The Green Leap Forward

China has a five-year plan to lead the world in green buildings -- but can it work?


BEIJING — Among the most important high-tech endeavors at Shanghai Jiaotong University — widely considered to be China’s No. 2 engineering school — is a cavernous showroom that resembles nothing so much as a futuristic Home Depot.

Two years ago, the university, nestled in a leafy suburb of Shanghai, received a multi-million dollar government grant to build a working model of residential "green building" technologies for China — in effect, a museum dedicated to heat-absorbing window panes and rooftop solar cells that Chinese architects and developers can use when designing the energy efficient mega-blocks and villas of the future.

Professor Wang Ruzhu, director of the Institute of Refrigeration and Cryogenics and the Research Center of Solar Energy at Shanghai Jiaotong, gave me a tour on a recent sunny afternoon. It was a glimpse at the ultra-efficient, high-tech fashion in which the people of China will soon be living. Or at least, a glimpse of the dream of future green living —  as with so much else in China, the vision is endlessly enticing, but how successfully it moves out of the showroom remains to be seen.

In China, where fully half the world’s new buildings are erected each year, the reason the government is interested in squeezing energy demand is simple. It’s not just altruism or global ecological goodwill. As China continues to urbanize at a breakneck pace, moving a projected 350 million people from rural areas into cities over the next 20 years and erecting the floor-space equivalent of two New York Cities every year, its energy demand is rising worryingly quickly — up 12 percent from just last year. Feeding that demand is not easy, and many cities in China continue to experience rolling brownouts (the situation was exacerbated during this summer’s drought, when diminished river flows shrunk the available energy from hydropower).

Beijing knows there’s no silver bullet. That’s why it’s investing heavily in both dirty coal and clean energy and, increasingly, in energy efficiency. The operation of buildings in China — which includes heating, air-conditioning, and electricity — accounts for 25 to 27 percent of the country’s annual energy consumption, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which maintains an office in Beijing. China’s own Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) projects that energy use associated with buildings will rise 70 percent by 2020, unless greener building practices become the norm. That’s why Beijing’s most recent five-year plan takes a page from Jimmy Carter’s enthusiasm for low thermostat levels and his infamous "put on a sweater!" campaign (heck, no one has to worry about winning re-election here).


More specifically, China’s five-year plan shows a special interest in the concept of building energy use and "green buildings," a notion born in America during the 1970s oil embargo. On June 15, MOHURD’s director of building energy-efficiency, Hao Bin, announced that Beijing is finalizing a national energy-labeling system for new building construction. As he told conference attendees at the Global Green Building Conference in Shanghai, the government is also evaluating plans to subsidize certain kinds of energy-efficient building materials. Already it’s funding a number of research and demonstration projects.

Wang, the professor in Shanghai, has been among the many beneficiaries of Beijing’s newfound interest. Now in his 50s, he has been at Shanghai Jiaotong since he arrived as a student there in 1980. His life has changed dramatically with the times. Standing in front of the university’s iconic red gate, he recounts the downtown dorms he moved into as an undergraduate, with six or eight boys to a room and no amenities to speak of. Now he lives on the new university campus, a sprawling suburban outpost of green lawns and fishponds in Shanghai’s bucolic Xuhui district, where his driver ferries him between appointments. Still a bit astonished by his own good luck and timing, he takes great pleasure in the Jetsons-esque task of imagining how future Chinese families should live, although he warns me that "the most important details" — like better insulation — are not necessarily the most exciting developments to look at.

The final green-tech showroom is set to open to the public in late summer, but Wang agreed to give me a quick preview. From the outside, the three-story glass-windowed building with an additional diagonal roof jutting up looked rather like a giant grand piano. The interior was still under construction: We stepped past wires strewn on the floor, over layers of thick dust, and around assorted pre-fabricated parts still in shrink-wrap. Standing next to a large ground-floor window, Wang pointed outside to what appeared to be a large mound of dirt. Buried beneath was a geothermal heat pump, which, he says, can draw heat from the earth in winter and release it in the summer, decreasing the need to run a boiler and air-conditioning.

