“Green building” is an emerging buzzword on the green vernacular list. In effect, they drive key energy efficiencies through the integration of green technologies that simultaneously reduce carbon emissions while lowering operational and energy costs in the long-run. With this objective in mind, the hope is that more and more green buildings will be implemented across Hong Kong in order to facilitate the city’s sustainable future. But does this green dream truly exist, or is it yet another instance of greenwashing, distracting us from our climate reality? 

Green buildings have been around for some time now. First conceptualised in the ’60s by American architect Paul Soleri, it was initially romanticised as a combination between architecture and ecology (known as arcology) within a hyper-dense city that would maximise access to shared, cost-effective infrastructural services and reduce waste and environmental pollution. While the concept of arcology has been considered overly-idealistic and remains largely hypothetical, the notion of energy-efficient buildings became an appealing concept that allowed the contemporary green building movement to flourish during the ’70s. With the ’70s energy crisis – caused by the peaking of oil production across major industrial nations (United States, Canada, Germany etc.) and embargoes from other producers – the Western world faced substantial petroleum shortages and elevated oil prices, generating a worldwide need to be more energy efficient and eco-friendly. One such way was through the reshaping of building practices that would reduce energy output in the long run, a practice that has become increasingly pivotal in our renewed goal towards reducing carbon emissions. Buildings have a huge impact on the environment – accounting for 39 per cent of global energy emissions, 50 per cent of global material use and the annual use of 42.4 billion tonnes of materials.

Take Hong Kong for example. The bustling metropolitan – with over 42,000 private buildings and more than 8,000 government buildings sprawled across the urban landscape – has created a demand for sustainable energy consumption. In Hong Kong, buildings are responsible for consuming a large portion of energy, electricity, water and materials consumption, claiming as much as as much as 90% of the total electricity consumption as well as about 60% of the total carbon dioxide emissions each year. In addition, with a current rate of construction of between 300 and 500 new buildings per year, between 60% and 80% of the buildings that will be in existence in 2050 have already been built. Therefore, addressing the total emissions of both new and existing buildings is therefore critical in the process of decarbonising the building sector.

You might also like: Scientists Solve Desalination Mystery, Opening the Door for Cheap Clean Water Production

In  response to this, as part of Hong Kong Environment Bureau’s Climate Action Plan 2030+ – setting a carbon intensity reduction target of 65-70% by 2030 compared to the 2005 level – the city has introduced a set of strict green certification standards designed by the Hong Kong Green Building Council (HKGBC) called BEAM Plus. To attain a BEAM Plus certification (currently owned by more than 1,600 buildings and developmental projects in Hong Kong), building developers must meet a comprehensive set of performance criteria for various sustainability issues ranging from planning and construction to the operation and maintenance of the building. By tackling a building’s overall performance across its entire life cycle, this facilitates a fair and objective assessment that provides wide-ranging transparency. The standard’s long range of performance criteria also facilitates high versatility and effectiveness, as it is able to capture various aspects of a building’s carbon emissions that are not accounted for in other green building standards. For instance, embodied carbon makes up 30-40% of buildings’ total lifecycle emissions, with the majority emitted during the construction process. For buildings that have not yet been built, all carbon emissions can be identified and possibly reduced. For existing buildings, the opportunity to significantly influence embodied carbon has been lost but the operational carbon emissions can still be minimised through retrocommissioning and retrofitting. Through this criteria, green buildings in Hong Kong are able to tackle many sources of carbon emissions at once. 

Critics skeptical towards the standard’s credentials should know that its certification is not limited to Hong Kong alone. Besides the fact it closely resembles the United States’ own set of ratings systems for green buildings known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, BEAM Plus has already extended to many key geographical regions across the Greater Bay Area, including Macau, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. Through this ratings tool, it is estimated that 710 850MWh of electricity is being saved each year– roughly the average annual electricity consumption of 146 000 Hong Kong households – and 15.7 billion litres of fresh and seawater consumption is being avoided annually in Hong Kong. The result is that total estimated yearly carbon emissions will be reduced by 506 350 tonnes, the equivalent of planting 22 million trees. 

The prime example of this green certification can be found in Hong Kong’s K11 Atelier King’s Road – part of a string of Hong Kong’s latest urban office redevelopments –  located in North Point on Hong Kong Island. Spanning 45 300 m2 of GFA (Gross Floor Area), the greenery-covered exterior comes with 28 floors and exhibition space, as well as an assortment of cafes and other F&B outlets. However, the main attraction of the building is its achievement of being the first building in the world to have achieved all Platinum levels of the WELL Building Standard Pre-certification, Hong Kong BEAM Plus Provisional Certification and the U.S LEED Pre-certification, with reference to relevant United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. To meet the standards of all three is no easy feat.

To achieve this milestone, the K11 building made certain to integrate over 70 sustainability features upon its completion.  For instance, the building is adorned with greenery that extends around the building and across the podium of the office block. Combined with the roof, the total greenery spans an area of 6 700m2, which is more than twice the total site area. Through its greenscape, the building is able to sequester 4 tonnes of CO2 per year whilst also reducing the urban heat island effect in the hot and compacted city.

