Stop the spread of ‘urban malice’ with green buildings: Interview with James Jao

Ahead of the Macao International Environmental Co-operation Forum and Exhibition, president of J.A.O Design International James Jao speaks to Eco-Business on green buildings and eco-cities in China

James Jao is commonly referred to as the “Urban Doctor” in China due to his years of extensive experience in urban planning, green architecture, and eco-cities. As the chief executive officer of the Beijing-based Long On Group, a firm involved with the country’s efforts to improve city management, he works closely with various Chinese government officials and is involved in related organisations such as the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.

Jao, also an author on green building and Chinese cities, has helped formed the policies that was the foundation for the green building standards in China. As president and design director of J.A.O Design International Architects and Planners, a Long On Group subsidiary, Jao has sought to influence the national government by emphasising the importance of green buildings as a driver of economic growth – a growth that is not at all costs, instead one that is more conscious of its environmental and social impact.

In fact, he believes that the alarming air pollution levels in China’s urban centres have helped to raise sustainability awareness and trigger better policies.

Jao, however, did not always have the smoothest of relationships with the government. He was previously based in the United States, where he received his architecture degree in the New York Pratt Institute and where he eventually became the first Asian American commissioner of the New York Planning Commission under New York City mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Guiliani. It was only in the mid-1990s that he moved first to Hong Kong, and later on to Beijing.

He recalled: “When I relocated my business from New York to Hong Kong, I thought I was close enough to China to get business from the Mainland. But we often came in second place in many invited design competitions.” It was only after he moved to Beijing that his business took off. He realised that the close proximity between firms and the agencies they have to collaborate with is a big factor in business operations in China.

In this interview, Jao shares more of his experiences with Eco-Business and how China’s green buildings and sustainable development is no longer just ‘lip service’.

One of your firm’s goals is to provide ‘world-class low carbon green buildings for ordinary Chinese people’. How do you approach this, keeping in mind that most of the current development is focused on skyscrapers? And as a green architect, what is your view on China’s relentless development vis-à-vis the need to cut down resource use, emissions, and address the country’s worrying air pollution and other environmental problems?

Like most of the newly rich countries, including the United Arab Emirates and its city of Dubai, China is more interested in showing off their wealth rather than sharing their responsibility as a stakeholder of this planet. They are pursuing GDP growth more than resource protection. As a result, image is more important. That is the reason why we see many skyscrapers pop up in major cities in recent years. But building skyscrapers is not necessarily in conflict with building green. One example of green skyscrapers is the LEED-certified Taipei 101 Tower.

I believe the recent air pollution is perhaps a blessing in disguise for China. It has not only sent an alarm to officials, but it has also raised keen awareness among ordinary Chinese people that they must adopt immediate policies and actions to stop the spread of this ‘urban malice’, which has contributed to the environmental problems. 

I have often warned in the past that Chinese urbanization was too fast and over its ecological capacity, and thus contributing to this ‘urban malice’. For example, in driving a car, when you try to fit ten people in a five-passenger sedan and drive 180 kilometres per hour, not only will you feel uncomfortable in the car, but your reckless behavior will also put you in great danger. China was too eager to show off with its GDP growth. It did not care about ecological sustainability nor about environmental costs. The heavy smog is a great warning to China that things will only become worse unless they change their land use policies and their behaviors quickly.

I believe you will see more actions, suggestions, and policies from the upcoming Chinese Political Congress and the Chinese Political Consultative Committee meetings, which will take place in March in Beijing. The members of both organisations will come to experience the worst air quality of Beijing. This will prompt them to urge the central government to make better environmental policies. CPCC can recommend the policy changes, while CPC will adopt the policies. On top of this, the terrible smog and air pollution may actually help ease the over-heated housing prices in Beijing.

As a Chinese-American, you have the distinction of knowing two diverse cultures – the East and the West. Do you consider this an asset in your architecture practice, especially now that your firm is based in China?

I often consider myself privileged that I am bilingual and bi-cultural. When I was on the New York City Planning Commission between 1990 and 1994, I once said that a Chinese-American official who speaks Chinese in the 20th century would not be comfortable with the politics of the motherland, as the conflicts between China and Taiwan often demanded me to take a stand. I was often asked to choose whether I was their comrade or adversary.

But being a Chinese-American who speaks Chinese is definitely a big advantage in the 21st century. China, after all, is the second largest economy, and it is one of the biggest markets in the world. Having the language skill and being able to do the ‘elevator pitch’ has helped my business tremendously as it has allowed me to articulate my points better, thus getting my design concept approved by the government easily.

With my experience in LEED, I have become a key advocate of green buildings and eco-cities in China. I helped promulgate the first eco-city guidelines in 1999, and I was the co-author for the first Green Building guidebook in 2004. In my second book, Searching the Soul of Chinese Cities, one of the key recommendations to the Chinese central government was to adopt green building as an economic driver of development. This book helped pave the way for the Three Star certification process, the green building rating system in China.

