Built by Singapore: From Slums to a Sustainable Built Environment

Built by Singapore: From Slums to a Sustainable Built Environment

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Singapore’s construction sector evolved over the past five decades as the country reshaped its built environment, transforming what was once described as “one of the world’s worst slums” into a world-class city.

In the 1960s, a newly independent Singapore prioritised “breaking the back” of its housing problem. The government overcame a dearth of resources and skilled manpower to undertake an intensive building programme through the 1980s, with the Housing & Development Board (HDB) and Public Works Department (PWD) laying the foundations of the residential and public infrastructure.

By 1976 more than 50% of Singaporeans lived in HDB flats, compared with only 8.8% in colonial-era public housing in 1959, with the figure subsequently rising above 85%. Having addressed the acute housing shortage, focus shifted to improving the quality of the built environment and capabilities of the construction industry and workforce. Building regulations were tightened and higher safety standards were set for design, construction and maintenance. Various training programmes helped build the construction sector’s capabilities.

As the scale and complexity building activities increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s, priorities started to shift towards mechanisation and labour-saving initiatives to meet significant increases in the costs of land, manpower and construction materials. Government agencies promoted innovative technologies and policies to mechanise and upgrade the construction sector for greater efficiency, productivity and quality.

Singapore became the first Asian country to use precast and prefabrication technologies in construction, and modular designs started to be incorporated in public housing projects. By the 1980s, many turnkey builders had taken on prefabrication projects and used building designs that required less on-site labour.

With growing prosperity came a greater emphasis on ensuring liveability, inclusivity and sustainability. Since the 1990s, building programmes have sought to improve accessibility of the built environment by catering to the needs of a rapidly ageing population, people with disabilities, families with young children, and also to reduce the environmental impacts of buildings.

Along with Universal Design concepts to cater to the needs of different age groups and abilities, new ideas and green technologies are currently being tested in several areas—including energy conservation, water and waste management, and urban mobility—that could potentially be replicated across Singapore in the future.

In coming years, the government’s efforts to slow the growth of the foreign workforce will present the construction sector with a major challenge of increasing productivity significantly. This will further the change the way Singapore builds.