In addition, the K11 building incorporates green technologies that further enhance its sustainability features. For example, the use of low e-glazing – microscopically thin coating that is transparent and reflects heat – within the building provides solar control and good daylight availability, whilst the building’s  LED lighting system is connected to daylight sensors – solar-powered detector that is activated only by sunlight – to facilitate further energy saving and ideal circadian lighting. Most notably, K11 Atelier is equipped with Hong Kong’s first and Asia’s largest commercial hybrid 83 kW solar photovoltaic and thermal (PVT) installation on the rooftop (spanning  220 sq m). Through its 138 PVT panels, the building’s PVT system successfully generates electricity  for the building’s lift lobby lighting as well as hot water for the showers on certain floors of the building. What differentiates this from more conventional photovoltaic systems is its overall higher energy efficiency, with an annual renewable energy generation estimated to be 77 000 kWh, which accounts for 1.3% of the total energy use of the K11 Atelier  building. As a result of these features, the project achieves over 30% energy savings against the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard – a recognised American-based standards for ventilation system design and acceptable indoor air quality – through its various utilisations of green technology. 

So are green buildings worth endorsing? While the standard itself may be quite stringent prior to the building’s construction, Hong  Kong has yet to develop follow-up requirements for businesses and industry sectors. For example, while Hong Kong does possess a carbon reduction target, there are no mandatory follow-up requirements for businesses or even by sectors to achieve this overall goal. New World Development – property-owner of K11 – has tried to maintain these sustainable goals through the introduction of its voluntary Sustainable Tenancy Pledge, with K11 encouraging sustainable corporate behaviour with a reward-based system. For instance, as part of CLP Power Hong Kong Ltd.’s Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff (FiT) scheme, K11 provides free smart metres for store employees to measure their energy consumption within their office space.  K11, under New World Development, has also participated in the “New World Sustainability Academy” to provide sustainability-related training and site visits to all business units and employees. Through the academy, employees learn to identify and manage climate-related risks, particularly in key internal departments such as Project Management and Property Management. However, this voluntary scheme may not be similarly adopted by other real-estate developers, as it would require significant effort to maintain a sustainable pledge and the lack of structure will most likely lead to inconsistency in the quality of sustainability upheld by respective companies. 

Furthermore, a study in 2017 conducted by the University of Hong Kong indicated that, when comparing with conventional building projects,  there is a 34.06% increase in capital cost in green building projects on average, and the values of green building projects are higher in terms of price, rental cost and premium in market valuation (by 6-8%). This significant price increase may disincentivise real-estate developers from investing in green buildings not only due to already-pre existing high barriers to entry and exorbitant real-estate prices across Hong Kong, but also as a result of the debilitating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, despite the comparatively higher capital cost of green buildings, they can still be profitable through various cost-reduction methods on the operation and construction side.  One way to achieve this is through the use of green construction methods such as prefabrication. Prefabrication facilitates the reduction of material use, reduction of construction waste as well as increased savings in commissioning and minor repair costs (which can be as high as 2% of the total building cost in a traditional project), and so on (Lawson et al., 2012). More importantly, prefabrication accelerates up the construction process, which can reduce the financial charge borne by the client (can be 2 to 3% of over the shorter building cycle), increase clients’ profit by starting the business or rental income earlier, and reduce disruption to the locality or existing business that will ultimately contribute to further reduction in costs. However, precast construction is not a linear process. It is important to further investigate the impact of different levels and approaches of precast construction on time and cost of green projects. Therefore, further investigation is required on various green construction methods and life cycle costing.

In addition, we must continue to examine the long-term environmental and economic benefits as a result of the use of green IoT technology and infrastructure in the long run. As it stands, the development and recognition of green buildings has gained considerable momentum over the last decade: Between 2010 and 2019, more than 1 600 buildings and development projects in Hong Kong were BEAM-certified, bringing the total number of certifications since 1996 to over 3 000. Prominent existing buildings with a Platinum rating include Hysan Place in Causeway Bay (2013), the Standard Chartered Building in Central (2016), Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong (2017), Taikoo Place in Quarry Bay (2018), as well as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge Port at Chek Lap Kok (2019, provisional). Platinum ratings were also awarded to ongoing West Kowloon Cultural District (2016) and Kai Tak Sports Park (2020) developments, respectively.  It is also noteworthy that K11 Atelier was funded by the first green loan in Hong Kong under New World Group’s Green Finance Framework, referencing the Green Bond Principles 2018 and Green Loan Principles 2018. This successful green loan, which received the ‘Green Finance Certificate’ (Pre-issuance) from Hong Kong Quality Assurance Agency (HKQAA), provides an indicator of a strong potential green financing market in real-estate development that will hopefully continue gain traction as investors start to recognise the economic benefits of green buildings. 

Ultimately, it is also the government’s responsibility to create a systemic structure in which sustainability standards are consistently upheld post-development. The large number of government-owned properties shows that the government has a large influence on the building sector, with the power to impose requirements on the buildings it controls. These include educational and health facilities, public housing, government offices, and other community buildings. Addressing carbon emissions from these buildings would make a significant contribution. Only then, will green buildings in Hong Kong be a highly desired form of investment that will be beneficial to the city’s sustainable future in the long-run.

 

Featured image by: Flickr