You are a speaker for the upcoming MIECF 2014, where part of your discussion will touch upon the green building certification scheme in China and how there is a growing awareness for building sustainably. Can you tell us more about this and the key drivers behind this movement?

The Chinese Green Building certification process started in 2006, when Beijing was preparing to host the Olympic Games. They were advocating for a green Olympic Games. Frankly, at that time, the green building movement was more of a slogan, a lip service, rather than real action. It was not until 2011 that the Chinese Government finally endorsed the Green Building Certification system and started to encourage its adoption. Nonetheless, due to lack of fiscal incentives, and with the certification being voluntary instead of compulsory, the result was not as good as expected.

Frankly, at that time, the green building movement was more of a slogan, a lip service, rather than real action. It was not until 2011 that the Chinese Government finally endorsed the Green Building Certification system and started to encourage its adoption.

In 2012, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MoHURD), together with the Ministry of Finance, was able to come out with a financial incentive of 45 RMB per square metre for buildings that receive a two-star rating and 80 RMB per square metre for buildings with a three-star rating.

The MoHURD is now mandating that all public building must attain at a one-star rating. The hope is that over one billion square metres of new buildings in 2015 will receive certification. And by 2020, the target is to have certified green buildings account for 30 per cent of the total built environment in the country.

This has created and will lead to huge opportunities for related industries and services. In my talk, I will also explain the rationale behind this Three-Star rating system, its procedure, and its requirements, so attendees can gain a deeper knowledge on the green building programme in China.  I hope to encourage many good international companies to take advantage of this certification.

What are some of your milestone green building projects and what benefits have these provided that might encourage other businesses to consider building green or to retrofit their existing offices and facilities?

To be honest, other than the Bank of Construction building we designed in Suzhou, most of the developers did not follow through with green buildings as they did not want to invest in the additional costs of green building technologies. I am quite disappointed that their rationale is to maximize their investment rather than reducing carrying or operational costs in the future.

I am now proposing to the central government that it treats green buildings the same way it treats electric cars by offering more financial incentives to both developers and end-users. I am optimistic that the government will eventually adopt my recommendation. This will be a great opportunity for China to become less dependent on fossil fuels.

Among your many professional roles, you have been a senior expert in SAFEA and you are a member of the UN Habitat World Urban Campaign Steering Committee. Can you tell us about your work with these organisations and how it helps push the sustainability movement?

I am a senior foreign expert certified by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs of China since 1994. It has allowed me to teach many Chinese officials the concepts of urban planning, urban policies, and green building and raise awareness on eco-cities.

With the Steering Committee of UN Habitat, my role is to bridge the communication between UN Habitat and China. China’s urbanisation growth is the fastest in the world. I always recommend that the senior officials of UN Habitat be more actively engaged in Chinese cities and that they collaborate with Chinese officials for their City Changer campaign, which is a global initiative to generate more awareness and cooperation among citizens to develop better cities.

You are also referred to as the ‘Urban Doctor’ because of your expertise in urban planning. How have you used this to promote sustainable development? 

I am quite honoured that the Chinese officials have bestowed me with the title of Urban Doctor. They have repeatedly read my four books on urban planning and many of my recommendations have become national land use policies. My experience in city governments have enabled me to relate to Chinese officials, their concerns, and how best to set priorities. Consequently, they were more receptive of my advice to them compared to recommendations made by other experts.

Lastly, you have a volunteer organisation called LIVE, which is about providing education in rural areas. How important is it for you to give back?

Growing up in New York with the Jewish community, where I had designed synagogues and mikvas or the Jewish women bathhouse, my thinking has become somewhat Jewish. I believe in making a lot of money, enjoying the money I make, while giving back a good portion of my money to the poor and the needy.

LIVE stands for Low Income Visionary Education, and it has two anchor activities. One is to help train school principals from the remote regions of China by providing them with better exposure and training in Beijing for two weeks during summer recess. The second is we send out volunteers to teach English to poor kids. This is a grassroots charity organisation managed by a group of young volunteers. I am proud that I have some passionate and competent young people behind this organisation. We are also thankful that we obtained assistance from the German Government, which supported our activities in 2013.

Since its inception in 2008, we have held four annual trainings for principals. In our training, we also teach kids and principals some fundamental principles of energy conservation and sustainable design. I have always believed starting them young is the best way to encourage and inculcate conservation into their mindset. Nevertheless, LIVE has a long way to go. We hope we will have more support from other interested groups from the international community.

To hear more from James Jao and other renowned speakers such as Joseph Stiglitz, American economist and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, register for the upcoming Macao International Environmental Co-operation Forum & Exhibition (MIECF) held from 27-29 March 2014. 

With an exciting lineup of an international conference, exhibition, business matching and networking activities, MIECF offers access to opportunities from the Pan-Pearl River Delta Region of China (PPRD Region), Asia-Pacific and Portuguese-speaking countries and beyond.

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