Founder of GWS Living Arts, Mr Zac Toh talks about his goal to help make cities greener with innovative nature-based solutions.

Spending most of his life around plants has clearly influenced Mr Zac Toh. His grandfather was the founder of Chop Ching Hin, one of Southeast Asia’s leading wholesale landscape nursery suppliers, and Mr Toh spent much of his childhood helping out in the family business.

It was no surprise then, that he decided to start his own green business in 2012- GWS Living Art, which provides outdoor and indoor greening solutions for urban landscapes. At the heart of the business is its commitment to sustainability, and in particular, playing a part in reducing emissions.

GWS’ key solution is a proprietary soil-less mat system called the Gaiamat, that can be used for green walls and roofs. Instead of conventional soil, the plants are secured using a light-weight mat of rockwool material that is lighter, which makes it easier to install and maintain.

Co-developed with its partners in Europe, Mr Toh and his team had to adapt the product to withstand Singapore’s heat by using a material they created and patented. In 2017, Mr Toh received the Building and Construction Authority’s Young Green Innovator of the Year Award for developing Gaiamat. The system has since been used in hundreds of urban settings in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong; most prominently as green walls in Changi Airport’s Jewel and Terminal 4.

As the global race to achieve net-zero emissions intensifies, Mr Toh is determined to play his role in finding a solution to achieve decarbonisation. BiZQ speaks to the 30-year-old “modern farmer” to learn about his mission to produce sustainable products that reconnect people with nature.

What made you decide to set up GWS Living Art?

My family business was in nurseries, and we have 200 to 300 acres of land in Malaysia and Thailand. After I completed my National Service, I decided that, rather than help out in the family business, I would research new ways to develop nature-based solutions such as green walls and green roofs.

I realised that greenery is extremely important to a city and its urban development when it comes to curbing carbon emissions. Within this decade, the world needs to sequester five billion tonnes of carbon to achieve its climate goals.

I have also always been a bit of a dreamer, and I love trying to solve problems. In the world that we live in today, sustainability poses a huge challenge. It is critical that we do more so that future generations can have a better life. As a result, I decided to start GWS Living Art with the support of my family’s business.

How did you develop the Gaiamat system and what has been the market’s response to the solution?

We started by using a potted system and laying soil on the roof, but we found that this was too labour intensive. So we worked with partners in Europe to co-develop a solution that was lighter and more efficient, and could also suit Singapore’s weather.

There has been a lot of demand for the system we created.  A traditional green roof might need to be maintained every month, but ours only needs to be maintained two or three times a year.

What have been some of your key projects so far?

We started with residential projects, but as we went on, we have been doing more commercial projects. Our first breakthrough was installing the green walls at Changi Airport Terminal 4 in 2017.

Another big project was two bus depots at Sungei Seletar and Ulu Pandan for the Land Transport Authority (LTA) where we installed a green roof mat of 6,000 sq metres. We also installed greenery on the roofs of public buses in Singapore as part of our “Garden on the Move” initiative in 2019.

It was difficult when we started, as we had to learn everything from scratch, but I was able to leverage my dad’s expertise when we started.

Tell us about your other business City Sprouts, as well as new sustainable solutions you are working on?

City Sprouts is a platform for building communities through green spaces and programmes, and aims to bridge the gap between people, food and nature. We have an area measuring 8,919 sq. metres or 96,000 sq. feet in Henderson Road that we lease to urban farmers who grow their own vegetables. City Sprouts has a double bottom line, which means that we look beyond profitability and at social impact as well. We are now looking at three more locations to expand this concept.

We are also using data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to create a system that can track and quantify plants’ health and carbon sequestration. Furthermore, we are looking at solutions that involve using different bio-organisms that can sequester carbon.

In the long term, what impact do you think GWS can make in the fight against climate change?

Our goal is to sequester one million tonnes of carbon by 2030. We believe that we can play a role in solving this huge problem, amid the polarised world we live in today. I am positive we can achieve this if we take it one step at a time.