Zac Toh, 26, grew up with the plant nursery as his playground. As his family is in the landscaping business, he spent his school holidays plucking weeds, fertilising plants and driving forklifts.
After completing his national service, Toh dove right into his family business. Despite initial reservations, he soon found his calling as ‘the modern farmer’, after leading a project team and finding an interest in urban green technologies.
While juggling his business, GWS Living Art—which specialises in green walls and green roofs in Singapore and beyond—Toh attained a diploma in interior and landscape design. He was also awarded the Young Green Innovator Award in 2017, by the Singapore Green Building Council and Building and Construction Authority, for his lightweight green roof system.
How did your passion for urban green technology come about?
My passion started when I installed my first green wall and the home owners were really appreciative of how it changed the look of their home. Their very sincere gratitude helped me to see this as more than just a business but a meaningful passion, and that has been my drive.
What do you think is the hallmark of your company?
I have always instilled in my team that GWS Living Art must uphold our quality and our adventurous spirit. We have a shorter history of green walls and roofs compared to some others in the market, but we make it up with our appetite for interesting and crazy projects. But whatever the project may be, we keep our quality. I believe in being there with my operations team whenever they approach a new or never-been-done-before project—I personally feel that a hands-on approach is best.
My ‘style’ is guided by my principles—honest business practices and quality products at fair prices. I manage clients by letting them know upfront the true cost of a green wall or roof, including maintenance fees and routine. When it comes to plant selection, I give them honest advice on the plant species based on their environment or wall location.
What’s an example of a creative and practical urban green technology that you have conceived and delivered?
We developed our own Gaia Wall System, our latest green wall product. This product is inspired by nature, by how different types of plants grow on the tree bark. We wanted to recreate this tree bark so that the system itself becomes a sustainable ecosystem. This creative technology is also practical because it requires less maintenance and can be installed safely and even at relatively high heights.
What’s one of the more memorable projects that you have worked on?
That would be the green roof on Ang Mo Kio train station. Green roofs help in storm water management and also bring ecological diversity to an otherwise barren roof. It was the first such project at a train station, and as you can guess, there were many safety regulations to adhere to—such as only being able to install in the wee hours when the trains are not running. After setting up and safety briefing, we were left with only two hours, from 1 to 3 am, each night for the installation. We completed the job in a week.
There was also only one cat ladder (measuring 600×600 millimetres), and that was our only access point. I like challenges. This limited access meant that we had to work with limited manpower as well, due to the loading safety regulations. We had to pre-grow the green roof mat and then dry it out before lifting it up onto the roof and securing it.
What are the major challenges faced as a player in the urban green technology industry in Singapore?
The urban green technology scene in Singapore is constantly innovating, so the key challenge is to constantly reinnovate our products and ourselves. New technologies are developed quickly, so we cannot be still as well. With the still competition in Singapore, we also have to streamline our operations.
The push for green here from the Singapore government is strong, and the policies are efficiently implemented. For the overseas market, we do not have much direct support from the government, so we have to look for partners who are on the ground and believe in our products and upholding the quality, instead of purely focusing on profits.
You have accomplished much. What lies ahead?
During the awards ceremony for The Young Green Innovator Award 2017, I met many others who have far more years of experience in the green building field, and I am inspired to continue driving this green trend.
I have had the chance to speak at a few polytechnics in Singapore. It has been fulfilling to be able to look back at my journey and inspire others to follow their passion. Having the chance to lead a team at my age is a blessing, and I am thankful for my capable team that motivates me to continue to research and develop new systems. — Construction+ Online