovative radiant floor cooling system works with embedded cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes in the concrete slabs throughout the factory and office. “By cooling down the slabs to 21°C, this structural element of the building doubles up as part of the cooling system. The higher chilled water temperature and water-borne cooling transport make the radiant floor slab cooling twice as energy-efficient as conventional air conditioning,” says Bulcock.

Aemulus at the Runway

Completed in 2020, Aemulus at the Runway is a 58,000 sq ft manufacturing and office building built for an electronics company. The site sits on a two-acre parcel and overlooks  the Penang airport runway, the views of which are maximised.

Bulcock says that conceptually, an elevated brick box separates into two brick boxes to allow entry into a reception hall that overlooks the runway. The space between the two brick boxes, reception and circulation becomes multi-functional over three levels. The predominantly brick façade to all but the open runway elevation has brick fin openings and perforated brick walls to protect from solar heat gain and glare while creating a beautiful internal natural light ambiance.

“The client wanted a hierarchy of creative and breakout spaces for the main office and production spaces, which focus on encouraging staff interaction, chance meetings and larger spaces for collaboration. The main atrium/lobby and circulation also serve as a multi-functional space for gatherings and impromptu meetings,” he says.

“All circulation spaces are naturally ventilated, including the main triple-volume lobby, where cooling is assisted by two large industrial fans. A continuous narrow ventilation slot under the main lobby roof exhausts the rising warm air.”

The design and orientation of the building protects against direct sunlight, angled brick walls shield the glazing generally, an overhanging louvred roof canopy provides additional shade and the roof garden is insulated. “Skylights at the top floor office provide additional daylight into the interior, and natural light is borrowed from the lobby area into the fully glazed office and production spaces. Double-glazed low-emissivity glass is used for all external glazing, and energy-efficient air conditioning and lighting are installed,” Bulcock explains.

“In addition, local common clay bricks are used in both external and internal walls with wide mortar joints, which create an organic texture and inconsistent colour while achieving an overall distinctive tone. The bricks are also low maintenance — a trait that is shared with the fair-faced concrete columns and flat slabs.”