Words by Zech Pharamond
Photographed by Ting Yang Shan
The KEN Group is a developer with a rare ecological conscience. Here’s how they found their calling.
SAM TAN is a chilled-out guy. He’s super aﬀable, completely cordial and just the sort of managing director whose doorframe you’d lean into, asking if he’d like to come along for a pint with the boys. Maybe you know diﬀerent, but there aren’t too many bosses‒however nice‒that I’d like to wash oﬀ a long day with. And when he starts sharing, he’s composed and organised, telling his story like it is; no vapid embellishments required.
But I’ve got a hunch he’s the proverbial duck, hardly breaking a ripple because the tough paddling’s hidden from gaze. And the proof isn’t too hard to come by. His organisation is arguably our country’s most decorated green developer, and they picked up their ﬁrst award almost by accident.
“It started in 2006 with luxury condo KEN Bangsar. We’re an engineering based company, so we searched for logical answers to questions like, ‘what’s the best way to cool a glass building?’ And for a yardstick, we used the BCA Green Mark Award to see where we stood,” he explains. Governed by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority, there are several awards under the Green Mark banner, but all geared towards recognising developers who place special emphasis on things like minimising carbon footprints.
“Much to our surprise, we discovered we met all their criteria,” he says.
Another time they were planning for KEN Damansara 2 and realised a river needed to be re-aligned. Standing in their way was a six-storey behemoth of a tree, growing happily with a water treatment area right next door. “It took us one and a half years to realign the river rather than chop that tree down. We even brought the JPS (Drainage and Irrigation Department of Selangor) director to come and see what the fuss was about because we kept pushing them to approve our revised plans. He ﬁnally understood when he saw the tree,” says Sam.
Like a good leader, he credits his Ken teamsters whom he treats like extended family. So I quizzed one or two employees close to him for supporting evidence because all bosses spout the same rhetoric. Shambolic as my sample group was, the verbatim, pidgin response came, “Can say he takes care and protects his staﬀ lor… very responsible to his job”. Brownie points +2.
The second and equally crucial factor, is the value system laid by company founder, Dato Kenny Tan. Sam says his father always impressed the value of an inquisitive mind. “He’s very technologically inclined, very progressive and was always looking for new tech to bring to Malaysia,” he says. This led the KEN Group to introduce several radical engineering techniques like soil nailing for slope stability in the 80’s, highway construction, bridge repairs and eventually building a teacher’s college in Kangar.
“Since engineering is in our company DNA, we took a very pragmatic approach to those questions, speciﬁcally about ventilation and cooling. And we employed basic Feng Shuiprinciples as well,” he continues.
You might think it odd that this ethereal art of subscribing riches and good health to be apertinent consideration. But the roots of Feng Shui are anything but mystical, and actually grounded in the natural order of things.
“We wanted a north-south orientation, so owners didn’t have to contend with direct radiation from the rising and setting of the sun, eﬀectively minimising direct sun light that heats a home. Plus, with north-south alignment, you can enjoy more natural daylight,” he says. “On top of that, prevailing winds usually ﬂow from north to south so that helps ease the heat. With good airﬂow, you also discouragethe growth of mould and that ultimately eases health concerns.”
Seasoned property watchers and minor Feng Shui sifus are well versed with this quadfecta of the north-south alignment. But what they may not be privy to, is the fact that KEN condos are also subjected to wind computational dynamics.
If a neighbouring township goes up in value, it does my property good too. Like how Kota Damansara feeds off “Bandar Utama”
In one of many tests, all doors are closed and windows left open. If wind manages to penetrate the building and come out the other side at 0.5 metres per second on average, you get one step closer to a Green Mark award and genuine evaporative cooling for the lucky dwellers.
Crunching data is only one part of his portfolio. Another pocket is ﬁlled with his passion to see fellow developers adopt the Green Rating Tool, a third party assessment system used across Europe to monitor and improve the sustainability performance of existing buildings. It’s done through a series of indicators like energy and water usage plus carbon and waste emissions.
“With this, we can determine if our buildings are really any good, or just pretty, artiﬁcial dress-ups. And even if I can’t meet all the stipulations, I’d rather be an average student at Harvard than a celebrated jaguh kampong,” he says, referring to the need for developers to subject their work to international standards that can help raise the bar.
“And I don’t see other companies as competitors,” he adds, “If a neighbouring township goes up in value, it does my property good too. Like how Kota Damansara feeds oﬀ Bandar Utama,” before stating, “Developers are literally the builders of the nation. We are all here as long term players.”
Which is one of the reasons he’s a part of REHDA Youth (The Youth Wing of The Real Estate & Housing Developers Association Malaysia). Representing the second generation of established developers, all aged 39 and below, they’re doing away with cumbersome protocols and cultivating a new spirit of community and camaderie. “We are close friends, but also very result oriented. When something needs to get done, we instantly turn to Whatsapp and everyone is on the same page,”he says.
Seeing themselves as a boutique builder, Sam’s other projects include Ken Rimba Township and Menara KEN @ TTDI – KEN’s corporate oﬃce. The former has received one of the highest green ratings and the latter is set to marry work and play in new ways.
“Our Bangsar property is more exclusive. But in Shah Alam, where Ken Rimba Township is located, it’s more aﬀordable and available to a wider audience,” he explains. On the other hand, Menara KEN @ TTDI caters to oﬃces but incorporates lifestyle F&B outlets plus a performing arts space to promote theatre and culture.
“We’ve planned the bottom three ﬂoors to serve the community, with entertainment and restaurants. We wanted it this way because we realised oﬃces are full during the day and empty at night. So we took our cues from ever- green mamak eateries, where space is optimally utilized 24-hours a day. When the oﬃce folk leave, their spaces are taken by families who’ve come for the food and theatre,” he shares.
I ask why an arts theatre. “My dream is to create this ‘GLEE’ style, where we encourage young people to express themselves. The Europeans are very sure of who they are, and stand out because they’ve always been taught to speak their minds. Asians meanwhile, are told to focus academic achievement. We need a balance of both.” he says.
And this represents the crux of Sam’s vision to turn a proﬁt, but at the same time serve social and environmental needs; a tall order by anyone’s standards. Step-by-step though, he’s redrawing the urban skyline with his unique quill. So watch this space, because the way things are going, he’s likely to prove his ideals.