How is Asia embracing low energy buildings?

 —  Article by Suchi Rudra
inside a low energy building
Image credit: Shutterstock

Across Asia, developers and governments are slowly but steadily experimenting with sustainable building approaches and renewable energy to help reduce the region’s enormous energy consumption.

It’s not without its challenges. One obstacle is the region’s lack of progressive building codes. Another is lower levels of marketplace competition.

“Maybe because the Asian market is growing so rapidly and hasn’t yet reached maturity, companies aren’t being forced to be particularly innovative” says Mark Cameron, JLL’s Director of Energy and Sustainability Services for APAC.

The hot and humid climate in many Asian countries also poses a problem, as low energy building practices from colder climates often involve super tight building envelopes and heavy insulation. But in Asia, a market that is largely driven by air conditioning (AC), it’s difficult to design a building that uses zero AC. Moreover, to prevent mould and humidity, buildings require cooling.

“And because air quality is poor in many parts of Asia, using external air to reduce the AC requirement doesn’t always work,” says Cameron.

But it’s not all negative. Asia leads the field in a different style of building, the ‘supertall’ tower (over 300 meters) – a result of cities growing vertically to accommodate the region’s high population density – which require new energy efficiency solutions which are being developed in the region.

“Previously, there was a perception here that you need to look offshore for the latest trends, but I think that’s changing,” Cameron notes. “The Sears (Willis) Tower is over 440 meters tall. The newly built Shanghai Tower is almost 700 meters tall. We can’t look to the U.S. or Europe for the latest thinking. There’s got to be local knowledge. It’s such a huge investment to make something like that, and it takes the better part of a decade to build. So we’re seeing progressive thinking here for these long-term buildings, particularly how they can be made more efficient in operation.”

Fresh thinking across the region

In Shenzhen, China, the Ping An International Finance Centre when completed will be a 599-meter mixed-use skyscraper, making it the fourth tallest building in the world.

Cameron says that the developers behind the Ping An building are leading the field by “looking at sustainability as central to their design and getting their operations in place during the design phase.”

The Ping An building will implement standard energy efficient features including occupancy sensors, LED lighting, wireless daylight controls. On top of that, it’s focusing on building intelligence as an important aspect of the operations phase. This means including lifts that generate power while in use and an AC system that responds to the users of the building.

Such green buildings are not confined to China’s big cities. In the Chonngqin Quijiang District, an industrial park features a highly sustainable community center building that has installed a rainwater collection and reuse system and passive ventilation. Meanwhile, the Xizi Otis Chongqing factory, received LEED Gold certification for its eco-friendly operations process and recycling 90 percent of its waste from the construction phase.

While China is making progress, it has some way to go to catch Asia’s leaders in sustainability. As an island nation with limited natural resources, green building has long been a priority for Singapore. For over a decade, all new buildings have to abide by the nation’s own green building code (similar to LEED), resulting in a large number of low and zero carbon buildings. Thanks to this commitment, Cameron explains, “the building stock in Singapore tends to be better than in other Asian countries, with lower water and energy consumption and a greater focus on creating an climate responsive city.”

Over in South Korea, where the world’s first zero carbon office building was completed in 2011, Seoul’s city government aims to have all new multi-family housing built to net zero energy standards by 2023. The national government has set this same goal for all of South Korea by 2025.

Renewable energy will seal the deal

The use of renewable energy may be the final push that will reduce building energy consumption towards net zero or nearly net zero status. But this ultimately depends on the renewable energy policy of each country.

“Renewable energy presents huge opportunity in the region both on a de-centralised, small scale and larger centralised, or utility scale. We’ve seen a huge investment from China in particular on a utility scale, but it is important that this becomes a step change for the wider society, so supporting de-centralised energy must become a priority,” says Cameron.

Indeed China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has also become the world leader in installed solar capacity and aims to produce 143 gigawatts in capacity by 2020.

Installed capacity does not translate directly to generated power, but China’s National Energy Administration released a comprehensive plan in February to improve the nation’s power grid flexibility—a common limiting factor in the development of renewable energy —to support the coming influx.

Other Asian nations have also been working on making renewable energy generation a reality. “The Philippines has put forth a favorable renewable energy policy after a long period with high utility costs,” Cameron points out, “while Japan is moving toward a deregulated energy market. And that’s a good thing that may drive the adoption of renewable energy, particularly on the de-centralised scale.”

Singapore has its own unique situation, as the city-state imports the majority of its consumed energy from Malaysia and nearby countries.

“Because their future of energy relies on others, Singapore can break away by reducing consumption and generating energy locally,” says Cameron. And Singapore’s location in the Asian Sun Belt presents opportunities for the local solar market. Already, Apple Singapore has become the nation’s first company to run its corporate campus and a retail store 100 percent on locally generated solar power.

As Asia works to reduce energy consumption from buildings, the region will have to create its own unique set of green building techniques to overcome the particular challenges. But as Cameron concludes: “It’s certainly possible that the future of sustainable development will be driven by Asia.”

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