Going under to stay on top: The case for planned underground construction

Building underground has numerous benefits, especially for growing cities, and this can be seen in Singapore’s success so far.

“Going under to stay on top” is a phrase first coined in 1976 by Charles Fairhurst – the then-head of Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering at the University of Minnesota. He wrote an article in the inaugural issue of the journal Underground Space explaining the central premise around the use of underground space in our crowded cities. As a graduate student studying rock mechanics at the university, Fairhurst’s article sparked my interest and eventually led me to a career in the dynamics of using underground space.

Case for Going Under

As a city grows and densifies, urban planners and decision makers are often driven to explore underground construction to accommodate growing needs. There are numerous benefits to building different types of infrastructure and facilities underground. These can be distilled down to four main concepts:

In the past, the primary reasons for people to go underground were the need to find shelter from the elements or in times of war, for a special-interest experience (e.g. natural caves), or for the option of a faster and more convenient means of travel like underground metro systems.

Metro systems and highways can also be built as surface or elevated systems. But when land is scarce, the initial attractiveness of those systems – such as lower cost and views for the travellers – is offset by problems such as noise pollution, visual intrusion affecting surrounding properties and the division of neighbourhoods.

This is especially true when such surface or elevated roads and rail sever a city from key assets like the waterfront. Often, in order to reclaim their waterfront as an asset for living rather than a cheap avenue for transportation, cities spend many times more than the initial savings   in investment between aboveground and underground.

Why, then, don’t urban planners, architects and engineers jump at the chance to build underground?

Factors to consider while planning underground infrastructure

Let’s revisit the idea that as cities grow, they will need to build deeper underground. Currently, most cities develop the underground in a piecemeal fashion. Also, only some villages and towns grow into large cities with a high demand for underground space, raising the question of whether underground planning is necessary for every community.

If underground construction is not a planned component in a three-dimensional city, it can lead to unplanned, and thus, inefficient, use of the valuable underground space. Additionally, underground construction often tends to be significantly more expensive in direct construction cost than surface or elevated facilities. And if you factor in our imperfect knowledge of underground conditions and the challenge of working around the already built piecemeal installations, the risk of cost overruns and delays only increases further.

It is also important to remember that all things being equal, people’s overwhelming preference is to live on or above the surface with access to daylight, even if it means they must live in high-rise buildings in densely populated areas.

Building upwards in a densely populated city provides ‘above the ground’ living and working environments, but at the same time increases the need for infrastructure services, service provision, and waste removal and treatment. So with increasing density the question should not be whether to build up or build down but rather how best to complement the two choices.

The way forward

With that in mind, my recommendations for making the best use of underground space in a city’s infrastructure development would be as follows:

  1. Start early when planning a city’s underground space, in much the same way that we plan a 3D environment for surface usage. More planners, architects and policymakers need to understand the restrictions posed and opportunities offered by an intensive use of the underground – such expertise is often not part of their formal training or experience.
  2. Weigh the costs and long-term impacts of urban infrastructure decisions along with future development restrictions when deciding on alignments and the type of service to be provided. Look towards the experiences of other cities worldwide for insights and for understanding the trade-offs.
  3. Conduct a formal evaluation and plan for immediate and likely future uses of underground space in the case of densely populated or large urban areas with planned new towns or districts. Proactive planning will have significant benefits for future functionality, sustainability and resilience.
  4. Build accurate databases of the urban geological conditions and existing (including abandoned) underground services, underground facilities and building foundations, and make these available in a form useful for planning purposes as well as detailed project design.
  5. Explore ways to improve the attractiveness, comfort and safety for users and occupants of underground facilities that address the drawbacks such facilities can pose. There is research underway at Nanyang Technological University in this regard. We can also learn by studying the experiences of underground facilities that have been in operation in other parts of the world.

Lessons from Singapore’s success

The Singapore government has worked for more than two decades to maximise environmental liveability and economic growth in the nation’s physically small land footprint. An important part of this effort is to prepare for an increase in the use of underground spaces. Singapore has clarified ownership of its underground space, set up the mechanisms for creating and updating its 3D underground geology and structures databases, initiated underground space master planning for the island and studied the pros and cons of various types of candidate underground facilities.

The underground living conditions of the future envisioned in stories such as E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) is not the aim of this effort. Instead, the effort is a response to the realities of continued urbanisation and a desire to preserve the surface environment for the enjoyment of life. This priority motivates us to relocate functions that don’t necessarily need to be on the surface to the underground, thus continuing the Singapore success story “City in a Garden” and reflecting the essence of the theme “Going Under to Stay on Top.”

