Architect, academic, and, most recently, regional architectural travel television program host Jason Pomeroy advocates reviewing a building’s historical and cultural context as a first step to sustainable design. The portfolio of the Singapore-based Pomeroy Studio principal spans from architecture to master planning, and the firm’s guiding principles, which include incorporating greenery into social third-spaces such as communal courtyards, are outlined in his book, The Skycourt and Skygarden: Greening the Urban Habitat (Routledge, 2014). We caught up with the U.K.-licensed Pomeroy at the International Green Building Conference in Singapore this week to talk about his sustainable-design projects in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Your work focuses on the development of the 21st-century vertical city. In your view, what does that city look like in terms of public and private spaces, integrated vegetation, and other sustainable design features?

JP: As we continue to urbanize and privatize our built environment, we see the eradication of the old streets, squares, boulevards—places that were once so intrinsic to our social interaction. We need to start looking to replenish the loss of those open spaces. At the same time, we see the environmental benefits of sky courts and sky gardens in a built environment that’s increasingly challenged by record temperatures, droughts, and floods. The ability to incorporate urban greenery helps to reduce ambient temperatures and the noxious pollutants in the atmosphere, and to absorb excess rainwater. There are also sociophysiological benefits [associated with] the presence of greenery, and economic benefits with high-rise greenery and terraces, particularly the idea that observation decks can be income generating.

Singapore-based founding principal Jason Pomeroy.
POMEROY_jason Singapore-based founding principal Jason Pomeroy.

How does your studio identify this value proposition for clients?

JP: We don’t believe that the social, economic, and environmental triple bottom line is satisfying the built environment today. We believe it goes further to embrace the culture, the spatial, and the technological. With these parameters, we are able to create holistic built environments that cross the various disciplines to include landscape design, architecture, and interiors. We heat-map our buildings to find hotspots, in which we can place greenery to help reduce ambient temperatures. We model our cities using social-predictive and spatial-predictive theory to forward our creative thinking with objective, evidence-based analysis.

You talk about eradicating the glass box, which is the bread and butter of most firms. What role do you think it will play in the 21st-century vertical city?

JP: If we’re not careful, it will become a Pandora’s Box. We love creating new wonders but we often complete them to the detriment of our society. As built-environment professionals, we face our Pandora’s Box on a daily basis. The glass box, this air-conditioned behemoth, is not necessarily the future of our urban habitat. We need to start thinking about back-to-basics design, how we can encourage natural light and natural ventilation without the single-minded pursuit of technology. So let’s use glass wisely—to get a wonderful view out or to be able to open the window for natural ventilation—but let’s not put glass everywhere.

As you review historical and contemporary designs for your televisions show, City Time Traveller, what are some of the building features you find have remained constants as drivers of sustainable design?

JP: You get a very different perception of the built environment from behind the camera. As I went through the ancient ruins of Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Thailand, the green buildings of Singapore, and some of the back-to-nature projects that we find in Udaipur, India, what I found fascinating is that there is almost a Darwinian process of evolution. In many respects, the best ideas in the built environment have stood the test of time: natural light, natural ventilation, the importance of creating semi-public spaces that provide an in-between [zone], the ability to have deep overhanging roofs to provide shade and shelter from the sun and the rain. You will find these in India, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, China, and Japan—they transcend geography and climate. They are strong, holistic design principles that have gone through that Darwinian process. You then overlay the cultural idiosyncrasy of a particular group of people, which makes it their own.

How do these historical features manifest in contemporary buildings?

JP: To imprint a sense of identity, we to refer back to the cultural sustainability aspect. We are currently working on a mixed-use and residential project in Penang, Malaysia, which is a beautiful island that has a prevalence of shop-houses and colonial buildings and an abundance of water. The one thing that’s missing is the sense of its historical Islamic community, which our client wanted to evoke. So we reinterpreted the traditional charharbargh, or four-fold garden, and drew on elements called muqarnas, which are the geometric, structural forms found on the sides of domed cupolas, to create a geometric patterning using serrated balconies that step in and out.

At what point do you think so-called sustainable design and conventional design will become one in the same?

JP: I hate the term sustainable; I hate the term green. Unfortunately, it’s a hackneyed term that is here to stay. I’m hoping that people will realize that sustainable design is nothing more than back-to-basics design. I look at sustainability through the analogy of a cavemen sitting at the mouth of the cave—the caveman was at the mouth of the cave to embrace natural light and ventilation. All of a sudden, he discovers fire and he starts to move deeper inside the cave in order to get away from the wild animals that were at the mouth of the cave. We have moved deeper and deeper inside this metaphorical cave and have relied on technology to forward ourselves. I am an advocate for bringing that caveman to the mouth of the cave again.

This interview has been edited and condensed.