Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father and former prime minister, coined the phrase “garden city” in the 1960s, and Singapore has long advertised itself as such. The island has adopted what they call “biophilic” architecture over the years, with greenery frequently seen creeping up urban facades or spilling out from skyscrapers. In addition, extensive tree planting programs have been implemented.
The nice curved design, which houses the business school of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), has sunlit atriums, open study areas against lush backdrops, and elevators that go down into beds of tropical plants. Wood was used to build handrails, benches, door frames, room dividers, and even a bus stop next to them.
Mass timber, a new type of engineered wood that is being arranged in layers and bonded with strong adhesives, is used to make up almost all of the building. It is currently Asia’s largest timber building by floor area, covering 43,500 square meters (468,000 square feet).
The project, which was given the name Gaia in honor of the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth, opened in May and cost 125 million Singapore dollars, or $93 million, to construct. It has no paint or cladding on its exposed timber frame, a design choice that celebrates natural materials and gives visitors the impression of walking between trees.
Toyo Ito, the renowned Japanese architect in charge of the project, claims that he wanted his designs to feel and connect with natural elements like water and trees. The architects intended for this building to feel like entering a forest when viewed from above.
Gaia was designed by the 81-year-old Toyo Ito and Singaporean design firm RSP in collaboration with him. Ito won the Pritzker Prize in 2013, which is often referred to as the “Nobel” of architecture. It includes research facilities, faculty offices, and open study terraces in addition to a 190-seat auditorium and a dozen lecture theaters.
Except for the toilets, ground-floor slabs, and external staircases, which were constructed using concrete due, in part, to local regulations, the structure was constructed using spruce tree timber from Sweden, Finland, and Austria. Before being shipped to Singapore, the wood was prefabricated into panels and sturdy beams in Europe.
The business school of Nanyang Technological University will be housed in Gaia, which spans 43,500 square meters (468,000 square feet).
Recent years have proclaimed a gigantic expansion in the quantity of enormous scope wooden designs being worked all over the world. Several countries now even take into consideration high rise structures (or “plyscrapers”), like Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s 25-story Rising, which at 284 feet, is the world’s tallest mass wood structure.
Asian cities have frequently been slower than European and North American ones to embrace the trend. Singapore’s construction regulations just permitted wood design to rise to 24 meters (79 feet) at the time Gaia was supported, but this level limitation has since been lifted. However, attitudes are rapidly shifting in Asia right now, particularly in Singapore.
According to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of Singapore, mass timber can speed up projects by up to 35% and reduce dust and noise at construction sites. Wooden buildings may also be safer and less likely to collapse catastrophically in a fire, contrary to popular belief (though not all experts agree).
The material is relatively slow and predictable rate of combustion is cited by proponents of mass timber. In addition, the architects of Gaia have added a “sacrificial layer” of wood to the building’s beams that, in the event of a fire, would char while safeguarding the timber beneath it.
However, many of the alleged advantages of mass timber are detrimental to the environment.
Around 40% of the world’s energy consumption is attributed to the construction and operation of buildings. But unlike concrete and steel, whose energy-intensive production is responsible for a significant portion of buildings’ environmental footprint, trees absorb carbon dioxide throughout their lifetime.
If a tree is then turned into mass timber, this embodied carbon is sequestered, or “locked in,” rather than being returned to the atmosphere. Studies suggest that 1 cubic meter of wood can store about a ton of carbon dioxide.
Timber is also a natural insulator that, in warm places like Singapore, traps less heat than concrete ones (or reduces heat loss in colder climates). And while Gaia’s designers say they have not calculated the emissions saved during the construction process, they claim that, in operation, the structure produces 2,500 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide than concrete or steel equivalents — an annual saving equivalent to taking over 550 cars off the roads.
Meanwhile, Singapore has designated Gaia a “zero energy” building. These energy savings are not just about materials. For one, the building’s exterior features strategically placed fins that cast shade over the facade, helping to keep it cool. Blasts of artificial air conditioning are also conspicuous by their absence.
Eschewing mechanical fans — some feat in a country less than 140 kilometers north of the equator — Gaia’s AC system instead relies on “passive cooling,” which pushes cold water through coils to chill the surrounding air. The breezy building’s north-south orientation meanwhile encourages natural ventilation by aligning with the direction of Singapore’s prevailing winds.
Gaia uses the same amount of energy as it produces. This distinction has only been achieved by 16 structures in Singapore to date, and exactly half of them are NTU properties, including a campus sports hall that was also designed by Ito.