When Zac Toh encounters a situation he believes can be accomplished more efficiently, he’ll stop at nothing to achieve that. He’ll digest books, research papers and even visit experts overseas to get that knowledge.
In many ways, Toh, 27, is an innovator. GWS Living Art, which he founded in 2012, provides outdoor and indoor greening solutions for urban landscapes, initially for walls and rooftops of buildings. In adopting the most efficient methods for his projects, he doesn’t just use technologies – he creates them. Among his beneficiaries are Changi Airport’s Jewel and Terminal 4.
“When we started, we used a potted system and laid soil on the roof,” says Toh. “We paused after a few projects because it was too labour intensive. Also, lifting 180kg of soil per square metre onto the roof didn’t make sense.”
Toh found a European soil-less mat system that was four times lighter, but it could not withstand Singapore’s heat, so his team used a hygroscopic material they created and patented. The Gaiamat won them the Building and Construction Control Authority’s Innovator of the Year award in 2017.
GWS was born out of Chop Ching Hin, a plant nursery his grandfather started in the 1960s. The lorry driver had been transporting timber from Malaysia before switching to cow grass for Singapore’s increasing demand for lawns. The business grew into a nursery and today, it is one of Singapore’s largest horticultural and landscape suppliers with farms in Malaysia, Thailand and India.
As Singapore and cities around the world are greening their urban landscapes, Toh says GWS’ mission is to produce sustainable products to reconnect people with nature.
That ambition has taken a small step. This May, GWS won a bid from the Singapore Government to develop a 96,000 sq ft space in Henderson Road to explore sustainable ideas to rejuvenate the area. Aside fom leasing land to locals to grow their own vegetables, he is creating software that incorporates artificial intelligence to produce systems for a variety of greenery and agricultural applications, including maintenance, automatic irrigation, and harvesting of rainwater. “Many countries are developing these technologies, and Singapore, which wants to be 30 per cent self-sufficient in agriculture by 2030, offers a good platform for innovators to succeed,” says Toh.
He is looking for another game changer. Also in May, GWS installed plants on the roofs of public buses as part of a three-month study. Funded by Temasek Foundation, the experiment aims to discover if temperatures inside the vehicles can be lowered as this could potentially reduce fuel consumption.
He talks about his products with the authority of an accomplished civil engineer, but he isn’t one. Toh decided to forgo his admission into Singapore Management University and opted for the “university of the real world” because he felt he could learn more at his grandfather’s company.
He is also learning from the world’s luminaries, reading books such as the biography of Nike founder Phil Knight Shoe Dog and that of American billionaire investor Warren Buffett (The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life).
“Knight’s determination to start Nike after his distributorship with a Japanese sports shoe expired, and his discovery of the value of sponsorship to sell Nike products, was inspiring,” Toh says. “Buffett gave me insights on how to hire the right people. He applies three principles: A person must have a good heart, and be hardworking and smart.” Toh’s spunk, hard work and self-curated approach to acquiring knowledge have led him to make great strides in his field. But he’s also aware that it’s a process. “In the first few years of business, it was tough going, but I’ve stuck with my choice and learnt from mistakes I made.”