Sylvain Richer de Forges: Sustainable Tourism at Siloso Beach Resort

SONY DSCSiloso Beach Resort (SBR) , located on Sentosa Island in Singapore is a pioneer of sorts in going several notches with its sustainability initiatives, way beyond what is the norm in the region.  Bhavani Prakash of Green Collar Asia talks to Sylvain Richer de Forges, Director of Sustainability at SBR.

GCA:  Having taken a tour of the resort, I get a strong sense that the owners of SBR have a clear vision to prioritise sustainability, and yet have been able to come up with a successful business model for a hotel. Could you share this initial vision and the journey so far with this strong sense of priority accorded to environmental sustainability? 

Sylvain Richer de Forges, Director of Sustainability at SBR, with his book, The Diversity of LIfe on Earth

Sylvain Richer de Forges:  SBR is unique starting from the point of view that the owners have chosen to develop the hotel according to a vision of developing such an establishment while minimizing to a great extent the impacts on the surrounding environment. The commitment was there from the start and the land chosen was especially selected because it was challenging to build on and at the same time well preserved.

Coming from a construction background the owners are very aware of the impacts of the sector on the environment and wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to build a financially viable hotel and at the same time giving back to society and the environment.

The owners wanted to do something different than the norm that would open up a potential new future market. By preserving the natural terrain and its inhabiting biodiversity they are aiming for a new concept of “luxury” based on a natural concept. Since the original commitment, the hotel has evolved to include sustainability not just in its design but also in its management, operations, culture and outreach.

GCA: To what lengths has SBR gone to preserve the existing biodiversity of the land upon which the resort was built?

Sylvain Richer de Forges: The resort was built according to three simple guidelines: preservation of the terrain in its original state as much as possible; preservation of all the trees; maximizing open spaces. These simple original guidelines have played a critical role in what SBR has become today and in the preservation of the biodiversity.

Over 200 trees originally found on site were retained instead of being chopped down

SBR has preserved over 200 fully grown trees on site and planted another 450 post-construction. In order to preserve the trees very specific and innovative construction techniques had to be used; at SBR trees are literally integrated into the structures. The dense tree coverage has managed to maintain a higher degree of biodiversity. Going beyond just preserving and planting trees, the overall design of buildings which include very extensive rooftop gardens has also increased the vegetal coverage and thus biodiversity.

Other measures put in place include planting mostly local species of trees and plants; all buildings were built on stilts which also permit species to move freely throughout the facility and to minimize the damage to the terrain.

GCA:  What are the on-going efforts to maintain biodiversity?

Sylvain Richer de Forges:  SBR has gone much beyond the initial preservation of the land in terms of protecting the biodiversity onsite. For instance over the past 3 years the resort has given up traditional mosquito control methods making use of petrochemical derivatives to a more environmentally friendly approach which makes use of bacterial based products. The resort has also built many ponds around the site which provide habitats and breading grounds for many mosquito predators such as frogs, dragonflies and fish. Choosing the right species of plants is also part of the strategy, most species are local and the site hosts a great diversity.

Going beyond just onsite initiatives, SBR is active in biodiversity awareness through a multitude of partnerships and programs. In 2011 the resort donated a significant amount of money in a fund raising campaign to bring 3 full dinosaur skeletons from the USA to Singapore. The resort also runs an active biodiversity and sustainable development awareness program www.biodiversity.sg which was set up as a CSR program. This program is based on a book which I wrote and was published in 2012 entitled: “The Diversity of Life on Earth: from Heritage to Extinction”

GCA:  What are some of the tangible and intangible benefits of maintaining biodiversity and natural greenery?

Preserving a tree by allowing it go grow through a room

Sylvain Richer de Forges: People often ask us what are the benefits of preserving so many trees on site and whether it was worth it considering the extra cost and efforts required during construction. There are indeed a multitude of benefits ranging from energy efficiency through shading and humidity retention, providing habitats to a multitude of species and thus allowing a higher degree of biodiversity, maintaining the soil structure and limiting erosion which is particularly important considering the resort was built on a hill side.

One of the unique benefits which turned out to be crucial is the fact that the trees act as a natural pump and have allowed to maintain an underground water reservoir near the surface. Our energy consumption is greatly reduced from not having to pump the water up through mechanical means.

Palm trees growing through a balcony. Most rooms are on stilts to prevent compression of the soil.

Furthermore, having such a lush greenery onsite greatly improves air quality and well-being through aspects such as the release of negative ions. People working at the resort have access to a healthier work environment which cannot be found in the city area; it appears that this has reflected positively on the work force if we look into health related absenteeism. The bottom line and philosophy of the owners is that health has no monetary value and should not be compromised for higher profits.

GCA:   Could you share some of the passive design features of the resort that help to conserve energy?

Sylvain Richer de Forges: Much consideration was given to the design of the resort to maximize natural lighting and cooling through air breezes. In order to achieve this, an open concept is present throughout the resort; in fact less than 30% of the site is built area.

The disposition of the buildings allows for air corridors which capture the sea breeze and channels it inside the central court; all buildings are on stills allowing air to circulate from below; all hotel corridors are open air.

The hotel has one (if not the) longest rooftop garden in Singapore which extends over 90m. The system is self-sustained through rainfall retention and reduces the energy load of the below building to a great extent. Other smaller rooftop gardens are present throughout the resort as well.

The overall significant preservation of trees and allowing greenery to merge with structures plays a significant role in keeping the structures cooler.

GCA:  What are the sustainable building materials used in the resort?

Recycled rubber mats

Sylvain Richer de Forges: SBR has used a significant amount of reused items in its construction. Such items range from core construction materials to furniture. For instance the hotel has its own carpentry where wood items collected from demolition sites around Singapore are processed and turned into furniture and utilised for a range of usage ranging from construction to repairs. Another example would be the extensive usage of 100% recycled rubber mats around the resorts corridors.

Going beyond materials used in construction, the hotel is strong on recycling and recycles everything that can be including glass, metals, paper/cardboards and others. It has established partnerships with contractors, some of which use the recycled items as raw materials in their processes.

GCA: SBR used the natural terrain to design the swimming pool, and also take great pains to ensure the water is naturally filtered and is chlorine free. Why do you choose to invest in this despite it being more expensive? 

The swimming pool which follows the natural gradient of the road that used to exist before. The water is naturally filtered and recycled.

Sylvain Richer de Forges: The swimming pool at SBR is unique. For a start the pool was simply deposited on top of an existing maintenance dirt road which was the only manmade structure on the site cutting through the lush rainforest. Depositing the pool on top meant that no trees had to be cut but also that the soil did not require compaction. The road has given the pool its unique stream like shape and is the longest landscape pool in Singapore.

The treatment system of the pool makes use of natural treatment methods rather than the conventional chlorinated approach. The water which is sourced from a natural underground spring undergoes a series of steps involving filtration using plants, sand, bio-indicators using fish ponds, oxygenation (a 30m high waterfall also plays a role in this process) and a natural salt ionization process.

Natural filtration of water

Despite significantly more expensive to run than a conventional pool the hotel is able to demonstrate the feasibility of such natural system but also to provide unique customer offering focusing on a healthy ecosystem free of chemicals.

Developers should pay more attention in making use of natural systems rather than generating artificial environments. Chlorine for instance has an adverse effect on the environment and humans. SBR has found salt ionization to be the healthiest option currently available for pool treatment and is constantly on the lookout for new options regardless of cost.

GCA:  How do you manage pests in an integrated way in the resort?

Sylvain Richer de Forges:  We do not really see wildlife as pest at SBR. However controlling mosquitoes is a must both for guests’ safety (dengue) and comfort (refer to question 3).

We also have a range of messages to educate people on the concept that wildlife (biodiversity) is natural and should not be seen as pests. Many people still see animals as pests when in fact they only indicate a healthy ecosystem. Societies have a long way to go in terms of bringing wildlife back to city environments and an even more challenging task to have people accept the concept.

GCA:  The resorts has a food waste management system. Can you describe that? How does that feed into the roof top garden where organic veggies are grown?

Sylvain Richer de Forges: SBR has managed to achieve 0% food wastage. This was achieved through two systems of waste management.

First the resort has a machine onsite which can turn organic waste into a liquid within 24 hours through the action of bacteria.

