Thursday, January 15, 2015

No more land? Build floating real estate


JANUARY 14, 2015

Singapore is the third-densest city in the world. But unlike other large cities, it is without a hinterland. There is no buffer for spillovers. The sea has to serve as the island-state’s “hinterland”.

The Singapore coastline is similar to a column of ants, made up of airports, ports, shipyards, power stations and recreation parks. One golf course, also on the coastline, is on its way out. Inland, about 5.5 million citizens and foreigners have homes in ever-taller towers. Roads are congested and trains packed every morning.

No wonder then, the White Paper on population tabled in 2013 sparked an outcry from Singaporeans, even though the population was projected to grow by about 1.5 million in 17 years, a rise of only 1 per cent per year.

Intellectuals weighed in. Professor Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) advocated fewer roads. Dr Liu Thai Ker, also from LKYSPP, said that with proper planning, Singapore has room for 10 million people.

One idea has yet to capture the imagination of our state planners: Floating real estate.

Singapore has 719km2 of land, but many forget it may have as large a space just outside the coastline over which the country has jurisdiction and development rights. The sea appears to be a forgotten resource.

VLFS, or Very Large Floating Structure, is a subject of many academic treatises and research efforts all over the world. National University of Singapore Professor C M Wang and his colleagues have published many papers and filed a patent in the United States Patent Office on the subject.

Technology exists today to build, launch, join and maintain VLFSs, each capable of providing huge platforms with service life exceeding 50 years. Singapore waters are calm, no breakwaters are necessary to protect the floats. Secure mooring can be achieved at modest cost to keep floats in position under the worst wind and wave conditions. Singapore offshore rig builders have experience in many proven mooring systems.

Floating just above water, VLFSs are visually and environmentally unobtrusive. When obsolete, it may be sunk to provide habitat for marine life. The applications for VFLSs are limited only by the imagination. To get a flavour of the possibilities, one only has to see the gallery of images at Google Image. They range from the mundane to the exciting and exotic; from workers’ dormitories and desalination plants to six-star hotels and office towers, from retirement villages to airport runways and passenger terminal buildings.

A floating complex is not necessarily a flat barren platform. It can be as visually exciting as Marina Bay or as quaint as Venice with its footpaths and gondolas and total absence of cars.

A VLFS is not a single monolithic structure. It is an assembly of modules connected together. Moored VLFSs may rise and fall with the tide or could be always fixed at a certain elevation. Mooring it is possible at modest cost. Over the years, experience gained in the offshore rig industry has produced many proven mooring solutions.

VLFSs may be constructed of steel or concrete, not unlike tunnel segments for the MRT. The cost of making such a VLFS is about S$300 to S$600 per square metre. With a service life of 50 years, it compares favourably with land lease costs in Singapore. The nation’s experience with the Float at Marina Bay and the upcoming Floating Wetlands at Punggol — both classified as large floating structures — may provide the inspiration for greater use of floating structures here.


Floating real estate can be a reality, but it would require passion on the part of the bureaucracy to venture beyond their comfort zone. Needless to say, a well-planned infrastructure has to be put in place to support them as is also the case with new real estate on land.

Electricity and water may be supplied from the mainland or can be generated on board. Sewage is treatable afloat. Treated affluent can be discharged overboard. Garbage can be consolidated and barged to floating incinerators. Connectivity to the mainland is important and this is easily realised by floating bridges or ferry services. It is worth noting that floating expressways are successfully in use in Canada and Norway.

The government has to take ownership of the “town planning”. The subdivision of designated plots and the infrastructure to provide to the floats and from the mainland needs to be the job of the authorities. The task of design, engineering, risk analysis and building of the platform could be assigned to the private sector exclusively or jointly with the government.

Shipping is critical to our economy, but shipping lanes need a lot of sea space. The announced relocation to Tuas of the container ports at Keppel and Pasir Panjang will free up a huge stretch of sea space. The shipping lanes in the north-east are principally to serve Sembawang Shipyard and Senoko Power Station. If these two entities can be moved to Tuas, Singapore can fully exploit the long, if narrow, stretch of water from Changi Airport to Woodlands.

The following developments can be built as VLFS clusters:
• City Clusters for hotels, offices, restaurants, cultural and recreational activity spaces, libraries, museums, etc;
• Institutional Clusters for colleges, international schools, hospitals, retirement villages, hospices, etc;
• Industrial Clusters for shipyards, incinerators, tank farms, desalination, chemical and power plants, etc;
• Residential Clusters for apartments, terrace houses, bungalows, community shopping and facilities, etc.
The above are exciting possibilities. With land-intensive industries relocated offshore, there is reduced pressure to build more roads and parking spaces. Congestion on existing highways could also be eased and there will be affordable alternatives to industries crippled by sky-rocketing land rentals.

Fifty years ago, Goh Keng Swee had the vision to transform the swamps of Jurong into an industrial estate. It took guts and conviction to succeed, and succeed he did.

If we are to plan for 10 million people, as Dr Liu advocates, and reduce the network of roads, as Prof Mahbubani champions, we need the next Goh Keng Swee to take us from terra firma to terra aqua.

Do we have the politicians and planners who, as former chief Defence Scientist Lui Pao Chuen put it, “dare to try”?

Singapore has provided public housing for more than 80 per cent of its people. We are on the way to becoming self-sufficient in water despite the absence of rivers. Limitation on land has forced us to build airport and seaports on reclaimed land. We are the world’s largest offshore rig builder even though the only oil Singaporeans see comes in cans.

Singapore has faced challenges. We have overcome them.

The challenge of creating floating real estate beckons. Necessity will make it happen.


Lim Soon Heng is a consultant in shipyard planning and development at EMAS Consultants LLP.

[Yes. I like this idea. But it is not necessary. There is enough housing up to 2030. And we have not run out of land yet.]

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