HK needs dedicated design standards
Property developers have long mastered the art of the glossy sales brochure to portray new residential projects in the best possible light.
These days, that means emphasising green features and environmental design, with artists' renditions showing lush patches of greenery and the accompanying text highlighting everything from energy-saving systems to air-quality monitors.
While the good intentions should not be doubted, a sense of tokenism attaches to many of these initiatives.
Prospective buyers may be impressed, but what experts are left to ponder is not how much, but how little is still being done in Hong Kong to use materials, technology and principles of design that reflect a genuine commitment to sustainability.
According to Winnie Chu, associate director of consultancy firm BMT Asia-Pacific, an important step forward is to draw up a set of environmental standards and recommendations specific to Hong Kong. The system has evolved, with some developers adopting Britain's Building Environmental Assessment Method guidelines and others following the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design code from the United States.
'It is time to have our own standards, properly adapted to the local situation,' Ms Chu said. 'Everybody is doing different things. You need to pull it all together and improve the system by making it a lot more formalised. We really have to come up with a standard for ourselves with the same goals for everyone.'
She believes developers, architects and building engineers realise that is the way to go and will support such an initiative.
There are, though, two keys to making it work. One is the need to maintain government incentives relating to gross floor area for green features. The other is to require that proven environmental benefits come ahead of marginal cost considerations and, where necessary, that practical common sense prevails.
Ms Chu has a ready list of examples. Concerning the choice of materials, she said there should be more use of e-glass, offering better insulation, and lightweight concrete made from porous aggregate. This will help reduce energy usage for heating and cooling residential units and, over the long term, significantly lower occupier costs.
'We never look into the insulation part [of the equation] in Hong Kong,' she said. 'Breathable walls help circulation inside the envelope. When I talk to building services engineers they say there are no technical problems, and I can't see that it would jack up [construction] costs.'
She also suggested greater use of bamboo instead of wood. There has been commendable moves in some quarters to adopt Forest Stewardship Council guidelines promoting responsible management of the world's timber, but that is not enough. As an alternative, bamboo is durable, faster-growing, more readily renewable and offers good ventilation. It is therefore suitable for floor tiles, furniture and external features.
'It would be great if we could put it in specifications to use bamboo more than regular wood,' Ms Chu said.
'No single authority can push things such as this, but all the stakeholders have to come together and agree. They need to align a bit more, but at least they are now looking in the same direction.'
Still, though, eminently sensible options, which take account of environmental science and the human factor, are overlooked and basic common sense are missing. For instance, Ms Chu said, planning department guidelines state that if a developer cut down so many trees it had to replace them by planting a corresponding number. However, the usual plot size allocated for new saplings, no matter what species of tree, is the standard one square metre - often surrounded by concrete. As a result, healthy growth is restricted and any thoughts of proper landscaping are lost.
'If you look around, you see trees have wilted and you realise we don't have grass here,' she said. '[In built-up areas] this adds to the heat island effect. You are not providing shade, concrete is absorbing heat from the sun and air-conditioning units, and you are not helping the carbon dioxide issue.'
Besides taking action at ground level by laying turf, using sand-based paving tiles and planting indigenous species, it also made sense to incorporate green roofs and sky gardens in any new development or refurbishment, she said.
In terms of design such features are always 'doable', with the only real constraint being the commitment to make it happen.
'Sometimes, as a consultant, it is quite hard,' Ms Chu said. 'We can't bypass what our clients want us to do, and cost is still the main thing people are looking at.'
She indicated, though, that mindsets were changing.
There is no reason to ignore the example of cities such as Tokyo or downplay the cumulative effect of installing tanks for rainwater collection, photovoltaic cells and energy-saving lights.
'All the small things add up when you look not just at buildings, but neighbourhoods and whole districts,' Ms Chu said.