Upstairs, he led me to two showrooms designed to look like the apartments of an average Chinese household: Exactly 50 square meters (538 square feet) and 70 square meters (753 square feet). The 70 square meter dwelling showcased a small living room with a TV and Ikea-like shelving built into a wall, a small bedroom with a plush bed that nearly filled the room, a long and narrow kitchen, and a bathroom. As we were leaving, he pointed to a small computer panel by the door, which, he explained, could be programmed to automatically turn off non-essential appliances when the family is not home.

Finally, we walked onto the roof, with its view of the adjacent research park, where Microsoft and other foreign technology companies have recently opened labs. Here, Wang’s team had mounted three rows of different types of solar panels.

I asked Wang how likely it is that green models such as his will in fact be deployed across China. After all, in recent years foreign architects have built a number of expensive, eye-catching green buildings in China — from Steven Holl and Li Hu’s Linked Hybrid in northern Beijing to the Sino-Italian Ecological and Energy-Efficient Building on the campus of Tsinghua University — but nothing that caught on with either government planners or local architects.

"That’s a good question," he said. "It’s a very good question, but it’s very hard to answer. Of course, the unusual foreign designs would not be practical."


Later, I asked the same question of Tom McCawley, an American green-tech investment consultant in Shanghai whose clients have included the city of Urumqi and Disney Shanghai. He seconded the notion that foreign designers often have trouble designing more than one-off projects in China. "A lot of people with green ideas they want to bring to China don’t understand how decisions are actually made [here]," he admitted. But more to the point, he said that the biggest challenges for China comes down to price (green materials may cost 10 percent more) and quality control.

Erecting energy-efficient buildings demands a level of precision in both the design phase and the construction phase that’s extremely hard to manage in bulk — especially when much of the migrant labor force actually hammering in the nails is new to the industry and rather low-skilled. "To do green buildings requires a lot of integration and communication between the disciplines. That’s difficult to do even in the United States, where it’s done primarily by experienced teams," he says. "China is laying down 2 billion square meters in building space every year. Think about trying to set up the infrastructure to inspect quality when you build so much."

McCawley shared a cautionary tale about a developer in the western city of Chengdu who was trying to install a new air-conditioning technology that can reduce energy use by as much as 25 percent. It works by placing vents in the floor, rather than the ceiling (generally, a lot of energy is wasted cooling the air near the ceiling that no one occupies). But it wasn’t working because the building’s sealing wasn’t done properly. "You don’t have technical construction sophistication. Nothing is built in a very straight line in China — no roof is true; nothing is level. Sometimes even in your rooms, you don’t have 90 degree angles."

Jin Ruidong, green buildings project director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, works closely in advising the Chinese government. As a native of the western megacity of Chongqing — China’s fastest-growing urban area, where buildings go up practically overnight as the city absorbs 1 million new residents each year — he’s well aware of the problems caused by rapid-fire development. "The reality is that green-building construction takes some care, and a lot of developers are not familiar with proper insulation, etc. They make mistakes. And then it is expensive and takes time to correct mistakes," he says. "Generally speaking, green buildings don’t have to be much more expensive than other buildings. But frequent troubles in construction gives you that perception."

And therein lies the rub. In theory, China has the opportunity to leapfrog many of the environmental mistakes of the West as it builds new cities virtually from scratch. But the need for speed means that much of what’s in fact built is barely serviceable, rundown after five years. Even inside the new main departure hall of Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, Terminal 2, a row of buckets is arranged along the floor at precise intervals to catch rainwater dripping from the ceiling. 

With green buildings, the opportunity for nationwide energy savings is immense — but so is the required overhaul in construction practices to make it happen. Furnishing the high-tech showroom, alas, is the easy part.

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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