The University of Singapore’s new School of Design & Environment 4 has made the claim to be the first new-build, net-zero-energy building in Singapore

It is intended to showcase cooling systems suitable for the tropics everywhere without the need for air conditioning, which in conventional buildings costs an enormous amount of typically fossil fuel powered energy.

In a warming world air conditioning is forecast at the current rate to rise exponentially. The refrigerants in these devices are themselves gases, which cause global warming. Therefore the use of air-conditioning is both a cause and an effect of climate change.

Serie Architects, who designed the building, describe it as “a prototype of sustainable design” that combines a net-zero target with “a revalidated grammar of tropical architecture”.

The building provides more than 1500 square metres of design studio space, along with an open plaza, various public spaces, workshops, research centres, a cafe and a library.


The 8500-square-metre, six-storey building’s green design is intended to reflect the school’s remit to promote design, sustainability and education in southeast Asia.

Using plants and surrounded by trees to help with the cooling, it is part of a wider redevelopment of the university’s campus on Clementi Road, near the southern coastline of Singapore.

A range of flexible teaching spaces promotes a variety of uses, while enhanced interaction with the rest of the campus is helped by an open architecture that creates visual and spatial connections with the outdoors.

“One of our ambitions when we started the project was to challenge the notion that a high energy efficient building has to be very opaque,” explains Christopher Lee, principal of Serie Architects. 

“The completed building is incredibly open.” This helps with the ventilation. It comprises a collection of volumes and terraces described by the project team as “platforms and boxes” that define and express the building’s programmatic arrangement.

All of the facades are openable and ceilings are high to help prevent overheating and facilitate cross-ventilation.

Staircases and corridors extend through the platforms to connect the different boxes, creating a flow of movement around the building that facilitates collaboration and the movement of air.

“SDE4’s large platforms are configured in a way that promotes interaction and visual connectivity,” Lee continues. “We envisioned a very transparent volume in which the outside and the inside spaces are ambiguous; where nature and landscape play an important part, as a backdrop to the building.”

This openness is also informed by sustainability principles borrowed from the tropical region’s vernacular architecture. One example is the verandahs, terraces and balconies that facilitate natural ventilation by promoting cross breezes to flow through the rooms.

The variety of open-air spaces can be used for informal learning. Interstitial areas between the inner and outer skins of the east and west facades are designated for research.

These research zones are set behind an exterior screen of wavy, perforated aluminium panels that allow light and air to permeate. Sections of the aluminium facade can be disassembled and replaced to trial new systems and green building technologies.

The south elevation features a large oversailing roof that creates a sheltered portico, extending across this entire side of the building.

Integration with nature

The close relationship between the building and the surrounding nature is emphasised by the integration of outdoor spaces beneath the roof, which also shelters gardens and mature trees.

The gardens are a key part of SDE4’s ecological and pedagogical experience. 

The landscape helps to purify water runoff from the roof and hardscape, providing opportunities to learn about water management, while the introduction of native plants can be used as the basis for environmental education.

Other key features of SDE4’s commitment to net-zero energy consumption include the integration of more than 1200 photovoltaic panels on its rooftop.

London-based Serie Architects and its local partners, Multiply Architects, have collaborated on several projects in Singapore, including a proposal for a law court with terracotta-clad courtroom surrounded by balcony gardens, and a neighbourhood centre built around a communal terraced garden.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference,  Energy Management in Buildings and  Sustainable Home Refurbishment. He lives in the UK.

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