Building a Green China

Even if you've been here, your sooty mental image of urban China may be exaggerated. But some days, the real thing manages to defy even the most cynical imaginations: concrete sprawl locked in permanent rush hours that lurch past massive buildings, all covered in a veil of smog. Despite some greenish glimmers, the world's biggest construction site remains stuck in shoddy materials, hunger for land development and aging ideas about design. While it contributes 15 percent of the world's GDP, China consumes 30 percent of the earth's steel and half its concrete. On top of which, buildings in China consume a third of the country's increasingly endangered water supplies.

Yet, as Beijing's 3rd annual international green building expo rolls into town, some recent developments have lifted our optimism for green building in China. First, after declaring it would stick to its goal of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent by 2010, the government passed a draft law during last week's National People's Congress supporting a "circular economy" that would wed the "three Rs" with China's development.Meanwhile, a new energy-efficient growth model (with possible new resource taxes) aims to tame that development, which is unsustainable now matter how you look at it. And then there was the passage of China's first property law, which could pave the way, so to speak, for smarter growth. Of course, no solution to China's problems is now possible without the participation of the market. No wonder that the state-run English daily carried a front page headline yesterday urging private developers to comply with current building laws and go green. The developers in China—and green capitalists everywhere—better be listening. "If the government has a policy, develops a standard and enforces it, then the market has to react," says Yong Tao, a professor spearheading the US entry to a green housing showcase that will open alongside the Beijing "Green" Olympics next year. For a green construction market, he says, "the potential is there." That's the thinking behind Beijing's 3rd annual green building expo, which starts today. Slowly--slowly--green energy is building.


Interview with director Tad Fettig from his fantastic Design:e2, "China: From Red to Green."

The only question is when that energy will lead to something, well, a bit more concrete. And considering the cost of pollution and energy inefficiency--and of course the lucrative green market that's to come--it's a billion yuan question.

Though some pieces are already in place, including the country's ubiquitous solar water heaters and stunning green buildings like the Linked Hybrid and the Olympic "Water Cube," China does not yet have an authoritative or coherent green building standard. And smart urban planning, like the notion of "building integration," is still divorced from green design. Fortunately, China is developing its very own LEED green building standard. That would provide a thorough private sector framework for sustainability on top of government mandates, which are rarely enforced.

But no matter how strong regulations are, experts agree that government incentives are key to getting developers, builders and manufacturers on the green bandwagon. Also crucial are continued agreements between China and foreign governments over the trade of green technology. It's the sort of exchange in which European countries like Germany (with its building technologies) and Italy (with its academic partnerships) have been active, but one the United States has put on the back burner. Sure, the US Green Building Council is helping to develop China's standard, and the Dept. of Energy and others have cooperated with China's Ministry of Construction on a few projects. But investments and trade deals in green tech remain rare. For instance, unlike entries from other countries to Future House, China's green building showcase set to open for the Olympics, Prof. Tao's Future House USA was not sponsored by its home government. (It did however get an endorsement from Barack Obama.)

"Many [green] partnerships are not as smooth with China and the U.S. as they are with European countries," Tao tells Treehugger. "There is no coherent, focused group in Washington or elsewhere that really wants to do something about [China-U.S. green cooperation]."

In the dense and shifting concrete (and real) jungle of China's policies and realities, missteps, such as William McDonough's Huangbaiyu development, are inevitable. As green building guru Rob Watson told us recently, experimentation is important, both for western and Chinese designers:


That's what sustainability is all about. Daring to do things and fixing things that don't work. We always have to be careful not to think that we've solved the problem.

By forging better partnerships and agreements now, the U.S. (and any country) would not only get in on but help to kickstart one of the world's biggest green rushes. Strengthening ties with China on a front where more cooperation is crucial could help everyone's economy and environment.

And then there's the pressure of the country's growing consumer class, gliding towards the excesses of Western lifestyles, replete with cars and luxury apartments. But it makes sense that Chinese officials urged Tao and his team to design their green home after the American way--though it's got geothermal and green windows, it looks like a typical suburban McMansion. Says Tao:

Young people think, we want to live like that... But the message is...you can adopt American green technology too.

To be sure, the First World lifestyle, with its energy-guzzling buildings, could continue to ruin China. Or it could be the vehicle for a much greener place to live.

Check out a promo video for the Future House USA project, which was officially launched this week.

This article by China's vice-minister of construction Qiu Baoxing discusses green building possibilities for China. Other articles can be found here. Also, see the Future House USA FAQ; NRDC China's Clean Energy Project; The 3rd International Conference on Intelligent Green and Energy Efficient Building & New Technologies and Products Expo

UPDATE: For more on the green building story in China, see the Green Dragon Media Project, which we wrote about here.

Tags: Architecture | Beijing | China | Construction

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