Sustaining MomentumIt’s hard to know what to believe when it comes to the health of the planet when you scan a newspaper or blog. Back in the 1980s all the worry was about the hole in the ozone layer that was going to allow us all to fry to a crisp. Well according to NASA, 20-odd years later the entire protective ozone layer is now either a constant levels or improving to pre-CFC levels. Nice. But the argument is out there that the ozone layer is promoting global warming (woops), and the hole over Antarctica is as big as ever. And remember the Gulf of Mexico oil spill? BP made a mess worse by dragging their heels on the cleanup, but the filth levels in the waters are now better (relatively so) than they were pre-spill. There’s no denying BP created a disaster, but it wasn’t in the pristine waters some media would have us believe.

Sustainable development has its share of snags, though for the most part the idea of building an office tower or residential development to be cleaner and usable for many, many years seems to be taking hold. So rather than look at what’s not happening on the legislative level (neither chief executive candidate Henry Tang nor eventual winner Leung Chun-ying said a great deal about keeping/making Hong Kong green or government responsibility to sustainable development) the key may lie in private business. As has been the case with most of the SAR’s forward momentum, the sustainable development cause has been taken up on an individual basis by developers and architects. Hysan Place is a good example of that, and with the new tower nearing completion, it’s getting a little bit easier to see where it’s heading. Most prime commercial landlords agree that major multinational corporations have eco-standards from head office that must be met, and if their properties fall short they run the risk of losing prestige tenants.

The most basic demands of sustainable development refer to environmental sustainability and conserving resources, recycling and reducing initial outlay, explains Tris Kee, an HKU assistant professor at the Faculty of Architecture. “Buildings are considered sustainable when they have materials that offer benefits in energy conservation, lower building costs associated with changing space configurations, reduced maintenance and replacement costs over the life of the building, benefits to occupants’ health and productivity and design flexibility. Or to more extreme extent, [it means] a building with zero carbon consumption.”

A zero carbon footprint may seem like a stretch, but Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make Architects is working on a project like that (a private residence) right now. But the bigger question is one of whether or not architects are on the front of the sustainability wave crest or just responding to client demands. “Some architects create low energy designs, but low energy is just one aspect of sustainability. It doesn’t take into account all the other elements that are needed to design a building that is truly sustainable,” theorises Shuttleworth.

Like organic food and ethical clothing, sustainable development is burdened by the image of being costly. “Project costs are also generally higher for low energy design and this is stopping sustainability from being totally embedded in the whole industry,” admits Shuttleworth. But cost is fluid. Developers need to decide if they want to pay more for a better building (and ensure big ticket tenants), or go cheap and let tenants and owners handle the fallout. “With energy still relatively cheap there is an out-dated approach to designing the external walls of a building in a way that doesn’t reflect the real cost of energy usage to global warming. Often developers don’t really take into account the running costs as they are handed down to the tenant, and tend to prefer to use cheaper materials rather than environmentally sustainable ones,” he finishes.

But sustainability also comes down to the simplest of concepts, one that isn’t all that popular here: longevity. “An example I use all the time is that if you go to Paris, look at the buildings all around you. Some of them are 100 or 150 years old. Sometimes much older and they’re still here. They’re sustainable,” says Hong Kong architect Florent Nedelec. “Often in Asia every 20 or 25 years buildings are demolished and rebuilt. That creates a lot of pollution. From a carbon footprint point of view it’s bad. You can put all the solar cells on the roof you want. It’s cosmetic. The first step is to make [a building] last.”

Nedelec has been working in Hong Kong and the greater China region for several years, and Make has just recently taken the plunge into Asia. To Shuttleworth’s mind, Make’s innate, embedded sustainable design is what will get the firm as much attention here as it does in its native UK. “We don’t overlay a ‘green wash’ as we don’t need to. We know that getting the balance between energy, daylight and views is complex. Rather than thinking through these issues, the industry default tends to be opting for full glazing, which inevitably leads to higher energy running costs,” he states. Nedelec has faith Hong Kong will come around, if it hasn’t already. Prominent architecture firm Ronald Lu & Partners was one of the earliest to embrace sustainability, but they’re not alone any more. “We build from experience, and I think architecture is going that way here,” Nedelec comments. “As we move forward in time we’re building more that’s sustainable and more sophisticated.” But we’ll only know how we’ve done in about 100 years.