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How much longer will Hong Kong remain a laggard in green buildings?

The city is one the world’s least and most green cities – only a fraction of 40,000 buildings are green but over 75pc of land has been left in a relatively natural state

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 8:03am

Hong Kong is an urban contradiction. It is simultaneously one of the least and most green cities on the globe. Only a few saplings and the occasional protected banyan tree are found amid the glass, steel and concrete towers. Yet, the city’s housing crisis can partially be explained by the fact that over 75 per cent of Hong Kong is undevelopable or protected green space. The proximity of a dense urban environment to sub-tropical wilderness is one of Hong Kong’s selling points to its residents, even as high rents have made buying a flat difficult, and pushed multinational companies out of the central business district.

Keeping Hong Kong green and sustainable is the responsibility of four government agencies: the Development Bureau, the Lands Department, the Buildings Department and the Environmental Protection Department. But the city still struggles to catch up with the rest of the world in sustainable building practices.

“Hong Kong does not seem to be all that supportive of encouraging more innovative sustainable designs,” says Gary Wong, project development senior manager for Grosvenor Asia-Pacific. “Although Hong Kong does have a practice note issued by the Buildings Department, the guidance focuses primarily on development parameter controls and the green coverage percentage. Both of these factors are more to do with generic site control considerations rather than motivating innovation.”

Unsurprisingly, the good intentions of the Hong Kong Green Building Council (HKGBC) are having little impact. Founded in 2009 to “promote the standards and developments of sustainable buildings in Hong Kong”, the non-statutory HKGBC’s BEAM Plus certification serves as more of a short cut to gross floor area (GFA) concessions (an additional 10 per cent on GFA caps) for developers than as a guide for actual green design.

“If the government could provide better incentives to encourage sustainable development, it would help more business leaders to pursue more innovative ideas, using better, more sustainable products, rather than taking the same old conventional approach to building design,” says Wong. That’s unlikely to happen in an economy dependent on land sales.

 “Hong Kong is not that forward thinking,” says environmental architecture specialist and COC Design founder Kevin Chu. “Interiors are still very archaic. It’s not like Singapore or Germany; we’re behind the rest of Asia, and we lag behind even compared to China, which is really into the green look and movement.”

Hong Kong is not that forward thinking
Kevin Chu, COC Design

That lack of support for innovation is stalling a more robust green building culture. The private sector is unwilling to take creative risks where expensive land is concerned, leading to carbon copy developments that safely maximise GFA. That leaves the public sector with the obligation to set an example, while adhering to fiscal responsibility. Additionally, with architects’ winning bids and tenders still based on fees, design innovation is often sacrificed for the sake of budgets. Although a green buildings is less expensive than it was a decade ago, it still requires time and effort, which become costs often unjustifiable in the public sector and too risky to the bottom line in the private sector.

But there are green building principles that need not be costly. Hong Kong-born architect Rocco Yim, executive director at Rocco Design Architects, argues that sustainable building practice should be inherent in the design. “Sustainability … is part and parcel of a structure. So it’s a matter of how much state-of-the-art technology can we – or are willing to – employ on a given project. But sustainability comes in all guises, passive, active, to the simple fact of orientating a building the right way, optimising use of daylight and ventilation. That’s not particular. That should be there anyway.”

But sustainability comes in all guises, passive, active, to the simple fact of orientating a building the right way, optimising use of daylight and ventilation
Rocco Yim, Rocco Design Architects

Despite Hong Kong’s unwelcoming environment, sustainable building practices, to some degree, have been adopted by designers like Yim, Ronald Lu & Partners, UK-based Make Architects, and developers such as Swire Properties, Sun Hung Kai Properties and New World Development.

Much remains to be done. Of the HKGBC’s total 602 BEAM Plus-certified buildings, 42 per cent are residential (including public and other government housing), and only 18.6 per cent are commercial. The Home Affairs Bureau has over 40,000 listings of private buildings in Hong Kong.

As of May 2018, commercial development seems better suited to green building, with schools, government, retail and health care facilities among the first to adopt such practices. Greening commercial developments is also much more visible to the public. Swire’s high profile HK$15-billion (US$1.9 billion) redevelopment at Taikoo Place is an example.

“Taikoo Place is a perfect showcase of how we’re incorporating important elements of our [sustainable development] 2030 strategy into a project,” says Swire’s technical services and sustainable development general manager Raymond Yau. The redevelopment includes a 69,000-square foot open space comprising two gardens that will feature water elements, green spaces and outdoor seating areas for people to gather. Pedestrian-friendly, elevated walkways and improved streetscapes will also enhance existing connections to surrounding buildings.

The International WELL Building Institute, which promotes human wellness and health as part of the built environment, awarded Grosvenor its gold level certification for the company’s Hong Kong and Shanghai office refurbishments.  “The workspaces create a more productive and engaging working environment by incorporating sustainable and human-centric design features as central philosophies,” says Grosvenor’s Wong.

According to a 2009 report by the Housing Authority, challenges to green residential development in Hong Kong included urban density, inability to use local renewable energy sources and cost. It all means that sustainably built and designed homes are still the purview of the high-end property sector: K Wah International, Nan Fung and Sino Land’s Marinella; MTRC’s The Austin and Grand Austin; and Henderson Land’s High West and High Park were among the properties certified by the HKGBC.

Swire’s Dunbar Place was rated BEAM Plus Platinum for its vertical green wall, construction waste sorting and recycling, 90 per cent regionally manufactured materials, lower window-wall ratios to reduce heat gain, and maximising natural light and ventilation. Yau says Swire is aiming to be a global leader in sustainable development by 2030.

Grosvenor doesn’t have an official sustainability policy, but sustainability and wellness will be core aspects of future developments, including residential projects. “We do have a ‘living cities’ philosophy which places sustainability as one of the key attributes that is to be considered and assessed during our design and development process,” says Wong.

Rocco Yim has incorporated passive green features in his designs since 2001. Boao Canal Village in China’s southern Hainan province and Jiu Jian Tang villas in Shanghai rolled water transport, bamboo shading, interior vertical spatial shafts maximising natural ventilation, light-diffusing roof grilling and bedroom patios for ventilation and cooling into their foundations. In Hong Kong, such features are often presented as value-added extras, rather than as the standard practice that they should be.

Granted, sustainability – or lack of it – in property development and architecture now affects the bottom line. At a 2017 forum convened to discuss the fate of Hong Kong’s coveted central waterfront site 3 (beside the IFC Two building), Urban Land Institute senior fellow Tom Murphy pointed out that McDonald’s, Caterpillar, Motorola, and Marriott are just a few of the major multinational companies corporations that relocated to city centres in the last two years.

“They’re chasing talent. Talent is the driver of economies now, and talent largely wants to live in vibrant, exciting, sustainable places. Hong Kong is not immune to that competition. If the talent chooses to live in Sydney, or Singapore, or Shanghai, Hong Kong loses,” Murphy said.

It means that sustainability in building practice will soon equate to business sustainability as well. As competitor cities such as Singapore push ahead on green design in its built environment, Hong Kong loses more than just a green sheen.

(The full version of this article is published in the June issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores)