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Putting a cool home to test

 

*This article first appeared in City & Country for the week of January 5, 2009

 Lincoln Lee, Lucas Works Sdn Bhd’s executive director, currently lives with his family in Taman Tasik Kesuma in Semenyih, which is over an hour’s drive from the Kuala Lumpur city centre. He moved in just about a year ago from Melaka. Lee believes in “living and testing it yourself” as the house he currently lives in (his demo home office, he calls it) uses his technology Smart & Cool Homes (SCH).

The home’s foundation and retaining walls are made of used car tyres and autoclave aerated concrete (AAC), and Lee is building a 9ft-deep fish pond using old tyres for the walls. The location of the house is ideal for the test as it is on flat land, where it should be very hot. It is also built on what used to be a rubber estate, so it is expected to be termite infested. Lee’s technology guarantees low temperatures indoors as well as a lifetime termite-free warranty. He claims that his technology is the first of its kind in the world and has even had it patented. His objective is to build houses that are comfortable and cool to live in, with little or no dependence on air conditioners. Less power used means less carbon dioxide is released into the air, which is how one’s carbon footprint is measured.

Used tyres?

According to Lee, the idea was the brainchild of his wife, Lee Su May, who is a physicist. “We know used tyres are a waste and we were looking to turn trash into cash, but the main reason was really to find ways to save the environment,” he explains. Lee says certain companies claim that used tyres are being recycled but in reality, they are breaking the tyres into smaller pieces that cement factories then burn as fuel. He says SCH uses tyres to lower heat. It cools down the concrete by absorbing and storing heat without any use of energy.

 “What we are doing here is providing the solution. The main culprit in high electricity bills is air conditioners, as cooling is the most expensive cost (of a home). For example, each house might have an average of five to six air conditioners. We use it throughout the night to cool ourselves, which of course increases our electricity usage, and then we use comforters to keep ourselves warm,” Lee says. Malaysians tend to prefer Western-style homes that are sometimes unsuitable to our weather, he says, adding: “Having more and bigger windows will make the house very hot and, as a result, we will have the air conditioners turned on all day. Even if we use double-glazed windows, it is not enough.”

According to Lee, there are some developers who claim they are eco-friendly, but it is just lip service. "Insulating houses and planting more trees for shade is not enough. It has to be a holistic approach right from the start,” he stresses. The government, he says, should grade housing developers who use “green” to promote their properties to ensure it is really “green”.

City & Country visited Lee’s demo home office at about noon, under the scorching sun, but it was surprisingly cool inside and no air conditioners were to be found in the home. Lee says the SCH technology keeps his home cool. He opens his windows after 8pm (after the mosquitoes have gone elsewhere) to let the cool evening breeze in and he closes the windows early in the morning to keep the cool air in. We even walked on his driveway under the blazing sun with no shoes on and our feet didn’t get scorched. It was definitely cooler than standing on the lawn.

“We have been focused on sustainable buildings from day one, and this includes cheaper construction cost. I am selling the technology, and by using it, one can save about 30% on construction cost. Energy usage is only 20% compared with normal reinforced concrete (RC) brick mortar. If no air conditioners are used, your electricity bill will decrease significantly,” Lee says. Some 60% of electricity bills are from the usage of air conditioners.

Lee says his demo home office is the first to have photovoltaic (5.25kWp) installed via one of the incentive programmes offered by PTM. Currently, his demo home office generates about RM200 to RM250 worth of energy per month, depending on the weather, while the actual bill only comes up to RM70 to RM90. The balance is then sold on credit basis to Tenaga Nasional Bhd. “The cost of PV in Malaysia is about 20% more expensive than in other countries but it is mainly because electricity is heavily subsidised in this country — about 45% — so we think it is cheap,” he says.

But then again, it does not make much sense to the masses to install PVs unless and until the feed-in tariff is in place. A feed-in tariff is an incentive structure that encourages the adoption of renewable energy. The national electricity utility is then obligated to buy back the renewable energy at above the market rate set by the government. Lee hopes it will be implemented by 2011, once Suria 1000 has been completed.

What Lee does is license his technology to interested parties and monitor the construction/ddesign. So far, about 100 houses have been built using SCH. These houses are mainly located in the Klang Valley and Melaka. “These houseowners understand the environment and all of them have visited my demo home office. They know that tyres bring no harm to them and it’s usually through word of mouth or the newspapers,” he says. Lee has issued master licenses mostly to engineers — who understand the technology better — in Melaka, Sarawak, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

When asked about the response when he first presented his technology, Lee says it was difficult initially. “I even approached a public-listed developer to present my technology and was told ‘you try it first-lah’.” As for feng shui, he says: “I have actually consulted a 70-year-old feng shui master on this matter. He says rubber is latex and therefore liquid. It translates to water, so it is very good!”

   

Retaining wall - before and after

 

How it all started

Lee’s journey in life was not all “fine and dandy”. He was 20 when his father passed away, so he had to quit school to continue his father’s real estate and property development business. He remembers developing Taman Bukit Nibong in Melaka in 1996, which comprised 29 units that used 100% AAC. It was then that he realised he could try new methods and materials.

But what made him go from being a normal developer to someone passionate about sustainable development and the environment?

“I am 48 years old and when I was young, i used to go fishing and cycling. Back in those days, having an air-conditioned car was a luxury. Nowadays, it is just too hot and we spend almost 24 hours in air-conditioned spaces. I have three sons and I have a responsibility to them,” he explains, saying Earth is overheating.

It has been 10 years of conceptualising and commercialisation, including four years of research, to get to where the technology is today. Lee says he even completed building a house in two months. “The house has a built-up of 2,000 sq ft and we only used three men. It was completed within two months and we had structural savings of 30%,” he adds proudly. Lee is now developing 10 semidetached homes in Bandar Baru, Melaka. "We started two months ago and expect to be ready in one year. We are purposely building them slowly as we want people to see the foundation.” The semidees are 50% sold. They come with built-ups of 2,700 to 4,000 sq ft and are priced from RM500,000 to RM800,000.

Lee completed Green Acres, which comprises 12 bungalows that use his technology, in Bukit Senggeh, Jasin, Melaka, four years ago. "Homebuyers have no choice. They buy whatever is available to them. They must wake up and demand the right to have a low-energy (efficient energy), cooler house. Insulation and planting more trees will not solve this,” he adds. He says the return on investment (ROI) for SCH is quick as there will be surplus on the energy generated. “It takes only five to six years to get your capital back from the savings made from not using air conditioners and other energy. I can actually pay back the construction of my house within 25 years,” he adds. Nevertheless, he stresses that renewable energy needs energy efficient homes or buildings and equipment for faster ROI.

Lee says even though SCH is patented, the technology will continue to be researched and fine-tuned. His next project is solar thermal air-conditioning for commercial buildings, where no electricity is used, again lowering their carbon footprint. Lee has plans to bring his SCH technology to the US next year. He will build a demo home office there and his future core business will be licensing the ttechnology.

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