Showflat Afterlives: Transitioning to a Circular Economy Design Paradigm

Image: Lentor Modern Showflat

According to Architecture 2030, the construction sector accounts for 42% of annual global CO2 emissions, of which 27% comes from building operations, and the remaining 15% from the embodied carbon of four common building materials – cement, iron, steel, and aluminum. With dwindling material resources and rising embodied carbon emissions, the need for any kind of interim building must now be reviewed closely.  Do we really need them? Must they be designed as temporary structures? Can they be designed to reduce or eliminate waste?

Showflat Afterlives, a workshop* conducted by CPG Corporation’s Design and Research Office (DRO) for Archifest 2023, explored these issues using showflats as the subject of our study.

Why showflats?

Showflats are particularly relevant in Singapore because of their ubiquity, with dozens of showflats available for viewing at any one time. Due to their popularity amongst prospective private home buyers, developers devote substantial resources into the construction of these interim, fully fitted-out buildings. With the demand for new private homes holding strong, it is not uncommon for developments to sell more than 50% of their units within their first launch weekend. In fact, some developments are so successful that they sell out completely during the launch. This means that their showflats are effectively needed for one weekend only.

Do we really need showflats?

During the Covid-19 period when showflat visits were disallowed or highly restricted, developers adapted by providing virtual showflats for prospective buyers online. The trend has caught on, and it is now a norm for larger developments to have virtual showflats on their sales websites, not to replace physical showflats, but in addition to them. With a highly competitive private housing market and a 5-year deadline to sell every single unit within a development or otherwise pay a substantial financial penalty, developers are clearly taking no chances.

To eliminate waste, one obvious solution is for the authorities to ban showflats altogether, so that all developers will be on a level playing field, but this kind of top-down approach appears too heavy-handed and restrictive. Another suggestion is for the government to provide a 6-month grace period for the sales, during which only a virtual showflat model will be used. If sales targets can be met within this period, the developer may not need to construct a physical showflat.

Must showflats be designed as temporary structures?

Developers generally prefer to construct their showflat in the vicinity of the actual development to give prospective buyers a sense of the neighbourhood’s character and the amenities that are available nearby. In Singapore, showflats are mostly constructed on government land that is leased to developers on a TOL (Temporary Occupation License) basis, but with increasing land scarcity, well-located TOL sites are harder to come by, and some developers have had to accept an off-site location for their showflat.

Stretching this idea further, co-locating different showflat developments within a single site or even within a single building dedicated to that purpose, does not seem too far-fetched. An in-situ approach will naturally lead to structures that are designed to last, with sufficient built-in flexibility to accommodate the needs of different showflat developments, not least because it makes economic sense to do so.   

A related question is whether showflats can be constructed as prototypes that are incorporated into the final development, thereby eliminating waste altogether. While this is technically possible, conventional in-place construction techniques generally restrict them to on-site prototypes. This creates a host of constraints, such as working within the limited space on site and adhering to strict safety regulations pertaining to visitors entering a construction site, while meeting the sales deadline of 5 years.

This may soon change. With PPVC (Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction) adoption on the rise in residential developments, unit prototypes are prefabricated off-site and can be completely fitted out to serve as a showflat, before being incorporated into the final building.

Interior-exterior interface conditions in showflat design.  Images 1 – 3 (from left): Lentor Modern showflat; Image 4: Lentor Hills Residences showflat

Can showflats be designed to reduce or eliminate waste?

Our research shows that while it is possible to reduce waste by adopting various circular economy design principles, it will be extremely difficult to completely eliminate waste with current reuse and recycling processes.

For instance, even if showflats are housed in a permanent structure that can be adapted to different developments, the reuse components will be limited to its foundation and structure, and the spaces that are common to all showflats, namely the exhibition space, the lounge, staff rooms and service spaces. The spaces that contain the show units will differ substantially between developments and will have to be replaced with new wall partitions, windows, and interior finishes. In addition, customised elements such as the façade and the roof will normally be replaced to better reflect the character of the development. In theory, many building materials such as ceramic tiles, calcium silicate board, plywood etc. can be reused in other developments if they are designed for disassembly, but this is not common in practice.

The recycling potential of common building materials such as concrete, steel, glass, ceramic tiles etc. vary, with steel and other metals having the highest recycling value. Products that are deemed to be “contaminated” need to be cleaned with special methods or broken down into their constituent parts and are seldom recycled because the processes involved are too difficult or impossible. Such products are more common than one may think – they include laminated glass, glass with special coatings and other composite products such as insulation boards.

What’s next?

From a resource scarcity perspective, designing for reuse and recycling is the next frontier for the building industry. To achieve sustainability, we must transition from the “take, make and dispose” linear economy model to a circular economy paradigm that considers end-of-life uses for the buildings that we design, specify and construct. This requires a re-evaluation of current design, procurement and construction practices and cannot be achieved without the commitment of all parties along the construction value chain.

It is by no means an easy task.

But push may soon come to shove – with EU countries such as Belgium starting to incorporate circular award criteria in their tender processes and developing circular building codes, the choice of whether or not to take the circular route may not remain as an ideological one for long.

*The "Showflat Afterlives" workshop was sponsored by Guocoland and Wordsearch.

Ar. Pauline Ang is the Director of CPG Corporation's Design and Research Office.

More on this topic: