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All Aboard for Green Building

Note: The following article was featured in

More and more construction in China is using environmentally sustainable materials, techniques and design, but green building still has a long way to go. Lara Farrar reports.

On weekends, late at night or whenever he has a spare moment, Shanghai architect Deng Yang pores through books about wastewater management, environmentally friendly construction and energy-efficient design.

He's prepping for the examination of the United States Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, in hopes of becoming a certified expert in sustainable construction for China.

"For my career development, I think it is important," says Deng, who works for CH2M Hill, an engineering, consulting, construction and operations company.

"In the future, I think more and more companies in China will want to apply for LEED certification so I think it will offer more opportunity for me."

Deng isn't the only one who feels this way. An increasing number of architects and designers in Shanghai and around China are taking tests to become accredited sustainable construction experts, indicating growing momentum behind a green building movement in the country.

"We are probably going to see something of a tipping point in 2010," says Rob Watson, founder of green building services firm EcoTech International, which has an office in Shanghai.

Watson is also known as the "father of LEED," the fastest-growing standard by which green building is measured worldwide.

"This year there has been a very strong awareness uptake, and I think then what we will see is an implementation uptake," says Watson.

Over the past decade, approximately 4 million square meters of green building construction have gone up in China, compared with roughly 13 million square meters over the past three decades in the US, according to sustainable construction consulting firm Environmental Market Solutions Inc.

More than 20 projects across the country have achieved LEED certification, while around 100 others are waiting for approval, reports the USGBC.

Much of this construction has taken place in Shanghai, followed by Beijing, and has largely been initiated by multinational corporations, not domestic enterprises. While the exact number of green projects in Shanghai is hard to come by, Qian Yingchu, head of EMSI's local office, estimates at least 80 have been completed or are underway in the city.

Qian's office has been involved in at least 20 of them, including the showroom of the carpet manufacturer Interface, the first commercial interior space in China to achieve LEED gold certification, and the Coca-Cola Co's new US$80 million campus, which is expected to awarded LEED certification within months.

"It's crazy," says Qian. "We have lots of projects, and we have the space to choose projects."

Other properties around the city incorporating environmentally friendly concepts include the URBN Hotel Shanghai, China's first carbon-neutral hotel; it uses recycled and locally sourced materials. Many of the new building projects for the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai will also feature sustainable principles.

However, despite the growing number of green building projects in Shanghai and around China, some fear eco-building isn't catching on fast enough to keep up with China's frenzied pace of construction. Eco-friendly buildings often take longer to design and build than conventional structures.

By 2025, McKinsey estimates nearly 200 new mass transit systems and up to 50,000 new skyscrapers - the equivalent of 10 New York Cities - could be built in China as the country experiences the largest urban migration.

Already buildings account for a quarter of total energy use across the country, a figure that is likely to increase by 10 percent over the next decade if environmental building strategies are not widely adopted, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

"The problem is they are building so quickly," says Peggy Liu, founder of JUCCCE (Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy), a non-profit working to accelerate the use of clean and efficient energy in China. "They are trying to cram into five years what the West did in the past 30 (years)."

Many companies are also reluctant to go green for financial reasons.

Even though studies show environmentally friendly structures reduce operating costs in the long run, initial expenditures are sometimes up to 10 percent more.

"There is a lot of lip service out there," says Steve Khouw, head of sustainable design firm DNA Green Design. "There are a lot of people who say 'Yes, yes, yes, I care about the environment,' but at the end of the day they are always looking to cut costs."

Another barrier to the widespread adoption of sustainable buildings, especially by domestic companies, stems from a lack of awareness of its benefits as well as a shortage of resources available to help implement it, particularly in smaller cities.

"How do you get it into the hearts and minds of Chinese developers and Chinese consumers?" asks Liu whose nonprofit JUCCCE is running a training program with the Ministry of Housing this month in Beijing to educate mayors on how to integrate more environmentally friendly infrastructure in their cities.

"They want to do the right thing. There is just the lack of capability at the local level," says Liu.

Further, there has been a lack of incentives from government to push local companies to build green.

This could soon change, however, with the development of the Green Building Assessment Standard, a three-star-rating system created by the Ministry of Construction.

