Dato' Dr Ken Yeang's extensive work is a testimony to his success in expanding the ecological horizons of architecture and design.
Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor,
Member of the Nomination Committee
Dato' Dr Kenneth Yeang was born in Penang in 1948. He began his primary education at Wellesley Primary School and Westlands School in Penang in 1954. His secondary schooling was at the Penang Free School in 1962 and completing this at the Cheltenham Boys College in Gloucestershire (UK) in 1966.
Dato' Yeang received his first qualifications in architecture from the Architectural Association School ('AA') in London. His work on the green agenda started in the 1970s with his doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge on ecological design and planning.
"I became a green architect more by default rather than by design – as did most of the things that happens to me, often fortuitously by chance," he says.
At the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Architecture, Dato' Yeang started as a Research Assistant to work on the design for the 'Autonomous House' project, a proposal for a residence that is independent and not connected to urban infrastructure and utilities such as sewage, electricity or water.
After six months into the project, he concluded that the project lacked a theoretical basis and that much more was required to achieve an ecologically sustainable building. The proposition nevertheless intrigued him and he sought leave to embark instead as a graduate student to do a doctorate in ecological design and planning, which was a pioneering green-field subject at the time.
"In those days I was regarded as a 'longhaired hippie' – as anybody who was interested in green techology and ecology was regarded. Nevertheless I persisted and completed my doctorate in the topic which subsequently became my life's agenda," he says.
"I have an agenda of the things I want to do in my life – essentially wanting to make the world green through design innovation. This is my mission in life. Once I decided that this is what my life is all about then everything else fell in place in fulfilling the agenda and achieving this to the best that I can and doing it better than anybody else. This is what drives me – serendipity, discovery and invention.
Globally recognised now for his work on developing ecological design and master planning, Dato' Yeang dedicated his professional life to this pursuit and to deriving design methods for the ecological design and master planning of our built environment, over nearly 4 decades of his professional life that delivered over 200 built projects.
"Back in then when we first started, I just could not get clients to accept green design. Nobody wanted it. It wasn't considered relevant so it was no point pushing it overtly because it was just like hitting my head against a hard wall," he says, '..So I designed green privately and adopted a design approach that was a subset of ecological design, being 'bioclimatic design' which is the designing of buildings as passive low energy structures responsive to local climatic conditions. This is design that optimises the natural ambient energies of the place where the building is located. Clients soon perceived the obvious benefits..'. One of the early low energy bioclimatic buildings he built was his own home, the 'Roof- Roof' House in 1984 in Ampang, so called because of its double roofs.
"It was an experiment in passive mode, low energy bioclimatic concepts and devices. When I look back, it remains one of my favourites," he says. "The house provided a life-size working prototype for my ideas then that subsequently extended to larger scale urban high-rise situations. In this regard, it successfully served its purpose as an experimental project."
His early built works, adopting climateresponsive bioclimatic principles as passive-mode low-energy design, became a useful armature for his later ecologically sustainable design work. The approach was also a critical regionalist endeavor, enabling the derivation of a local identity in the architecture where the architecture has a link to its place though relating the builtform to the local climatic conditions. He then successfully extended the application of these principles to the high-rise building type which led to his being widely regarded as the 'father' or inventor of the 'bioclimatic skyscraper'.
Dato' Yeang is a principal in the firm, T. R. Hamzah and Yeang Sdn Bhd., first formed by Tengku Dato' Robert Hamzah, his contemporary at the AA School in London. In 2005, he also became Design Director and subsequently Chairman of its sister firm in the UK, Llewelyn Davies Yeang, a firm originally founded by Lord Richard Llewelyn Davies. Recently the Malaysian firm was nominated as the '8th Most Innovative Architectural Firm' globally by the US Magazine, Fast Company.
Single-Minded Pursuit of Ecodesign
Dato' Yeang's singleminded and relentless pursuit of ecodesign through his designs, his built and master planning work, and in his writings has for close to four decades, greatly influenced countless architects all around the world and professionals in the design fields not just in the way they approach design, architecture and planning but aesthetically – in defining what a green building should look like.
Because ecodesign in the 1970's did not have the benefit of research or academic theoretical models, he developed his own research, investigative design programme and concerted testing of ecological design systems. This led to his authoring several definitive books on ecological design.
Few architects do all these - designing, building, researching, teaching as well as writing. In this regard, his theoretical advancements, technical work and his meticulous recording of these prolifically in his books and monographs set him apart from other green architects.
Dato' Yeang has lectured at many schools of architecture and conferences at over 30 countries including holding visiting and adjunct professorships at several universities including the University of Malaya, Tongji University (Shanghai), Texas A & M University (USA), Deakin University (Australia), besides holding full professorship as the University of Illinois, as the Distinguished Plym Professor, and at the University of Sheffield as the Graham Willis Chair and at the University of Southern California as the Provost's Distinguished Visiting Scholar.
