A Tree Grows in China

A Tree Grows in China

Every year, China erects over 20 billion square feet of non-industrial floor area, about 60 percent of this is residential and the rest is commercial. This building boom covers almost 8,100 square kilometers with concrete and asphalt annually.

Of this, about 2,000 square kilometers each year is productive farmland, a resource that China can ill afford to squander. When green land is turned into hardscape, ground water can't regenerate -- a serious problem because China gets 70 percent of its drinking water and 40 percent of its agricultural water supply from underground. Buildings in China use approximately 80 percent of the country's potable (which is different from fresh) water. China has rapidly increased the construction of municipal sewage treatment in recent years, but in spite of billions of dollars of investment, barely 50 percent of the country's wastewater is treated before discharge into fresh water; this figure is higher in major cities.

According to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the construction and operation of China's buildings represent approximately 23 percent of total energy use. In large urban areas, approximately 60 percent of peak energy demand comes from air conditioning and lighting, which is driving the construction of one new coal-fired power plant every week or two. However, when you include the industrial energy required to produce building materials, principally cement and steel, almost 40 percent of China's energy requirements -- not to mention over half of the country's carbon pollution -- is attributable to buildings.

China learned hard lessons about uncontrolled timber harvesting in the 1998 Yangtze floods, which killed more than 3,600 people and left 14 million homeless. Since then, controls on logging in Western Sichuan and a massive reforestation program have been successful in beginning to reverse this damage. Unfortunately, continued demand for wood, largely driven by demand for furniture and finishes, has forced unsustainable logging practices off shore, principally to Southeast Asia and Canada.

The good news is that in the decade since the '98 floods, China's government policy and economy have taken on energy efficiency and green with a vengeance. Since that time, China has adopted energy national energy standards that require buildings to be 50 percent more efficient than in the late '80s, 65 percent in the large cities. Equating this to ASHRAE/IESNA 90.1 (90 percent of Chinese construction would fall under this standard, since it's mostly high-rise), the 50 percent figure approximates ASHRAE/IESNA 90.1-2004 and the 65 percent to the 2007 version. Compliance with the national standard is approaching 50 percent nationwide and higher in the cities. (In case there is any feeling of smugness about China's code compliance achievements, according to the Building Codes Assistance Project ASHRAE/IESNA 90.1 2004 is only required by half of the states in the U.S., while the 2007 version has not been adopted by ANY states. Fully half the country has failed to achieve the 2004 ASHRAE standard mandate established in the 2005 National Energy Policy Act. This pathetic performance will likely be the subject of another note.)

In recent years, the uptake of LEED has grown dramatically in China with total registered projects breaking the 200 mark this year, representing over 150 million square feet. About half of these projects are concentrated in the Tier 1 cities of Beijing and Shanghai where astonishingly, over 50 percent of the Class A projects coming on line over the next two years in CBDs are registered in LEED and likely to certify. This is consistent with the trend that we are seeing in major U.S. cities, that it's no longer possible to be Class A without LEED/green certification.

So how do these buildings perform? Is the language barrier, the relative lack of leading-edge technology and experienced green designers creating buildings that are green in name alone? Two years of measured results from China's first LEED-certified ACCORD21 building of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) confirm predicted energy consumption savings of more than 60 percent compared with the ASHRAE baseline, within 10 percent of what was predicted according to the LEED simulation modeling. Compared with average government buildings in Beijing, the ACCORD21 project uses 72 percent less energy. Water use was measured at 60 percent less than the fairly tight annual allocation from the Beijing Water Bureau.

The interesting thing to note is that the project achieved these savings with 450 occupants and their associated equipment load, instead of the 250 used in the simulation. As it turns out, during the two-year measurement period the 450-person headquarters staff occupied the building while their own was being renovated.

If all new non-residential buildings in China achieved the energy and water efficiency of this project, it would result in annual savings equivalent to the entire output of the Three Gorges Dam. Equivalent water savings would supply the entire residential requirements of Shanghai's 16 million people.

In 2007, the 250-person China Agenda 21 staff moved in. We are waiting for subsequent measured results to see if savings are further reduced. I'll write more about the process of how the building came into being in a subsequent post.

Rob Watson is the Executive Editor of GreenerBuildings.com, and the chairman, CEO and Chief Scientist of the EcoTech International Group