About half a million worms at the SBR wormery which help to recycle food waste and turn it into organic fertiliser for the rooftop food garden

The second and most comprehensive way of dealing with food waste is through a vermicomposting system: waste is segregated by the kitchen staff to remove any oily or greasy food. This food is then fed to the resorts over 1 million earth worms. The castings from the worms are collected and utilized in various ways as a fertilizer for organic cultures on the rooftop of the resort. The vegetables and spices that we grow through this integrated organic process are then used back in the restaurant which closes the cycle.

GCA:   What are some of the other responsible business practices followed? What kind of partnerships have you developed with other organisations who also care about the environment and society?

Sylvain Richer de Forges: SBR has a very holistic approach when it comes to sustainability. Despite that we here provide some elements of insight on our biodiversity and natural environment preservation systems, it is important to highlight that SBR is also strong on all aspects of sustainability which range from environment (water, energy, and waste) but also social initiatives (in-house and outside) and financial models.

At SBR we like to promote passive sustainability by design first as we feel more can actually be achieved in this way (i.e. sustainable design). However we also have implemented very high end technologies which make the resort even more efficient for instance on water and energy aspects.

SBR has developed a range of partnerships with private and public sector which go much beyond the boundaries of the resort. We are very active with a range of government agencies in Singapore but also have made long lasting partnerships with private companies, NGO’s and academic institutions.

Some of our latest projects include the set-up of a carbon offset mechanisms and a recycling campaign to involve the guests. Through our biodiversity.sg platform we have partnerships with leading groups working on biodiversity and conservation including the UN, Conservation International and WWF. We partner with a range of social groups especially on social employment such as the Saint Andrews Autism centre and many others.  The resort is still learning and constantly looking for better sustainable solutions.

GCA:   How do you educate the public and visitors about your efforts? 

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Educational signs

Sylvain Richer de Forges:  SBR has a range of educational programs in place. In fact one of the resorts core value is the realization that hotels can play a significant role in educating. Indeed the number of people transiting through hotels every day is very significant and furthermore these people are from very different backgrounds and origins.

SBR has developed a range of environmental educational materials. At SBR environmental messages are omnipresent throughout the facilities should it be in common spaces or in the guest rooms which showcase both written and audio-visual materials on the in-house TV channels.

One of our key CSR program is the SBR Eco Tours which has to date received over 6000 people from groups  as diverse as universities, corporations, government boards or even in-house guests. Our concept is to use the resort as test bed and showcase of the sustainability business model.

GCA:   What key tip would you give to businesses wishing to prioritise sustainability in their operations?

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Near the hotel lobby

Sylvain Richer de Forges:  One of the key to SBR’s success is a synergy between the advisory team and the top management (at SBR the highest management are the owners of the resort). It is crucial for an organisation to go on a sustainable development path that the highest level of management (Chairman, CEO, MD) supports the work and vision of the sustainability professionals (should it be consultants or in-house staff) pushing for the initiatives. Without this synergy it is unlikely to go very far. This relies on three simple facts: 1. CEO’s are rarely trained to fully understand the sustainability challenges faced and more importantly how to go about it; 2. the sustainability professionals rarely have the authority within the organization to execute decisions to the level they should be; 3. sustainability measures have crucial consequences on the entire business and therefore must directly involve the CEO. Sustainability should be incorporated within the core business model of companies and not be run as simple programs. At SBR we have achieved this by setting up a sustainability committee which acts as a filtering mechanism to any decisions taken by the company and to ensure more sustainable options are always considered.

On a second point I would say that every business is different with very different impacts on society and the environment. Lack of originality and meaningfulness in companies CSR/sustainability programs are apparent and often not very honest. Companies must go into the effort to look into their company structure and operations and identify what are their main impacts. Once this has been identified much more meaningful initiatives can be developed before looking into aspects unrelated to the core business. A lot of companies would just throw donations for social and environmental projects without addressing their own impacts which does not make much sense and neither gives a good image of the company.

The owners of SBR believe that shareholders in organisations should learn to share more and to make better use of the money gained to also benefit society and the environment.

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Further links of interest:  SBR Biodiversity Portal: www.biodiversity.sg

About the Writer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector and sustainability, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals, entrepreneurs and experts are brought together. Green Collar Asia is the media division of Worthy Earth, a media, recruitment and training firm.
Bhavani is a speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA (PGDM) from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London. She is also a certified EQ Coach with Six Seconds.org

Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at]greencollarasia.com or through LinkedIn

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