GREEN BUILDINGS IN ASIA: ARE THEY SUSTAINABLE?
by Nirmal Kishnani
Green is not, by definition, the same as sustainable. Green is a relative measure, an argument to do less harm. A building is deemed Green if it consumes or emits less than a predetermined benchmark. To be sustainable is to live within the carrying capacity of our planet, consuming or emitting no faster than what can be replaced or repaired naturally, in other words to do no harm. In its present form the Green building in Asia is in urgent need of scrutiny. Much of Asia has embraced the Green building, using sustainable interchangeably with the term Green. FuturArc's Editor-in-Chief, Dr Nirmal Kishnani, examines the gap between Green and sustainable in the new FuturArc publication, Greening Asia: Emerging Principles for Sustainable Architecture.
Reproduced here is an excerpt from this book.
The case for Greening is quite suddenly heard across Asia. This is paradoxical since much of Asia lives within its ecological limits; many of its buildings do not (as yet) consume excessive resources. Most are made with low-impact materials, built with local knowledge generations old. Yet we speak of Green buildings as something new.
The Green building in Asia, as we know it, needs a couple of qualifications.
First, Green has come to mean certification with a Green building assessment tool. It is not uncommon now, from Delhi to Bali to Beijing, for a discussion on Green to veer towards a particular tool. To earn a certificate, a building must secure credits for compliance with a checklist of stipulations that make up the tool. Certification costs money and takes time; it also promises savings and a measure of status. This appeals to some more than others, primarily developers catering to the rising middle class of Asian cities. The list of certified buildings confirms this trend: shopping centres, hotels, corporate headquarters, residential developments and institutional buildings.
Second, Greening is predicated on improving building performance in relation to known costs. Almost all decisions made in the name of Greening are tied to costs—a key consideration for a developer or owner. The building sector concerns itself really with the conventions of Greening, a reductive logic with emphasis on features and technologies that can be assessed for their short-term gains.
IS GREENING ENOUGH? | QUESTIONING THE QUESTIONS
There are, it seems, two ongoing discourses—one making the case for Green buildings, the other arguing for sustainable development. The disparity between the two is wide enough for concern.
Green assessment tools in Asia, for instance, stipulate that a 30 to 45 percent improvement in energy efficiency against a predetermined benchmark must be attained by a project in order for it to qualify for a high tier of certification. Experts estimate that a net 50 to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is needed if global warming is to stabilise by 2100 (the lower figure applicable to developing countries, the upper to developed countries)1. Given that energy use and emissions in Asia are interlinked—80 percent of all primary energy in 2006 was from the burning of fossil fuels—there is a mismatch here. The top-rated Green buildings in Asia are on a less strict diet, so to speak, than what the experts say is necessary. And there are no prescribed targets for low to mid tiers of certification to meet.
The conventions of Greening today do not question the precepts of conventional building design that preceded the birth of Green. Much like its conventional neighbour, the Green building is designed to operate within a set of physical and temporal boundaries. These describe the Green building as a system that can be quantitatively measured and benchmarked against self or equivalent, for which cost and investment return are the primary yardsticks of value. Components within this system are seen to be discrete entities with their own performance metrics. The aggregated performance of components is assumed to be the performance of the building as a whole.
The Green building in Asia has, in a short space of time, become the orthodoxy—a set of precepts that represents a barrier to sustainable design.
Much of what we know of Green is the result of conversations taking place between markets and governments. These exchanges tell us what a Green building is and how to value it with prescribed metrics of performance. Greening nomenclature like efficiency and indoor environmental quality describe what is administrable today and profitable in the short-term. They delineate the space for action that is linked to principles of technical optimisation and return on investment. The problem with this is that it continues to describe where we are, not where we want to be.
The transition from Green to sustainable needs new tools for thinking. Asia needs a new vocabulary to re-boot the conversation, words that embrace both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of the built environment, words that can trigger a response that is aligned with the vectors of sustainability.
1ADB. (2011, August). Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century. Asian Development Bank. Retrieved from http://www.adb.org/publications/asia-2050-realizing-asian-century
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