Opportunities in China’s green building boom

Green buildings are a new phenomenon in China, making up only a small proportion of the country’s property landscape. But the nation’s bid to slash carbon emissions is sure to give sustainable buildings a boost over the next few years.

Green buildings – with their energy-saving technologies, temperature-optimising insulation, solar panels and smart appliances, among other features – are popping up everywhere in China, from Xinjiang in the west to Heilongjiang in the north. Unheard of as recently as a decade ago, they are quickly becoming a feature on China’s vast and varied landscape.

This is thanks to a barrage of policies by the Chinese government aimed at slashing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and ridding itself of its ignoble title as the world’s biggest carbon polluter. The second-largest economy said in November last year that it wants its carbon emissions to peak around 2030, as part of a joint commitment with the United States.

In its 12th Five-Year plan initiated in October 2010, the government also said it will invest heavily in green projects, a key part of which will be in green buildings. All these signs point to a booming industry in sustainable buildings.

“We in China may be late to the game, but I think in terms of collective effort, we are progressing really quickly,” says Professor Wang Youwei, chairman of the China Green Building Council, an academic organization that does research on green buildings and building energy efficiency, promotes green building development in the country, and acts as an intermediary between academia and industry.

“We know that we need to look at buildings because they collectively account for 30 to 40 per cent of the entire country’s energy usage,” he adds. “The Chinese government is promoting green buildings aggressively, linking energy efficiency with urbanisation.”

Green building space in China has grown 154 times since 2008 and the country has taken the lead from the US in terms of green gross floor area, according to a report released last month by global real estate consultancy CBRE.

The report – ‘The New Era of Green Buildings in China’ – found that as of January 2015, China had 2,538 projects with the country’s Green Building Evaluation Standard certification, representing a gross floor area of 290 million square metres (sq m), as well as 627 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects as of April 2015, adding an additional 28 million sq m.

China’s Green Building Evaluation Standard is a set of guiding principles for the design, construction, operation and rating of green buildings in China, with a scoring system of one, two of three stars, with three stars being the best label. LEED, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, an non-profit organization that promotes sustainability in buildings in the US, is a system that rates green buildings, homes and even neighbourhoods in terms of design, construction, operation and maintenance.

All these projects totalled about 320 million sq m, overtaking the 310 million sq m of LEED gross floor area in the US, the report says.

“CBRE estimates that in the period between 2014 and 2020, the total new construction of urban green buildings in China is expected to reach 7 billion sq m,” the report says. “This massive boom in the construction of green buildings will usher in unprecedented opportunities for development.”

From Xinjiang to Shanghai

Professor Wang notes that the private sector has a major role to play in delivering on the emissions pledge: developers, consultants, researchers and others should all contribute to development of green buildings in the country, he adds.

And this development has to focus on what he calls “local conditions”, says Professor Wang, who is also a consultant at Beijing Municipal People’s Government, and a principal member on the board that approves the national Green Building Evaluation Standard.

“In the west of China, where it’s very dry and temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius in winter and soar to the high 30s in summer, green technology will have to suit those conditions,” Professor Wang says.

“In Guangdong in the south, it’s very wet and warm. So, do we use stone, steel, or wood? Is the area mountainous? Is land expensive and hence we have to build them tall instead of sprawling? You have to consider all these factors.”

At the same time, cost is very important because China is still a developing country, he adds. 

More affluent cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are easy markets for green buildings, as “branding” offices as sustainable is seen as a differentiating factor.

We know that we need to look at buildings because they collectively account for 30 to 40 per cent of the entire country’s energy usage,” he adds. “The Chinese government is promoting green buildings aggressively, linking energy efficiency with urbanisation

Prof Wang Youwei, chairman, China Green Building Council,

In smaller second- or third-tier cities, where average incomes tend to be lower and there may be fewer local incentives and subsidies, green buildings could appear a less attractive option.

In these cities, retro-fitting existing buildings with green features will be the Chinese government’s strategy, Professor Wang says.

China’s Ministry of Construction targets to retrofit 25 per cent of existing public and residential buildings to make them greener by 2020. It estimates that the total cost of retrofitting these existing buildings with energy saving systems will total US$193 billion.

But the benefits are huge, as greening 25 per cent of existing buildings alone could reduce coal use by 135 million tonnes a year, according to the ministry. That’s about 10 per cent of the total amount used in 2014 to generate power in the country.

For developers and building owners unable or unwilling to spend on constructing new buildings with green technology, retrofitting can be an attractive option, Professor Wang says.

“Developers interested in the green space in China will therefore need to spend some time thinking about where they can contribute their expertise,” Professor Wang says. Whether it’s approaching existing buildings for retrofitting projects or designing a green building from scratch, they will need to tailor specific strategies for specific locations.

At the upcoming International Green Building Conference (IGBC) 2015 to be held in Singapore, Professor Wang will be speaking at the opening plenary on China’s national certification scheme, as well as opportunities in China’s green building industry.

The IGBC - held at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands from 2 to 4 September - is organised by the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore (BCA) and the anchor event of the Singapore Green Building Week (SGBW), which is in its seventh year. SGBW is Singapore’s biggest trade show for the green building and construction industry. 

IGBC 2015 expects more than 1,000 participants – international green building experts, policy-makers, academics, built environment practitioners, tenants and end-users, as well as members of the public and students –  from over 30 countries to gather to discuss ideas, collaborate, and share knowledge on the international green building movement.

As Professor Wang notes, “We’ve already achieved a lot in terms of doing something positive for the environment. I think with technological breakthroughs and more collective effort, we can do more. It’s not lip service.”

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