The day before the Construction Industry Council’s new Zero Carbon Building showcase in Kowloon Bay opened its doors, another species of living creature vanished from the face of the Earth forever. Record high temperatures have dominated North American weather this summer, Australians are still rationing water and “prime” wine growing regions are slowly moving north — look out for a lovely Baffin Island Gamay Noir in 2026.
Man-made climate change is no joke, and most of us have made it a fact of life. The elements that are allegedly leading to global warming are as myriad as they are interconnected — an ecosystem of their own. But one of the biggest contributors is our penchant for doing the same things again and again. But more and more frequently architects, developers and construction firms are making a low carbon footprint standard practise. Into this mix comes the ZCB, and showcase designed to show the lay public and professionals alike how that small footprint can be attained.
The ZCB’s raison d’etre is to put no demands on the SAR’s over-taxed power grid and prove that we can live and work in carbon neutral spaces; that the technology exists to do so. The facility includes a function space, offices, exhibition space, eco-plaza with urban woodland and a zero-carbon showflat that was designed like a typical of Hong Kong flat. So how much of this is possible to realise in the real world? The ZCB was built to generate its own power (with solar panels and biodiesel) and will run a live tally of what the building generates and consumes hourly. “We looked at the state-of-the-art design and technologies and we believe [these] are applicable to a Hong Kong context, as far as climate and the urban context are concerned,” explains MK Leung, senior associate and newly appointed director of sustainable design at Ronald Lu & Associates, the architects that won the bid for the ZCB. “We picked and chose and integrated all the design technologies that are applicable to Hong Kong in a very Hong Kong way. We think all of these are worth looking at.”
Leung admits that the ZCB has a mandate to fulfil, and as such RLP’s design incorporated a great deal more innovation than average people, and average developers, would. Remove the need for transfer of knowledge and there is still a great deal in the ZCB that is relatively inexpensive. However the major hurdle over more widespread adoption of zero carbon and/or carbon neutral construction remains cost: sustainable building is pricey. Developers that keep a property for themselves are more likely to pay the extra in order to have an efficient prestige portfolio. There’s also the question of whether the developer decides to go big; the more storeys in a tower, the more cost-efficient it is.
“In terms of cost-effectiveness, some of [these technologies] don’t cost money. We managed to do an entrance hallway without any air conditioning. That saves a lot of money and energy. Some technologies — especially the renewable technologies, the bio-diesel tri-generation plan for example — had to be imported and that cost some money. But all in all we think these are applicable. For the home market the first priority must be in energy conservation, by good design, passive design, good architecture for ventilation and day lighting. Those are very important but totally doable,” states Leung.
Penny-pinching builders, however, are only part of the problem in creating a low footprint city. Hong Kong is hot and small, and even the most devoted “tree-huggers” are hard pressed to choose a well positioned door with a ceiling fan over icy A/C, making it one of the single worst consumption offenders in the world. “The climate in Hong Kong brings its own particular challenges to designing a low-energy building. For much of the year the weather is very warm and humid, so beyond the design of the building envelope, the efficiency of the air-conditioning and the use of alternative sources of energy to support it are key considerations,” points out John Puttick, lead architect at Make Architects in Beijing. Wait, there’s more. “Hong Kong’s density is also a factor. Tight sites mean that increasing bio-diversity and reducing the ‘heat-island effect’ is a challenge — but also makes it an exciting driver for design.”
But is it too little too late? Scads of scientific journals and academics have theorised we’re doomed unless we act fast. Hasn’t the time for education given way to a time for legislation? “I think education is continuous. It’s something that needs to be instilled into the younger generation,” notes Ronald Lu, RLP’s chairman. “When a child insists on separating the garbage, parents take note. It’s a continuing thing and cannot stop. A species became extinct? We have to make sure the next one doesn’t … When the public starts to ask questions and make demands, I think developers will start to respond.”
ZCB’s fundamental design features many of the elements Lu and Make have been championing for years: natural light, lots of “holes” to maximise natural ventilation and cooling and so on. “There’s been a lot of debate over the wall effect over the last three of four years,” says Lu. “We’ve said maybe buildings should be taller rather that spread out. We don’t need air circulation 70 feet in the air. We’re not there.” The Buildings Department is actually listening, and Lu claims regulations have been amended. So in a few years, we’ll see more holes in buildings set back from the street, like Hysan Place? “Yeah, we hope so.” So hold the apocalypse for now.