So far, the new domestic standard has been adopted on a voluntary basis, yet some speculate Beijing could mandate its uptake in coming years.

"I have full confidence China's green building will develop properly," says Wang Wei, senior chief engineer of the Shanghai Research Institute of Building Sciences and one of the principal authors of the new three-star system.

"Step by step, from east to west and from south to north it will develop," Wang says.

Going green: Facts and figures

  • Green buildings conserve natural resources through the efficient and intelligent use of energy, materials, water and building sites.

  • One of the greatest benefits of green buildings is their reduced use of electricity and energy, which helps reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

  • Green buildings use approximately 30%-50% less energy than conventional buildings.

  • Over 60% of the world's resources are used in building construction.

  • The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental health risks today, with the concentration of air pollutants up to 100 times higher indoors than outdoors.

  • Homes or offices?with green technologies and appliances are likely to have a greater market value.

  • Catching rainwater can help supply the water needs of an entire household - a 1,000-square-foot (92.9-square-meter) roof will supply 600 gallons (2,270 liters) of water per inch (2.54 centimeters) of rainfall.

  • Daylight is good for everything: It saves energy, provides a higher quality of light than lamps, increases productivity and is good for your health.

  • Green surfaces help with insulation, climate control and storm runoff.

  • A project that meets higher levels of LEED certification can include a wide array of features, including storm water retention through innovative landscaping, reflective roofs, energy-generating resources, personal comfort controls and certified woods.

  • A typical home uses an entire acre of trees and six automobiles' worth of steel for construction. Green glossary

  • CCBPs - Coal combustion byproducts, including flyash, offer environmental advantages by reducing energy investment in the processing of virgin materials, conserving virgin materials and allaying pollution.

  • Daylighting - It is the use of the diffuse light of an overcast sky, which is both soft and smooth in both temperature and color. Its use reduces amount of artificial light and electricity needed while creating a more enjoyable interior.

  • Durability - A durable building provides a long time to amortize the environmental and economic costs incurred in building. Durable products and materials will not need to be replaced or repaired as frequently, so the raw materials, energy and environmental impacts invested in them can be spread out over time.

  • Flyash - Flyash concrete is residue from the combustion of ground or powdered coal. It can be used to improve the performance and quality of concrete, making it stronger and less susceptible to corrosion.

  • IAQ - Indoor air quality is caused by indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air. Common indoor pollutants include oil, gas, kerosene, coal, cleaning products and central heating and cooling systems.

  • IEQ - Indoor environmental quality addresses the issues of how we feel in a space. It encompasses air quality, thermal comfort, ventilation, lighting and noise.

  • LCA - Life cycle assessment is an objective process to evaluate the environmental burdens associated with a product, process or activity by identifying energy and materials used and wastes released to the environment, and to evaluate and implement opportunities to effect environmental improvements.

  • LEDs - Light emitting diode lightbulbs do not heat up like incandescent bulbs. They also last longer and are more energy efficient

  • LEED - The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System is the internationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of green buildings. It promotes sustainability by recognizing sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

  • Pervious - Pervious materials, such as gravel or crushed stone, permit water to enter the ground by virtue of their porous nature, helping to decrease runoff.

  • PV - A photovoltaic cell converts visible light into a direct current. PV cells are an integral part of solar-electric energy systems.

  • SBS - When a number of people in an office or other building become sick from an untraceable source, it is known as "sick building syndrome." SBS can be caused by poor ventilation or heating systems, among other causes.

  • Straw bale - Straw bale construction uses baled straw from wheat, oats, barley and other grains in walls covered by stucco. Straw bale is a waste product farmers do not till under the soil but sell as animal supply or landscape bedding. It is now being used as a low-cost alternative for constructing highly insulating walls.

  • SIPs - Structural insulated panels are widely used alternative construction materials for insulation. SIPs are made of a thick layer of foam pressed between two layers of board, providing a better overall air tightness than conventional walls.

  • VOCs - Moving into a new home or remodeling a space can expose inhabitants to abnormally high levels of volatile organic compounds. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include toxic gases can contribute to cancer, asthma, fatigue and other ailments.

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