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China Business Weekly

Sustainable buildings, from China?

Think of China's building craze and what probably springs to mind are huge apartment blocks and commercial structures rising like monoliths in megacities throughout the country. There will be few images of buildings designed to be environmentally friendly or sustainable.

This may soon change. Leading the charge is outspoken builder Zhang Yue, chairman and chief executive of the Broad Group, whose approach is reminiscent of scenes from old American movies where a community gathers to build a house or church between sunrise and sunset.

Zhang has taken this concept much further, already putting up a six-storey building in one day, a 15-storey hotel in less than a week, and a 30-story tower and hotel in 15 days.

Now he has set his sights on building the world's tallest structure, a 202-storey steel skyscraper called Sky City in the middle of farmland near the city of Changsha in Hunan province. Ninety per cent of the structure will be built at a factory and just 10 per cent will be assembled on site.

But what Zhang and his company are doing is much more than speedy pre-fabricated construction with novelty value. As he sees it, he isn't running a construction company but rather implementing a structural revolution, using modular pre-fabricated techniques which are both sustainable and environmentally friendly - a trend that is also happening in the West, albeit mainly for low-rises.

Sky City, for example, will use 20cm insulation layers, quadruple-paned windows, power-generating elevators, light-emitting diode lights, and the company's own cooling-heating-power and air-filtration technology. It should be five times more energy-efficient than a conventional building.

Zhang's buildings aren't pretty, but the materials used are uniform and dependable, and there is little opportunity for construction workers to cut corners, since doing so would leave stray pieces. They are also cheaper to build than normal commercial high-rises, and the steel can be reused if the building is ever decommissioned.

Construction of Sky City began last year and while Zhang is adamant all will be finished by December, there have already been permitting delays and independent engineering experts say the concept faces a host of problems, from elevator design and fireproofing to the physical compression caused by the monumental weight of the completed building.

Meanwhile, Thailand's building industry is slowly embracing sustainable principles. A recent white paper by regional consulting firm Solidiance noted that while the number of green buildings in Thailand had grown steadily since 2007, there are still only around 20 buildings that have received certification from either the international sustainability standards body LEED or its Thai equivalent, TREES. However this should soon change, as up to 100 more buildings are waiting in the queue.

Industry experts in Thailand say the obstacles to further growth include inconsistent government policies towards energy efficiency and high up-front costs. But it is promising to see that the cost of going green is coming down each year, and the benefits are going up. These include shorter payback periods (five years for both new buildings and retrofits of old ones), improved corporate responsibility and brand image, and lower operating costs and higher asset values.

Bangkok may never see a 200-storey skyscraper built to sustainable guidelines (and perhaps we wouldn't want this), but I'm hopeful an increasing number of more modest buildings will meet the standards.

For more columns in this series please see www.bangkokbank.com


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