His contribution to architectural design is also acknowledged internationally through numerous awards for his built work. Among the accolades include the:
- Aga Khan Award for Menara Mesinaga, Selangor, Malaysia, his early tower that exemplifies his low-energy principles for the design of the bioclimatic skyscraper
- CNN Building Award for Spire Edge Tower (India) which is a signature tower that espouses the idea of a vertical ecoinfeastructure and which is certified LEED Platinum,
- Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia Gold Medal (2010)
- Prince Claus Award (Netherlands)
- UIA (International Union of Architects) Auguste Perret Award
When Dato' Yeang started practicing in Malaysia in 1974, "Clients thought I was crazy and was wasting their money. But today, clients want green not only because it can be commercially viable but because it's for them an ethical issue. Today's companies and their accountants want to see green as a triple-bottom-line. Thirty or forty years ago this wasn't the case," he says.
On public perception and the media, Yeang says: " ..creating awareness of the green agenda with the media is now no longer an issue because every time you pick up the newspaper or magazine, there will be an article or mention of green issues or green products and popular topics such as a 100 things to do to make your life or homes green. The hazard is that those who write these articles do not fully know about green design. What results is 'green-wash' giving a wrong and simplistic perception of green design. When the public gets too much of this, it simply puts them off. The more effective way to effect change in perception is through education".
"One way to commercially justify green design is through demonstrating energy and water savings. For instance we just completed a building in Singapore where the energy and water savings were at least half a million US dollars per annum" he adds.
Dato' Yeang works 14 hour day and what drives him to work late into the early hours of the morning is the chance of discovering something new in this field, of the opportunities of inventing and innovating. He says, "..nature is the biggest source of inspiration and invention. We cannot replicate nature 100% with humanmade machines but we can replicate selected aspects or parts of it and do these better than nature but in a very mechanistic and singular way. The difference between machines and organisms is the holistic properties of organisms, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
To generate new ideas, Dato' Yeang does what he calls 'rota reading'. He would select five to a dozen new books from his shelves and decides what he wants to get out from each, then selectively reads those pages or sections that interest him or which he considers important. He writes down the ideas and then rotationally moves on to the next book. He finds that, " in this way within one evening I cover several books, getting different ideas out of each. Then I go to sleep with all these ideas bouncing away in my head and I wake up in the morning with totally new ideas. It's a very fulfilling experience," he says.
To the younger generation of architects, he says: "it is important to start with a gut feel of what you want to do with your life and then to have the stamina and persistence over several years or decades to achieve this."
"Secondly, the pursuit of innovation is crucial because it is the key to progress, advancements and competing in any field of endeavour. Innovation can very often simply mean bringing several ideas or aphorisms together. Thirdly, it is crucial to do things that are beneficial to humankind and which can change the lives of people for the better," he adds. What's next for Dato' Yeang? He says he simply wants to achieve as much of his personal mission in making the world greener by design invention, "before I start pushing daisies".
Dato' Yeang is widely regarded as an architect ahead of his time. He recognised 40 years ago that environmental degredation and global warming would adversely affect the natural balance of the earth and its ecosystems. Adopting an ecology based approach, he has successfully applied those principles to architecture and urban design. Dato' Yeang uses his fundamental concepts of ecodesign in all his architectural work. Through constant experimentation over many decades he has acquired a reputation as a pioneer, an advocate, and innovator in ecological design.
Based on his principles of ecomimicry, Dato' Yeang's design work seeks to imitate the processes, structure and attributes of ecosystems, in an ecological nexus and connectivity with the landscape, and to achieve a benign and seamless biointegration between the human built environment and the natural environment.
"Nature by itself exists in a more or less state of stasis. What we humans have done is to disrupt biospheric processes and ecological stability. Take for example our carbon emissions and discharge of waste into the environment. In nature there is no waste as everything is reused and recycled. So if our human systems are able to mimic this attribute of ecosystems then we will have no waste as the outputs become reusable and recyclable, thereby reducing waste and making it as closed a loop as possible. That is what ecomimicry is about," he says.
"Architecture is about making people's lives fulfilling, happy and pleasurable. Achieving these is so much easier if we have clean air, clean water and clean land", he adds.
Quoting Kermit the Frog from the popular children's TV programme, Sesame Street, Dato' Yeang concludes by saying: "It's not easy being green".
Dato' Yeang's extensive work in his field of endeavor is a testimony to his success in advancing the ecological horizons of architecture and design. His lifetime dedication and commitment to green design personifies the true spirit of the Merdeka Award through a relentless pursuit of excellence.
In the words of the famous UK architect, Lord Norman Foster: "..Ken Yeang has developed a distinctive vocabulary that extends beyond questions of style to confront issues of sustainability and how we can build in harmony with the natural world..'.