A Case Study from China: Low-carbon building innovations are changing future architecture

Commentary / 4th Quarter 2021

A Case Study from China: Low-carbon building innovations are changing future architecture

by Professor Stephen Lau

December 14, 2021

With rapid urban and economic development, energy consumption is increasingly posing threats to the natural environment while the quantity and intensity of energy use in buildings are growing. As the Paris Agreement is leading a global shift towards a Greener economy and setting out the minimum actions required to protect our planet, it is having a huge impact on worldwide political and economic activities. With China’s pledge to peak its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, carbon has now officially become the world’s environmental index.

According to the China Building Energy Consumption Report published by the China Association of Building Energy Efficiency in 2020, the building sector will be contributing 51.3 per cent of the carbon emissions from industry, building and transportation—the three main sectors in need of Green reform. Therefore, the design, operation, management and use of buildings will directly affect the effectiveness of carbon neutrality efforts in cities. An emphasis on architectural design that can save energy, cut emissions and create carbon sinks is also becoming a preferred strategy for tackling climate change and meeting carbon targets.

This article investigates the aspects of designing zero energy buildings with a case study in China. As Deputy Director of the China Green Building (Hong Kong) Council and Design Research Director leading the Design Research Unit at LWK + PARTNERS, my team and I believe that zero energy buildings are a key means of achieving China’s carbon goals and therefore a future market trend. They require a technical approach that prioritises principles in the following sequence: apply passive strategies first before active enhancement; maximise renewable energy use; and a human-oriented post-occupancy evaluation. It aims to ensure healthy building interiors; achieve functionality and efficiency; formulate useful design features; create new low-energy building typologies; improve energy efficiency and smart integration; promote passive design and renewable energy use; and foster better energy-saving performance in buildings.


The Carbon-Neutral Building Design project in Guangdong, China is close to transport infrastructure and consists of five large buildings, taking up a site of 80,000 square metres with a maximum building density of 48,000 square metres. During the early design stage, a strength and weakness analysis was conducted on existing solutions, resulting in the decision to integrate the project with low-carbon design. We work closely with the client to evaluate traditional methods and develop better design frameworks. In response to carbon neutrality objectives, it involves a close review of the site, building envelope and roof to inform a low impact development, and low-energy integrated design based on ‘passive first’ and ‘maximising renewable energy’ principles. Below details the low-carbon technologies applied by the team.

Building envelope design

The Carbon-Neutral Building Design project is classified under the ‘hot summer and warm winter zone B’ in the thermal zoning of Chinese buildings, which emphasises natural ventilation, heat insulation and solar shading. According to China’s General Principles of Green Factory Assessment and Assessment Standard for Green Buildings, factories are recommended to save materials, energy, water and land; minimise harm; and use renewable energy through the choice of materials, structures and lightings. The thermal insulation performance of the roofs and external walls should also meet requirements stated in the national standard of GB 50176 Thermal Design Code for Civil Buildings.

Canopy design

Climate-resilient design as a key tool of passive design needs to reach a higher level to bring down energy demand for heating and air-conditioning in buildings, while giving architects and designers greater opportunities to implement design objectives. Based on climate analysis, the most appropriate passive design strategies are shading, indoor heat gain, natural ventilation for cooling, dehumidification and optimisation of air-conditioning efficiency. These strategies are effective in improving energy efficiency and indoor comfort.

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Professor Stephen Lau leads the LWK + PARTNERS Design Research Unit as Design Research Director in its efforts to study the impact of buildings on its occupants and surroundings, focusing on eco-cities to help the practice bring about sustainable development. He is also Deputy Director of the China Green Building (Hong Kong) Council. Professor Lau is Honorary Professor of The University of Hong Kong, Adjunct Professor at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, as well as Visiting Professor at Shenzhen University. He oversaw the building technology research and teaching division at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture, and served three times as Associate Dean at The University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Architecture.

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