COMMENTARY ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Equinox highlights: From gender bias in construction to urban density problems

Left to right: Frederico Ramos, Principal, Aedas; Vance Lew, Marketing Manager of HAWA Sliding Solutions; Low Chee Yen, representative of Lean In Malaysia

BCI Asia held first-ever virtual Equinox for Singapore and Malaysia last week, bringing together key professionals from both countries to connect industry players via talks, product presentations and virtual exhibition booths. The discussions covered various topics, including people-centric designs, urban density and women in design and construction industry.

Low Chee Yen, representative of Lean In Malaysia, gave comprehensive insights and examples about gender unconscious bias in workplaces. Chia Lay Kuan, Director of DCA Architects, shared about integrated design; and Vance Lew, Marketing Manager of HAWA Sliding Solutions, showed how higher density can succeed without compromising on quality of life. Below are some of the key takeaways from the discussions.

Women in design and construction 

Although women make up a small percentage of the industry, this number is likely to rise with more and more women wear hard hats and get their hands on projects. But the sector is far from equitable and so there has to be sustained efforts to promote the industry as a career prospect for women.

Construction industry has been homogeneous for a long while and it is now beckoning diversity. By involving more women, there will be more perspectives, backgrounds and experience levels so there will be less groupthink mentality pitfall. The status quo can be challenged, and this can be a driver of innovation and better decision-making.

Read: Women in construction: Challenges and opportunities

Low Chee Yen mentioned that, indeed, according to the empirical evidence, overall productivity can be improved by including more women in Malaysia. A report by Khazanah Research Institute, for instance, stated that raising women’s employment level by, say, 30 per cent—a shift that will narrow but not completely close gender gap in labour force participation—would raise Malaysia’s GDP by around 7 to 12 per cent.

But the question is why the progress is slow. Low believes that there is this unconscious bias in workplaces. To address this, women could be more critical and question bias assumptions, speak up for colleagues, refer back to facts, share rationale why there could be a different point of view for the matter at hand.

This could start with women individually, and follow-up discussions could be held to raise awareness. Low said, “If you have brought the unconscious bias to the conscious, that would have already been a wonderful first step. If it is your own unconscious bias, be more aware of how you respond and react the next time when similar situation arises. If it is your friends, have a conversation with the person and help them realise their unconscious bias.”

Normalising this kind of discussion is indeed necessary. However, we also need to formalise it through regulations and policies in order achieve meaningful transformation. One way to do this is by promoting dialogues through associations. This can help women form connections and develop skills, which subsequently assist them in career advancement.

We also need more women-friendly workplaces, which can be created through, among others, the enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, the allowance for maternity leave and work-share practices, the assurance of no gender pay-gaps, and the provision of amenities that can reduce women’s logistical challenges.

People-centric design

Another topic highlighted at the BCI Virtual Equinox is the integration of work, live and play in design . Integrated design seems to have become a buzzword in many forums lately considering the importance of flexible and accommodating workspaces during the pandemic. Earlier this year, Yvonne Lim, Group Director (Physical Planning) of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in a seminar held by Building construction Authority (BCA), urged the industry professionals to create resilient and robust urban development, as well as to continue to monitor possible shifts, consult stakeholders and plan flexible initiatives.

Read: Urban development through and beyond COVID-19

Chia Lay Kuan, Director of DCA Architects, provided a good case study in her BCI Virtual Equinox presentation. She shared about a project she has recently completed: the new PSA headquarter office. She said, “An integrated project is a people-centric project and so there will be a lot of discussion and comprehensive engagement with the client to make it work. For example, every floor could be designed differently, catering to the needs of specific departments. The main idea is to create a user-friendly place with connectedness and high comfort level.”

There is more demand of varied workspaces in urban areas these days. There are increasingly diverse mix of users with a variety of options to live, work and play, so planners need to reaffirm plans to develop the central business districts (CBDs) and make them more dynamic urban mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Micro-living as a solution to urban density problems

Another aspect of urban development discussed in BCI Virtual Equinox is urban density. Available urban space is shrinking while prices are on the rise so high density living, known as micro-living, is becoming popular.

Most architects would agree that in a high-density development like terrace houses, infusing nature is necessary to increase the occupant’s wellness, especially in a peak of health crisis that necessitates self-quarantine like last year. Having a courtyard would be one way to bring both lighting and greenery into the building. In condominiums, pocket parks can be created for example in every six levels, to function as a space for respite.

Read: Melvyn J Kanny on working with slopes and rethinking high-density development

Vance Lew, Marketing Manager of HAWA Sliding Solutions, shared his views about how higher density can succeed without compromising on quality of life. He believes that removing fixed walls in a small-space apartment and replace them with sliding doors could be a viable solution. This will lend occupants a lot of flexibility, so whenever they want to convert a place, they can move the doors to create multi-purpose rooms.

In Singapore, this seems to have already been in trend. The two-room flats by the House Development Board (HDB) no longer have a fixed enclosure for the bedroom, so a sliding door is used instead. And the other bedroom has a folding door. This creates flexibility to optimise the use of small living spaces and provides more comfort for the occupants. Anisa Pinatih – Construction+ Online