The Green Delusion

AR (The Architectural Review) Magazine, August 2012
by Pascal Hartmann

In 2011, the urban population of China exceeded that of rural areas for the very first time. A total of 691 million people, over 50 percent of China’s estimated 1.3 billion inhabitants, live 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 urbanization project in history, and for better or for worse, its outcomes will shape the 21st century.

As cities are growing and living standards are improving, energy consumption is rising. Inefficient and pollutive coal-burning power stations account for over 70 percent of China’s energy production, contributing to the yellow smog that has become a common urban phenomenon. With pollution having a detrimental effect on quality of life, energy consumption rates for buildings make worrying reading. Buildings currently use 27.5 percent of China’s total energy output. This is expected to rise to 40 percent as development continues.

A solution seems to be on the way. Green buildings and green building certificates, like LEED or China 3-Star, 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 change the current development model and set China along with a more sustainable path? Approximately 7.5 million square meters of the development area in China have been LEED certified – an impressive figure until it is put into context within the two billion square meters 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.

An imbalance in architectural discourse has led to a very small number of projects receiving a disproportionate share of attention. Green projects tend to dominate the discourse, but they are extraordinary and unusual rather than the norm. Though they may be inspiring, they do not represent the reality of the urban landscape in China. On the ground, the impact of green architecture is being hindered by the nature of the China market.

An example is Steven Holl’s horizontal skyscraper, the Vanke Center in Shenzhen. The building achieved LEED Platinum and gained international recognition, yet Vanke is the largest residential real estate developer in China and sold 10.75 million square meters of ordinary floor space in 2011 alone. The Vanke Center is the one building Vanke will not sell and in which Vanke has a long-term interest. Its high marketing value is related to the public image which it presents to the outside world both in terms of Vanke’s philosophy and their place in this most dynamic of markets. The dilemma of green architecture is that this represents its true value to developers. It is not compatible with the reality of the mass market and is irrelevant to the majority of the two billion square meters of floor space that is built every year.

The design and development process is also incompatible with green architecture. Truly energy efficient buildings are knowledge-intensive designs, and implementing this knowledge requires time. Because of the staggering speed of development in China and the resulting tight project schedules, the conceptual design phase – in which most design decisions are made – is usually no longer than four weeks. As a consequence, design and construction quality in China is poor. A lack of knowledge among planners, designers, and engineers exacerbates these failings and has a negative effect on standards. Today, the average building lifespan in China is around thirty years, compared to 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. Energy efficiency is not a priority for the buyers, so there is a lack of demand. With low construction costs a characteristic of the market, the comparatively high price of energy-efficient design offers a little incentive. Although building codes in China are rather strict on energy saving regulations, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) have stated that only 23 percent of buildings in urban areas are actually energy efficient. Because of a lack of regulation and enforcement, even this modest estimate may be too generous.

Taking the reality of the building industry in China into account, many argue that green architecture will lead to a miraculous top-down transformation of the mass market. There is a lot of wishful thinking here and a more critical attitude towards green architecture is necessary. Indeed, it seems that the very idea of green architecture stands in the way of improving the energy efficiency of buildings in China on a larger scale.

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 optimization with the aim of saving energy will become marginalized. Second, the emphasis on green architecture in China has been placed on building technology and new, advanced materials. Green architecture is the new, the hip thing. For example, a strategy paper for the development of a low-carbon community in a southern city in China elaborated over nearly 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 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 maximizing energy efficiency within the limits of the given budget and the project requirements. Energy efficiency starts with the optimization of building design and is followed by optimizing user behavior. Green building technology is not the answer. When design alone can make buildings up to 50 percent more energy efficient, sustainable design should be at the heart of the architect’s professional ethos and be the standard for the development of all new buildings, regardless of fad or fashion.

Picture in left: The Vanke Center in Shenzhen. The building achieved LEED Platinum and gained international recognition.