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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


18 September 2018 – Tony Ip reflects on the lasting impact of studying the Master’s in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) and the need for a visionary approach and a global perspective to drive change within the built environment.

I’ve always had a passion for design and architecture, and after gaining a degree in environmental engineering and working for architectural firms for a few years, I wanted to integrate my multi-disciplinary background in architecture and engineering with design innovation

I was fortunate to find that the IDBE’s focus matched my background and vision for the next stage in my educational development. As it was a part-time course, I could attend six residential workshops in Cambridge over the two-year course and keep my full-time job.

A paradigm shift

I have two main reflections on my time there; the first is how I came to realise the urgency of integrating sustainable development within the built environment. During one residential period, there were a series of lectures, organised by the Faculty of Engineering, exploring environmental sustainability. The latest findings by tutors and invited experts, on the environmental crisis and climate change, really had an impact on me and highlighted the importance of sustainable development. It profoundly changed my design ideology as it shone a light on the need for a paradigm shift from degrading to restoring the natural environment.

The second reflection relates to my supervisors and classmates. One third of my cohort came from overseas and had a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, from urban planning to contracting, so there was a wealth of global perspectives to learn from. The friendships I made were invaluable and we still keep in contact. My thesis on urban living and green spaces in high density and high rise contexts, inspired by my supervisor, led me to enrol on a part-time PhD on this subject in Hong Kong.

Following graduation, I became involved with the development of ZCB, the first zero carbon building in Hong Kong. This was designed to educate and advocate zero carbon technology for both the construction industry and the general public.  The project required a multi-disciplinary approach working with a range of practitioners including suppliers in advance technology, and my IDBE experience proved invaluable.

Architecture and climate change

On completing the Master’s, I understood the imperative to advocate green architecture and green living to help combat climate change. There is a need to develop the built environment in a more sustainable way for current and future generations.

To achieve this, I believe, it is imperative that we retain a community focus. I am therefore involved with several NGOs promoting environmental sustainability with outreach programmes to educate the public and secondary school students on the necessity for ‘green building’.

When I completed the course sustainability wasn’t very high up the agenda but after Hong Kong acceded to the Paris Agreement, two years ago, carbon reduction became more of a priority.

This change also contributed to my decision to start my own practice and so last year, I established Tony Ip Green Architects Ltd with the vision of furthering social and environmental sustainability, including interior, architectural and urban design.

I didn’t want to focus exclusively on sustainable building but to adopt a holistic way of thinking to include both communities and ways to share material resources to drive real engagement. By resources I don’t just mean energy and water and ways to reduce usage but also how a development can drive behavioural change. One example is to use the built environment to remove the reliance on vehicles by creating a ‘walkable’ city, with the promotion of walking and cycling. This not only has environmental but also health benefits. In fact, half my business’ time is devoted to working with NGOs and communities on projects that promote environmental education, resource saving and waste reduction.

A visionary approach

To really drive change I believe you need to adopt a visionary approach for every project and set a benchmark for environmental considerations. This must be combined with embedding social sustainability as part of that vision.

In Hong Kong we shouldn’t just focus on new buildings. For me the key issue is also to regenerate and revitalise existing buildings to become more sustainable. Right now, half the building stock is over 30 years old and many of those need to be demolished or upgraded and that for me is a challenging issue.  One IDBE lecturer talked about the need to understand the context before we start sustainable development and that absolutely relates to this issue. Challenges such as multi-ownership and other economic factors should also be taken into consideration. This perspective was new to me as I had previously only been taught how to design and hadn’t even considered the economic factors in any level of detail.

IDBE really equipped me with the skills and understanding I needed to progress to the point I have now reached. I firmly believe there is an absolute need to have a global perspective for anyone working on design within the built environment and that is what Cambridge gave me. There is also a need to understand the global picture. By learning more about what’s happening beyond our own towns and cities – that interconnectivity – we can drive development within the built environment that supports rather than detracts from our collective mission to provide a better world for future generations.

About the author

Tony Ip

Tony Ip is an award-winning sustainable design architect and urban designer. In 2017, he founded Tony Ip Green Architects Ltd and is Vice Chairman of Hong Kong Architecture Centre, Director of YMCA of Hong Kong and a part-time lecturer on sustainable design.

Having worked in both engineering and architectural fields for more than 15 years, he attended the Master of Studies in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) in 2008-10.


Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


ZCB - Tony Ip Green Architects


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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