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October 28, 2010

What the U.S. and China can learn from one another

  • China’s embrace of solar technologies exceeds that of the U.S., yet China has neglected energy-efficient building materials commonly found here, such as insulated windows.
    MulvannyG2 Architecture


    Today, buildings emit 40 percent of the world’s carbon. And by 2035, China alone will construct 5 million more of them, equivalent to 10 cities the size of New York.

    Anticipating the ramifications of that scale of development often involves considering the uneven terrain of sustainable accomplishments on both sides of the Pacific. For instance, China is the world’s biggest investor in energy-efficient technology, investing nearly double what the United States did last year. But, because of its staggering development, China surpassed the U.S. in 2006 to hold the dubious distinction of world’s No. 1 carbon emitter.

    Here, we define some presumptions about this huge sustainable building opportunity in China, how both China and the U.S. could learn from one another, and how architects can encourage more and better sustainably designed buildings to be constructed there.

    Progress in China

    My mother lives in Nanjing in an older apartment building. Each unit has a solar panel that provides energy to a water heater, allowing residents to take showers with water heated by the sun. This is a very common thing in China, but not in the U.S.

    Images courtesy of MulvannyG2 Architecture [enlarge]
    MulvannyG2 is designing Xi’an Daming Palace Retail and Commercial Development near in the city of Xi’an. The firm is working with developers, design institutes and contractors to create more energy-efficient buildings.

    And yet, insulated and UV-filtered windows on residential and commercial buildings are still a rarity in China, something taken for granted in the U.S. That difference has resulted in newer buildings in China sometimes requiring two to three times the electricity to cool than a comparable U.S. building.

    It’s a simple thing, but the environmental and cost benefits of window glazing have not been communicated effectively in China. And the market and acceptability of solar panels has not yet taken off in the U.S.

    This is a good illustration of how both countries can learn from one another to control buildings’ carbon footprints. Sharing these and similar experiences could benefit both the U.S. and China’s sustainable development efforts.

    Indeed, communication is crucial to encourage more widespread development of highly sustainable buildings in China. Yet two transitions in China’s building design process thwart progress. They should be rethought so sustainable design is more likely to be implemented in what gets built. They are:

    Transition 1: Because foreign architects can’t legally sign design documents in China, they must turn over their designs to Chinese design institutes, which edit and then sign them. During the institutes’ editing and review, sustainable strategies can get lost in translation.

    Transition 2: Then, once design institutes submit the drawings to local construction crews, more miscommunication occurs, and the result is a watered down interpretation of the foreign architect’s original sustainable intent.

    Our recommendations

    1. Have foreign architects review the design institutes’ signed drawings. This review would preserve more of the initial sustainable design intent while strengthening the transition between design institutes and construction teams.

    2. Work together to elevate China’s construction techniques. Sustainable design will be undermined if local construction crews don’t have the knowledge or means to execute it. To help overcome this, foreign architecture firms can tap U.S.-based engineering firms for constructability consulting services. They can also build relationships with Chinese universities training the construction managers of tomorrow, and offer seminars and other exchanges of information between those universities and the design institutes.

    Another of MulvannyG2’s projects is Suning Chengdu Plaza — a retail, residential and commercial office project for the Suning Group, the development arm of China’s largest electronics and appliance retailer.

    Mind you, while improvements are needed, China’s sustainable building sector is making headway as its Green Star rating system — comparable to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system — gains footing. In 2008, the number of Green Star-rated buildings in China was zero. By the end of 2009, there were 56. This year, Green Star will certify between 200 and 300 buildings.

    But more can be done. For our work in China, MulvannyG2 is rethinking the process and practice of designing and building so we can work together — with developers, design institutes and contractors — to make it more conducive to developing highly sustainable, energy-efficient buildings there.

    Our efforts include mixed-use destinations involving commercial office, retail, entertainment and hospitality components for Suning Chengdu in the central business district of Chengdu, China; Wuxi Pacific Place in Wuxi; and the Xi’an Daming mixed-use development in the historic and culturally significant city of Xi’an. The lessons learned will help everyone.

    Ming Zhang, AIA, LEED AP, is president of MulvannyG2 Architecture. He is a native of China and was selected as the only architect on the Obama administration’s Clean Energy Trade Mission to China in May, led by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.

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