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The Green Delusion

The Chinese concept of ‘green architecture’ actually holds the country back from true sustainability

In 2011, China’s urban population exceeded that of rural areas for the very first time, with some 691 million people now living in cities. By 2030, this number is expected to rise to one billion, with 221 Chinese cities having more than one million inhabitants. This is the largest urbanisation project in history, and its outcomes will shape the 21st century.

As cities are growing, energy consumption is rising. Inefficient and polluting coal-burning power stations account for over 70 per cent of China’s energy production, contributing to the yellow smog that has become a common urban phenomenon. Today, buildings use 27.5 per cent of China’s total energy output, and this is expected to rise to 40 per cent.

A solution seems to be on the way. Green buildings and green building certificates, like LEED or China’s Three-Star system, as well as low or zero carbon design, are the subject of discussions at conferences across the country. Media attention is also focused on the latest high-profile green projects, presenting the impression that green architecture is tomorrow’s business, a clean business, a good business. But does green architecture really have the potential to set China along a more sustainable path?

Approximately 7.5 million square metres of development area in China have been LEED certified − an impressive figure until it is put into context within the two billion square metres of new floor space created every year. In relation to the overall industry, the impact of LEED has been at best marginal, and at worst insignificant.

Green projects tend to dominate the discussion, but they are extraordinary rather than the norm. Though they may be inspiring, they are not the reality.

An example is Steven Holl’s groundscraper, the Vanke Center in Shenzhen (AR June 2010), which achieved LEED Platinum and gained international recognition. Vanke is the largest residential real estate developer in China having sold 10.75 million square metres of ordinary floor space in 2011 alone, but the Vanke Center is the one building that they will probably not sell. Its high marketing value is related to the green public image which it presents to the outside world, but this type of green architecture is incompatible with the reality of the mass market.

And the development process is also, sadly, incompatible with green architecture. Truly energy-efficient buildings are knowledge-intensive designs, and this requires time. In China, the conceptual design phase is usually no longer than four weeks. And the resulting poor design and construction quality is further exacerbated by a lack of knowledge among planners, designers and engineers.

Today, the average building lifespan in China is around 30 years (it is 132 years in the UK). In China’s ultra-competitive property and construction market, the long-term gains of energy-efficient buildings are difficult to communicate to developers, and there is no demand for energy efficiency from buyers either. Although building codes in China are rather strict on energy-saving regulations, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development has stated that only 23 per cent of buildings in urban areas are actually energy efficient. And because of a lack of enforcement, even this diminutive estimate may be too generous.

Many argue that green architecture will lead to a miraculous top-down transformation of the mass market, but this is wishful thinking. In fact, it seems the very idea of green architecture stands in the way of large-scale improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings in China.

First, the idea of green building design combined with the business of green building certification poses the wrong question: whether to make a green building or not. Instead the question should always be how energy efficient a building can be. If green architecture becomes a label and marketing tool, the practice of building optimisation with the aim of saving energy will become marginalised.

Second, the emphasis on green architecture in China has been placed on building technology and new, advanced materials. Green architecture is the new, hip thing. For example, a strategy paper for the development of a low-carbon community in a southern city in China elaborated over one hundred pages on the usage of solar panels, thermal pumps and wind energy, but did not once mention building orientation, insulation or wall-to-window ratio. Adding advanced building technology onto a poorly designed and constructed building is just a meaningless symbolic gesture, but it is the reality of this image-driven approach.

China has a vital need for higher quality design, but green architecture may not be the answer to its energy-related concerns. It is up to designers to approach every project with the intention of maximising energy efficiency within the limits of the given budget and the project requirements. Energy efficiency starts with the optimisation of building design and is followed by optimising user behaviour.

Green building technology is not the answer. When design alone can make buildings up to 50 per cent more energy efficient, ‘good design’ should be at the heart of the architect’s professional ethos and be the standard for all new buildings, regardless of fad or fashion.

Fact File

Architect: Steven Holl Architects, Beijing, China

Photograph: Iwan Baan

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