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

Moving from traditional guards to automated security kiosks

Automation technology promises to make security more personal and purposeful, and the latest innovation from AETOS is a sign of things to come.

A concierge, security guard or customer service staff? The Automated Security Terminal plays all three roles. With calls for tougher security being made, automation could be the key to greater efficiency.

Times are changing. With a rising number of crimes and terrorist attacks being reported around the globe, businesses and individuals are more vulnerable than before. The growing awareness of such threats has also cast the spotlight on security.

In Singapore, the government recently announced proposed amendments to the Public Order Act, making it mandatory for security measures to be implemented for events with more than 5000 people. A new Infrastructure Protection Act is also being introduced, requiring selected buildings to ensure sufficient protection.

Although this call for safety has opened up business opportunities for the security industry, perennial problems such as manpower scarcity has put solution providers on the back foot. Singapore currently faces a shortage of almost 10,000 security guards, as many shun this job due to its long working hours.

With this challenge likely to persist, it is imperative that security providers look to automation to reduce the workload and dependency on human personnel as well as improve efficiency.

Augmenting traditional security with automation

There is a growing realisation that relying only on people for security is no longer effective due to the possibility of human error. Even the best security personnel can make mistakes, which can be extremely costly.

Thus, it has become critical for security providers to no longer depend on only physical security, but to also complement it with automation to address security concerns.
After all, there are certain instances when these technologies can perform better than humans. For instance, machines or robots offer a set of eyes that will never tire, while being constantly responsive to important information.

There is also an outside chance that human personnel might not always be compliant with various security regulations. However, with an automated system there will be no such doubt, as it will be programmed to monitor protocol violations.

Although the initial capital cost of installing technology might be high, the subsequent costs will almost be 50 per cent lower than round-the-clock security guards.
With automated technologies being more cost-effective, responsive and secure, it comes as no surprise that they are now being widely considered as practical successors to outdated security measures.

Innovating for more efficient security

Although there are myriad security technologies in the market such as facial recognition, biometrics and iris tests, they alone cannot offer value. This is where innovation comes into play – one will have to find ways to blend these different technologies together in order to come up with a useful security product.

For instance, many buildings want to fend off illegal trespassers. However, the role of many of the guards today has been reduced to that of a mere concierge.
This is where an automated visitor management system can help guards work better. Using integrated technology, it can simultaneously fulfil the functions of a concierge, security guard and customer service officer. A 24/7 automated system executed effectively by security personnel can indeed safeguard the building and quickly process visitors in a cost-effective manner.

A case in point is AETOS’ new Automated Security Terminal (AST), an interactive self-service kiosk that also functions as a concierge, security guard and customer service personnel.
AST aims to reduce the workload of human personnel by replacing the work of three guards. It supports security electronically by accurately capturing visitors’ pictures and authenticating their identity before generating a one-time access pass. By digitally recording the visitor’s entry and exit times, the AST also provides an audit trail that is easy to access.

Such visitor management systems can go beyond fulfilling the fundamental job requirements of a security and customer service personnel. It can also offer advanced features such as traffic analytics, generating an accurate and detailed report on who has entered and exited the premises.

Completed two months ago, the AST is currently in the demonstration phase. Instead of being offered as a product, it will be offered as a service: monthly payments will be made by users, with a minimum two-year contract period.

Automation is here to stay

As both residential and commercial complexes adopt smart infrastructure, the prominence of electronic security solutions will only increase. In the future, buildings will depend less on manpower, and more on user-friendly automated services to purposefully manage their security.

However, one must note that with new technologies rapidly emerging, it would be nearly impossible for any existing security product to be future-proof. For instance, we foresee AST’s lifespan to be three years, after which it will need to be upgraded with the latest technology to offer a better service.

Therefore, it is vital for the security industry to continuously look out for new technologies to improve their products.

AETOS is doing just that with its ring-fencing security solution, which uses a camera system to protect the perimeter of its client’s premises. The camera uses the latest video analytics software to create a detection zone outside the fence.

The moment someone enters this zone, motion will be detected and the intruder will be tracked as a person of interest. The command centre will then be intimated immediately to deploy security personnel.

However, we observed that we could still lose sight of the intruder if he quickly jumps over the fence and goes out of the camera’s range. To address this possibility, we are working on improving this solution by developing a drone that can follow his whereabouts.

Automated technologies are indeed playing a key role in helping solution providers proactively address security loopholes. With advanced threats on the rise, security firms will have to constantly innovate to be at the top of their game. Only then can we live in a safer world.