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How Hong Kong can build for a better future

Architects share some rule changes the city needs for a more vibrant urban landscape

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 11:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 11:31am

One of the things that frustrates architects who work in Hong Kong the most is that approval must be sought from three government departments – which all have different sets of standards.

The Buildings Department, Planning Department and Lands Department each have varying rules and regulations that must be considered when starting a project. Add that to the reams of paperwork required for exemptions and so on, and it is enough to make the most seasoned industry veteran’s head spin.

Many architects agree that a quick fix for the city’s Byzantine building codes is to have the government create a set of regulations with a single, coherent standard without overlapping areas.

To reduce the burden of paperwork, the government should study the list of exempted features and see which should always be exempted and which should be made compulsory, said Ivan Ho Man-yiu, vice-president of the Institute of Architects.

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For example, the minimum width of a corridor is 1.1 metres but if developers build corridors no wider than 1.3 metres, the difference can be exempted.

“You might as well scrap the exemption and make it compulsory,” he said. “If the whole world is raising the minimum standards, why don’t you follow suit and tell people what the impact will be?”

Another area where Hong Kong is behind international standards is its friendliness towards pedestrians, said Peter Cookson Smith, the founder of Urbis Limited, one of the first urban design and planning consultancies in Hong Kong and the region.

Instead of letting developers decide how far to set buildings back, Cookson Smith said, the government should require all large developments, such as those in new towns and those under the Urban Renewal Authority, to be set back several metres from the street.

Officials should also draw a blueprint of the types of businesses they would like to see on the streets of town centres and require them in leases, Smith said.

On some main streets in New York City, he pointed out, the government restricts the so-called non-active users, such as banks, offices and residential lobbies, from setting up on the street front.

“When we look at the way things have happened, it’s really the government not paying sufficient attention to bettering the public realm,” Smith said.

When it came to non-traditional designs such as Zaha Hadid's Innovation Tower at Polytechnic University, instead of rigidly applying the regulations, the government could set up a committee to review special cases, said Paul Zimmerman, founder of Designing Hong Kong, a non-profit that specialises in urban planning.

The public should be included in the review process so people could help keep an eye out for abuses, he added.

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If a similar design feature appeared regularly and the committee approved it, he said, the features could become included under new rules.

“So in that way the design review committee process becomes a learning process for amending and adjusting the Buildings Ordinance.”

The government should also set a minimum living space per person, Zimmerman said.

“We are building very small flats. That’s ridiculous,” he says. “If you start building smaller and smaller, in the end, what’s available is only small spaces and very few big spaces, and the big spaces become super expensive. I don’t buy the argument that we will have to build smaller because people want affordable flats.”

Taiwan, Macau and Singapore all have minimum living space requirements that developers must follow.

In the long run, said Donald Choi Wun-hing, managing director of Nan Fung Development, the government should consider granting saleable areas and common areas separately to developers, instead of combining both in the gross floor area, which forces developers to minimise common spaces.

“Why do architects in Hong Kong often envy even mainland developments, which have really big spaces, not to say Singapore?” Choi says. “Why can’t we do this in Hong Kong? Because we have not separated [living and common areas] in the gross floor area calculation.”

Wong Wah-sang, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture department, agreed, saying this would give architects more creative freedom instead of copying corncob plans (commonly seen high-rise buildings with flats radiating from a core).

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“The government only has to make this one change and all the buildings in Hong Kong will be completely different,” Wong said.

After all, Cookson Smith said, it is not only about having the right objectives, but actually implementing them in real life.

“Hong Kong is a free market system,” he said. “Every year the free market tables come out, and you will find all the government people saying how wonderful that Hong Kong is tops. But then they have the quality of life index for all the world cities, and Hong Kong is [ranked very low] ...

“Is the laissez-faire system working for the benefits of the city, the environment and the people? The answer is it is not. It’s not only not meeting the requirements adopted in most other world cities, it’s not even meeting the requirements that we set for ourselves. It’s no point talking about the criteria we have to meet if we don’t have the ability to actually meet it.”