A Journey to Engineering Greener, Smarter and Better Buildings
3 January 2023 — Strike up a conversation about sustainable buildings with Ethan Zhan, and he will be happy to chat with you for hours on end. This is the level of passion that the National University of Singapore (NUS) Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical Engineering) undergraduate student has for green buildings.
Discovering His Passion for Engineering and Sustainable Buildings
However, this was not always so. In fact, when the China native arrived in Singapore in 2014, he did so to pursue a career in hotel management. With this in mind, he studied for a Diploma in Hotel and Facilities Management at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. After attaining his diploma, Ethan worked as a Property Officer at CBRE Singapore, a leader in commercial real estate services.
Soon after, he realised that he was more passionate about the technical aspects of the job. With this in mind, he decided to take up a part-time Diploma in Engineering (Building Services & Fire Safety) from Ngee Ann CET Academy. Thereafter, Ethan took on the position of Engineering Executive at Guocoland, before returning to CBRE Singapore.
Throughout his period, Ethan grew increasingly fascinated with the Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) systems and building management system in the buildings he managed. He would closely examine each building’s water and electricity consumption, its energy performance, and other factors. Then, he would ask himself: “How can I make everything more efficient?”
Observing the industry trend towards sustainable buildings, Ethan knew that a career along this path would be filled with opportunities and rewards. However, he admits: "I had basic knowledge about the field from my polytechnic education but needed a deeper understanding in order to develop my skillset. To build a strong foundation and excel in this space, I would need a mechanical engineering degree."
Ethan started exploring his options, and as fate (or perhaps, smart advertising algorithms) would have it, he chanced upon an advertisement for Advance@NUS while browsing his social media feed. Ethan was delighted as NUS was offering the degree programme he wanted, and the Advance@NUS pathway would provide him with a good route towards his degree.
He added: “Importantly, NUS is one of the best universities in Asia! So, while other universities were offering similar degrees, NUS was always my top choice.”
Thoughts on the Advance@NUS Entry Process
Ethan described his experience with Advance@NUS as very positive, telling us how it is a “very good pathway for people with working experience, but who do not have a degree to complement their experience and expertise”.
Relating his entry process, Ethan shared that after receiving an in-principle approval letter, he was invited to take a bridging course that consisted of three modules—Introductory Engineering Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering and Physical Principles in Engineering.
“The bridging course helped me to get ready for university and get used to studying again,” he said. “It also gave me the confidence to know that I have what it takes to successfully complete the degree programme.”
Life at NUS: All Work, All Play
On campus, Ethan has found that his prior working experience made him naturally more inquisitive about certain modules. For him, these modules were on thermodynamics and the built environment, as he sees the direct link between the theory and laboratory sessions, and real-world applications. Specifically, the knowledge he is gaining from these two modules is helping him to “develop green buildings, and one day build a zero-energy building”.
Student life is not all work and no play though, as Ethan explains: “I love performance arts and playing the guitar, which I have been doing for 10 years. Since joining NUS, I have had the opportunity to perform with a drama club and a fantastic band club!”
Ethan has also taken on an assistant teaching role, where he assists the University’s professors with laboratory experiments and guides Year 1 students to better understand subjects. Speaking about this unusual co-curricular activity, he tells us: “The process is very satisfying and fulfilling, and it has opened my mind to possibly being a teacher or lecturer one day.”
The Next Chapter
Although graduation is still some time away, Ethan is excited about the future. As a lifelong learner, he anticipates returning to pursue a postgraduate degree—either immediately following his graduation, or after returning to the industry and progressing further in his career.
“Whatever industry you are in, the environment is likely changing very fast,” Ethan notes. “We need to constantly upgrade our skills to remain ahead of the curve. In my opinion, that is the secret to a successful career—and building sustainable buildings that will positively impact the world.”