Friday, May 10, 2013, 09:59
Greening the globe
By Jennifer Lo in Hong Kong

Greening the globe

Acentury ago, Dubai was struggling with water shortages, food scarcity and sweeping sandstorms. However, the underground riches discovered in the 1960s, oil, changed everything.

Brand-new structures sprouted up on the barren land: Glassy skyscrapers and luxury hotels. There is desalinated water, cheap electricity and non-renewable fossil fuels. Expensive motor vehicles ply on multi-lane roads. The per capita energy use in the regional financial center is among the highest in the world.

Gone are old coastal towns in the Gulf crafted with the law of nature in mind, long before the concept of sustainability was born. Houses had been built to counter hot summer breezes, according to a Jones Lang LaSalle report. Gypsum facades reflected sunlight, narrow streets increased shading and thick walls lowered temperatures.

Dubai is far from alone in that battle. The daunting issues facing its other Asian counterparts — the ever-rising population pressure, lack of space, delicate environment — have all persuaded decision-makers and investors to rethink their approach to green architecture, although the road to urban sustainability is a bumpy one.

How buildings are built, designed and managed over time matters.

According to the United Nations, buildings emit 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. They contribute to 40 percent of solid waste and use over one-tenth of the globe’s valuable water resources.

Developed economies such as Japan have taken the lead in reducing energy use by 15 percent.

By 2020, Singapore aims to have 80 percent of its buildings pass the Green Mark test — a system to evaluate building performance.

The rest of developing Asia is not lagging behind. In its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), economic powerhouse China has pledged to ensure all new buildings reduce energy use by 65 percent. One-third of all new buildings are to be green by 2020.

The World Bank estimates that by 2015 nearly half of China’s buildings would be regarded as “green”.

“A decade in China is like three generations in other countries,” says Parker White, a Shanghai-based Jones Lang LaSalle sustainability expert for the Asia Pacific. “Now in tier-one cities, it’s almost expected all Grade A buildings are green. Investors’ mindsets have changed dramatically.”

Rapid urbanization in the Asia-Pacific region represents an unprecedented opportunity to achieve sustainable development, say experts.

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Migration towards cities has long been at the root of pollution, congestion, unsafe structures and poor sanitary conditions in slums.

But now, with the growing middle class, governments have an opportunity to launch a holistic revamp in decaying cities.

“The significance of the middle class is that people are making their own decisions on what they want to do, where they want to do it and how they want to do it,” says Uwe Brandes, senior vice-president with Urban Land Institute (ULI), a Washington-headquartered nonprofit education and research institute that focuses on the use of land to protect the environment.

Investors and tenants show their dislike of a polluted community or an energy-inefficient building.

“People vote with their own feet. They go where they want to go,” Brandes says.

Asian governments will have to strive to confront the challenge of creating high-density, durable and livable communities which attract a competitive labor force.

“You want to make sure your citizens live better, healthier and safer. Why? It attracts investments,” says Terence Yap, CEO of Smart China, a solution provider for smart cities development in China.

“Greening” has become a hot issue not only for policymakers and environmentalists, but also for businesses. Some developing countries are seeing a boom in private initiatives.

Builders are increasingly turning their attention to green designs — from solar panels to rooftop gardens — as a way to push ahead of others in competitive real estate markets.

On the investment front, commercial developers want to ensure their buildings are up to global sustainability standards. Who can afford to lose their blue-chip tenants to buildings across the street?

Since its first certified green building in 2003, India has the second largest number of green buildings per square foot after the US. It has 269 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings, up from just five in 2005.

These certifications are, however, far from an impeccable reflection of reality. What creates most of the confusion is that almost each country has its own green rating system with slightly different standards.

The LEED developed by the US Green Building Council is among the most widely used systems to measure the environmental performance of a building. The others include BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) from the UK and CASBEE (Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency) from Japan. China has its own three-star certification program.

There is another question being discussed by experts across the continents: How buildings are being designed and used over time.

“You can have a very efficient car. But if you drive it all the time, you’re still using a lot of energy,” Brandes says. “Certification systems are just snapshots in time.”

That is the direction for green buildings, says John Fitzgerald, ULI Asia Pacific’s executive director.

“It’s beyond the standard of certification to measuring and benchmarking the performance (of buildings).”

An attempt was made to revise LEED in 2009. A new version now requires building owners to report data on energy and water use to the council on an ongoing basis. Certified buildings are proliferating across Asia.

A decade ago, the concept of green buildings “was not commonly discussed in Asia”, says Tim Shen, property consultancy CBRE’s director of sustainability for Asia. “Today, green building has become a mainstream issue for all real estate stakeholders, and is arguably the new commercial Grade A standard.”

“A green building by today’s standards may not be considered green in five to 10 years’ time,” he adds, saying it’s equally important to ensure green rating systems are constantly updated to raise the bar and help all buildings meet a higher minimum green performance standard.

More and more people are willing to invest in buildings above the minimum standard required by states.

Less than two hours away from Dubai, the UAE’s second largest city Abu Dhabi is fast catching up. The Masdar eco-city project is vying to become the world’s most sustainable low-carbon area.

The city’s landmark, award-winning Al Bahar Towers completed last June is modeled on mashrabiya — the handsome wooden lattice screens found in Islamic architecture to reduce glare.

The twin office’s dynamic façade opens and closes in response to the movement of the sun, reducing solar gain by up to 50 percent and with it the need for air-conditioning, says Aedas Architects, the mastermind behind the innovation.

“Whatever yesterday’s benchmark was, the market behaves in real time,” says ULI’s Brandes.

“The market continues to evolve. People are making very important investments around sustainability, thinking their investments are going to preserve the value of their properties better. That’s really about the pricing in the future.”