Amidst the talk over the legacy of Beijing's "Green Olympics," there has been surprisingly little attention paid to the environmental impact of the city's new buildings. It's especially surprising given that buildings have the largest footprint of any human activity, that China is building more buildings every year than anyone else, and that the government says it's serious about cutting buildings' energy consumption. I'm taking a look at some of the bigger projects as examples -- or counter-examples -- of sustainable design for China and elsewhere.
The Olympic Village may be the world's largest green building complex. The 160-acre site, containing 42 residential buildings ranging from six- to nine- stories, includes a combination of high-tech and low-tech solutions to radically reduce energy and raise efficiency, including insulation, energy efficient windows, solar and green roofs, and a heat exchange system that collects and re-uses rainwater for heating and cooling, saving energy by 40 percent over typical HVAC systems.
Developer Guo Ao, which claims the buildings use half the energy of similar buildings in Beijing, was so obsessed with getting a gold award (not unlike his country's Olympic committee) that, one consultant told me, it did not want a coveted LEED rating if it were anything less. Last week, it was proudly announced: the US Green Building Council gave the complex a LEED gold certification, and the first such award outside of the US based on a pilot program designed for large-scale neighborhoods. And if our calculations are correct, at 370,000 sqm., it is also the largest LEED certified project yet.
By the way: someone might remind forward-thinking Chinese developers that there's an even more coveted color than gold in the LEED rating system: platinum.
The crown emerald of the village is a near zero-energy athlete's welcome center. Built in cooperation with Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division and Beijing's Tsinghua University, the curvaceous athletes' center includes an innovative heating and cooling system that combines ground-source heat pumps, radiant floors, and desiccant cooling with active solar regeneration, as well as a seasonal thermal-storage system.
The entire village was born out of talks that began in 2002 between the the Beijing government, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the US Department of Energy, and representatives from Germany and Japan. As work got underway on Beijing's first LEED-certified demonstration building, a developer, Guo Ao, and a designer, Beijing Tianhong Yunfang Architecture Group, were chosen for the village. Later, green building engineers EMSI and the US Dept. of Energy were consulted.
The results are stunning: Roofs are covered in solar panels and vegetation, and toilets flush with graywater. Most parking has been tucked underground, freeing up room for green space, which covers 90 percent of site landscaping, along with pedestrian and bike paths. To address concerns over the city's water supply, engineers included a water-efficient irrigation system as well as drought-resistant and native plants, which also help to capture stormwater in the village.
Alongside its ample amenities, the village's scale and access to Beijing's expanding subway system also makes it a comfortable example of urbanism -- one always welcome in a sprawling Chinese city like Beijing. Jacques Rogge, the IOC chairman, has called it the "best" Olympic village yet. The sustainable energy he drew from the village's sense of community may have even helped Raphel Nadal win a gold medal.
The complex is officially the first to receive the USGBC's six-point pilot LEED Neighborhood Development rating outside of the United States. It's also the first residential complex to receive a LEED award in Beijing. Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid complex, near the second ring road, is in the running for a LEED award.
As energy prices rise along with complaints over pollution, China's Ministry of Urban and Rural Development, formerly the Ministry of Construction, is growing feverish about residential energy efficiency. "China's leaders know the development of green buildings is a critical need and the Olympic Village can serve as a model for this development," said US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson at a small ceremony in Beijing.
Indeed, a complex like this not only serves the people but serves as a great example for the rest of China's developer and homebuying classes. Though both groups remain focused on price and developers tend to cut corners, Chinese are slowly paying more attention to health and environmental concerns when it comes to habitation. (Of course, many are also paying attention to luxury, which too often comes in the form of oblivious concrete monsters, like the terrible example just next to the Olympic Green.)
Even though they're going for an average of $750,000, 80 percent of the apartments have been sold in the Village, which will be converted to upscale housing after the Paralympic Games at the end of September.
And if any potential buyers were about to accuse the Olympic Village of being unsexy, email them Matthew Syed's bedtime stories in the Times of London. To keep things sustainable of course, China, which knows a thing or a billion about overpopulation, kept the free condoms plentiful.
See more photos of the Olympic Village on Flickr.
For more on sustainable building in China:
Building a Green China
China Launches Green Building Council: An Interview with Kevin Hydes, World Green Building Council Chair
Taking the LEED in China: Beijing's Building Green
Green Dragon Media Project: Crucial Doc on China's Eco Building
After the Sichuan Quake, Rebuilding Turns Green
Steven Holl Unveils Huge Green Complex in China