Meet the stewards of Singapore’s green scene. In the face of a climate crisis whose repercussions are felt even in tiny Singapore, these environmental heroes are stepping up to lead change in the field of conservation and sustainability.
Emily Sim is on a mission to change perspectives on valuing innovative building materials over exotic ones. The director of Panelogue started her company specialising in sustainably sourced unique, handcrafted surfaces and high-performance wood-based panels in 2016, after an apprenticeship in Japan opened her eyes to the harmful effects and practices of the timber industry.
While she grew up exposed to her family’s timber company, NS Trading, it was only during her training with Sumitomo Forestry in Japan that the then 21-year-old gained a deeper insight into different forestry techniques. Learning how timber was made shifted the way she thought about wood. “I started to draw the connection between my family business and the environment at large, and it really affected me,” says Emily, who joined NS Trading after university. “I realised wood is unsustainable and the way that people consume timber is bad for the environment. It’s not only about whether we use an item or not but also about using it purposefully and thoughtfully.”
Emily points out how rare timber tends to be more highly prized in the luxury industry. “If a client has a big bungalow and wants all the solid wood flooring to be the same colour, we would have to get all the timber from the same tree – perhaps a large 500-year-old tree – and cut it down to make the flooring,” she explains. “But is that really the most dignified way to treat such a majestic form of life?”
Instead of using solid wood, which is more expensive and produced with a lot of wastage, Emily is pushing engineered wood. According to a 2021 review published on IntechOpen, laminated veneer lumber makes up to 35 per cent more powerful utilisation of logs than is conceivable with solid lumber. “Engineered wood is usually cheaper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good as solid wood because engineered products are always about removing the disadvantages of the natural product.”
Emily started out first offering birch plywood at Panelogue, but progressively found through her research that there were many other sustainable materials available that had not entered the Singapore market. These include natural materials like cork, which she sources from Portugal. Cork is a more environmentally friendly alternative for wall panels or flooring, as it is harvested only by skinning the barks of oak trees every nine years, without having to harm or cut down the tree.
One unique material Panelogue carries is from the Italian brand Mogu, which uses biofabrication to create panels from organic waste, bound together by mycelium spores from mushrooms for a safe and biodegradable product.
“Introducing these materials into the market is a tough sell since people are unfamiliar with them, but I see it as adding value,” adds Emily. “If your budget is bigger, instead of looking for the rarest tree or rarest stone, go for something that is innovative and interesting. If you’re spending money on something like marble for a conversation starter, these alternative materials are equally good.”
There has been encouraging response from corporates like Facebook and Google, who have also adopted Panelogue’s materials in their offices here. “When people see these materials used in the office, they will be more open to using them in their own homes,” she reasons. “I hope they are reminded of the circular economy and what they can do to participate in this new world order of sustainable living.”
At Panelogue, Emily realised that while she could offer alternative materials, most of the industry was still unfamiliar with them. It was clear that design and manufacturing are disconnected in Singapore, leading her to start Superstructure in 2017. The design-to-fabrication consultancy specialises in computational design and aims to lower the barrier of entry for the younger generation in manufacturing and construction.
“A lot of older-generation carpenters are very conservative and aren’t willing to try using new or different materials,” Emily remarks. At Superstructure, digital prototypes allow experimentation, while computer numerical control (CNC) machines are used to manufacture computer- generated designs. Harnessing this technology, Superstructure has taken on projects all over the world, including an orchestra hall in Egypt.
Emily is also driving change in the ecosystem through the Singapore Furniture Industries Council, where she chairs the design cluster and contributes to sustainability initiatives. “I help members understand the bombastic concept of sustainability and how their company can not only make eco-friendly products but also be sustainable. We also have focus groups with government agencies on whether the laws and regulations they are going to pass can be adopted by the industry.”
Another change Emily is actively advocating for is the industry use of and public education on low-formaldehyde products. A carcinogenic chemical harmful to health, formaldehyde is widely used in materials and furniture such as in the form of resin for binding wood – an issue she says local consumers are not adequately aware of.
“I’ve lobbied for stricter standards more than five years ago but things still haven’t changed,” she says, citing high costs as a likely reason. “I hope to find more people who are passionate about advocating this with me, but I believe the government also has a very big role to play.”
(Image of Emily Sim: Fashion Direction: Johnny Khoo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Photography: Joel Low | Fashion Styling: Jacquie Ang | Hair: Jimmy Yap/Kimistry, using Dyson | Make-up: Wee Ming, using Chanel | Photography Assistance: Eddie Teo)
This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.