Critics challenge Foster's zero-carbon claim

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 April, 2011, 12:00am


When world-renowned architects Foster + Partners were competing in their ultimately successful bid to design the West Kowloon arts hub, Hong Kong was promised a showpiece cultural precinct that would also boast zero carbon emissions.

More than five weeks after British architect Norman Foster's firm was awarded the project, that undertaking is now under scrutiny, with some critics doubting whether the zero-carbon target will ever be feasible for the project, and at least one calling Foster's promises during the bidding stage 'foul play'.

When the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority announced on March 4 that Foster + Partners' design had won the competition, it said the design had been chosen because of its emphasis on environmentally friendly features, which would reduce the precinct's carbon footprint and contribute to the development of a green and sustainable district.

Advisers to the authority have now disclosed that they were unconvinced by the zero-carbon claim when assessing the Foster design, because insufficient data had been provided to prove the plan's feasibility.

'We did advise the authority that the concept shouldn't be seen as zero emissions,' said Peter Wong Yiu-sun, a former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers and a member of the authority's technical advisory panel.

Doubts over the plan focus on the fact that the Foster team's zero-carbon target applies only to the precinct's buildings, and not to transport links serving the centre, particularly vehicles. These, the team maintains, would be an uncontrollable factor outside the scope of its design.

The plan instead envisages energy-saving buildings and the use of renewable sources of energy such as wind and sunlight to supply at least some of the centre's electricity needs and to power transport within the centre.

As the team's promotional literature put it, in an article entitled 'Towards a zero carbon city', Foster said: 'Our approach is holistic. Sustainability must take into account not just buildings but infrastructure - particularly transport, because buildings and the movement of people accounts for 70 per cent of the energy we consume.'

The plan also calls for an energy centre to turn food waste collected from the neighbourhood into biogas, which would provide power for a skyrail, eco-buses and cooking systems in flats and hotels within the district. The recycling of food waste is meant to offset some of the precinct's emissions, as it reduces greenhouse gases like methane released in landfills. The Foster team's engineers said their zero-carbon concept was based on a universally accepted definition, one adopted by the British government, but Wong disagreed.

'It's foul play. The principle should be applied to the whole district, not just to its buildings,' he said. 'Turning food waste into biogas is a good idea but using it to offset buildings' emissions is a bit tricky.'

Wong said panel members were also unconvinced because the Foster team had provided insufficient data to prove the plan's feasibility.

But according to the selection process, the panel was responsible only for assessing and advising on the 'technical robustness' of the three competing designs, submitted by Foster + Partners, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim Sen-Kee. The winning design was chosen by a selection panel made up of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority's board members.

Another member of the technical advisory panel, Anna Kwong Sum-yee, a former buildings official and former president of Hong Kong Institute of Architects, said the Foster concept was meaningful only when applied to the whole West Kowloon district, including transport serving the cultural precinct.

'The site is still a virgin land. We should take this chance to invest in the infrastructure that encourages mass transportation and limits the use of private vehicles,' Kwong said.

WWF climate programme chief Dr William Yu Yuen-ping said the definition adopted by Foster's team was acceptable and widely adopted overseas. But he believed the scheme could be improved with measures to cut emissions from transport, for example, and by banning private cars except electric vehicles and those with low emissions.

'We should be pragmatic and understand the difficulties in achieving a 100 per cent zero-carbon mission. What matters is communication,' Yu said. 'The public should be protected from exaggerated promotion and be informed clearly of what they are going to get, like how the whole design is defined and implemented.'

A spokeswoman for Foster + Partners said its zero-carbon strategy took the entire West Kowloon district into account by putting traffic underground. Well-planned transport links to and from the district would also limit the number of cars travelling to the arts hub, she said.

A spokeswoman for the authority said it had commissioned a consultant to look into the environmental issues in more detail when preparing the development plan and the environmental impact assessment.