Amidst the thousands of Buddhist temples in South-East Asia, one in Singapore stands out from the rest — conservation-wise, that is.
LOCATED on a small hilltop at Chwee Chian Road, off Pasir Panjang Road, Poh Ern Shih (Temple of Thanksgiving) is probably the first religious building in Singapore to display great zeal and determination in becoming green.
Facing Singapore’s southern coast on one side, and the famed Bukit Chandu on another end, the temple was built as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the Battle of Pasir Panjang in 1942, which was fought just a week before the British surrended their “Gibraltar of the East” to the Japanese.
Established in 1954 as a modest single-storey temple by philanthropist Lee Choon Seng (who passed on in 1966 at 78 years old), Poh Ern Shih is one of the few Chinese Mahayana temples in Singapore dedicated to the Ksitigarbha, one of the four principal bodhisattvas in East Asian Mahayana Buddhism (the others being Samantabhadra, Manjusri, and Avalokitesvara).
The original temple structure was demolished in 2003 in order to expand the temple complex, and the first phase of renovations was finished in 2007. To the honorary president of the temple, Lee Boon Siong (the founder’s grandson), this presented a marvellous opportunity to incorporate eco-friendly features into the new wing.
Lee, a retired lawyer who spent many years in Canada after leaving Singapore in 1988, said that he learnt many aspects of being green during his sojourn there. Upon his return to Singapore in 1995, he was asked to be a director of the temple board, which is funded entirely from donations and gifts.
“I met up with Lee Coo, a green-minded architect who has produced many sensible designs, and we began to discuss on how we could work together,’’ said Lee, 72. Both shared the vision of making Poh Ern Shih a green temple, by taking a comprehensive approach that will encompass solar radiation, water, wind, recycling and so on.
“My vision of Poh Ern Shih was simple,” said Lee Coo. “It has to be green, provide a high comfort level for the elderly and physically disabled, speak an international architectural language, yet allude to Buddhist culture in a multi-religious society. Looking back, this formula turned out to be a tough nut to crack. The design took almost four years to complete and the construction took another three years. Nonetheless, it was fun building the new Poh Ern Shih, and I am sure Boon Siong also enjoyed it.”
Together with a partner organisation, the Buddhist Fellowship, the temple conducts programmes such as Dharma talks, Sutta discussions and meditation courses in Chinese and English for the Buddhist community. What is obvious is the building’s sensitivity to the needs of its devotees and visitors, who are mainly in their 60s. For the benefit of wheelchair users, a gentle driveway stretches from the gates to the upper levels of the temple, and every storey of the building has level flooring. The lavatory cubicles are fitted with easily reachable emergency assistance buttons, and the doors are designed so that they can be unlocked from the outside in case of emergencies.
Tapping solar energy
With Lee Coo Consultant Associates appointed as both project manager and architect, phase one saw the incorporation of 160sqm of solar panels. “I requested for three different types … amorphous silicon (36.1sqm), monocrystalline silicon (39.3sqm) and polycrystalline silicon (84.7sqm) in order to evaluate their performance. I also did not want to restrict myself to one supplier only, and sourced my panels from Uni-Solar, Sharp and Mitsubishi,’’ said Lee.
All three types of panels gave a combined peak rated output of 18.82kW, with engineers estimating its annual output in the region of 21.6MWh (megawatt hours). With the new office wing completed in April 2007, Poh Ern Shih then embarked on the second phase, which involved building a pagoda consisting entirely of steel, glass and photovoltaic (PV) panels. The translucent shell of the pagoda acts as a skylight that lets in sunlight into the prayer hall below.
“You will feel good and peaceful sitting under it irrespective of whether you are meditating or just sitting quietly. It had gone through many design modifications in height, angle, shape and materials in order to achieve the right balance between heat gain (when too much sunlight penetration is undesirable) and chimney-effect ventilation,” said Lee Coo.
The panels mounted on the pagoda are rated at 8.4kWp (kilowatt peak), though it cannot be expected to generate its peak output as many of the panels are partially shaded. However, Lee is not deterred by the technicalities, and said that the whole aim is to generate as much electricity as possible in order to lessen the building’s dependence on power drawn from the grid. The PV system currently meets about 25% of the temple’s needs.
The design of the PV system was done by Grenzone, which also did work for the acclaimed Zero-Energy Building in Singapore, as well as for Pusat Tenaga Malaysia’s Zero Energy Office in Bangi, Selangor (together with its local affiliate, Eco Gallery).
In accordance with its spirit of sharing and generosity, Poh Ern Shih shares the performance data of the various PV panels with academicians, students and those with no commercial intent. Building researchers from Singapore regularly upload the PV performance data from Poh Ern Shih so that more work can be done to refine the performance of PV in the tropics. Students from universities also make regular visits there to see how things are done.
Poh Ern Shih’s solar PV system is grid-connected, so any surplus electricity is sold back to the utility provider, though the temple is far from being a zero-energy building. The only form of on-site energy storage is quite limited at the moment (a few small batteries), and it is used to power some garden and landscaping lights in the evening.
Energy savings is also achieved by minimising the use of lights by using light tubes, which are cylindrical devices fitted with lenses and coated with reflective material so that sunlight from the rooftop or surface is bounced along the tube to light up dark basements or interiors. The temple also saves electricity by mounting four solar thermal water heaters so that it could have hot water for its kitchen. Other passive cooling and energy saving measures include using LED (light-emitting diode) lights and relying as much as possible on natural ventilation.
Finally, rainwater is harvested, and used for all washing and in toilets and gardens, saving an estimated 8,000cu.m of water each year. Engineers estimate Poh Ern Shih’s energy savings to be around 558,168kWh/year. The only “failures” are the two small wind turbines mounted on the rooftop; Singapore just does not have high enough wind speeds to move even a tiny wind turbine.
In 2010, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) presented Poh Ern Shih with the Green Mark Gold award for its eco-friendly construction. The BCA Green Mark scheme (bca.gov.sg/GreenMark/green_mark_projects.html) was launched in 2005 to promote sustainable and environmentally friendly buildings. The benefits of Green Mark-certified buildings include cost savings through the efficient use energy and water, and lower maintenance costs. Other benefits include enhanced occupant productivity and health due to good indoor environmental quality. The Malaysian equivalent would be the Green Building Index (greenbuildingindex.org)
As far as the sums go, the temple is far from breaking even on the millions of dollars spent on the additional green features. However, as electricity prices in Singapore are pegged to fuel costs (with the July-Sept 2011 rates starting from 29.19 (Singapore) cents per kWh, including the goods and services tax of 7%), the “break even” period should be way less than 20 years.
No matter which way one looks at it, it is indeed a pleasant surprise to see Poh Ern Shih spreading the message of conservation. And in the spirit of continuous improvement, a defining Singapore trait, Lee is not about to sit still and bask in the glory. He is actively seeking to improve things, so that one day, the temple can be truly self-sufficient in water and electricity. “For the next step, I am aiming for a Green Mark Gold Plus certification from BCA.”
> Poh Ern Shih is located at 9, Chwee Chian Road, Singapore. For more information, visit pohernshih.info or call 02-64743926.