“Building Sustainability in East Asia: Policy, Design and People” by Vincent S Cheng and Jimmy C Tong

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Green buildings aren’t just the energy equivalent of a free lunch—they’re like a meal that users get paid for eating, to paraphrase energy guru Amory Lovins. They are so much cheaper to operate that they pay for themselves, and then some. They also are healthier and more pleasant places to live, work, and play.

If green buildings are such a great idea, why are there so few of them in Asia, more than a decade after the concept was popularized in the region?

Vincent Cheng and Jimmy Tong’s welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on sustainability in East Asia doesn’t directly tackle this question. But the book provides some clues to understanding why it is taking so long for an idea that is good economics, good for health, and good environmental stewardship to make an impact in Asia.

Asia is home to 60 percent of the world’s population. It is in Asia that the struggle to change our behavior quickly enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change will be won or lost. Ground zero in this battle is in Asia’s cities, above all in its buildings. In Hong Kong, where more people are said to live above the 14th floor than anywhere in the world, buildings account for nine of every ten kilowatts of electricity used.

The elevators to carry Hong Kongers to the 14th floor and beyond, the air conditioners to cool skyscrapers in the hot climate, and the office lights and shop signs, all need electric current. Coal- and gas-fired electricity plants are the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, a main culprit in climate change. More energy-efficient buildings are don’t cost much more to build than more conventional buildings and the up-front costs are recouped in energy savings.

If green buildings are such a great idea, why are there so few of them in Asia?

Building Sustainability in East Asia: Policy, Design and People Vincent S Cheng, Jimmy C Tong (Wiley-Blackwell, May 2017)
Building Sustainability in East Asia: Policy, Design and People Vincent S Cheng, Jimmy C Tong (Wiley-Blackwell, May 2017)

Building Sustainability in East Asia is a comprehensive, well-timed book packed with a wealth of information on how to make green buildings a reality and ranks as one of the most practical of the many recent books on energy and environmental issues in Asia. Written by two practitioners—the authors work at design firm Arup—the book cogently makes the case for why buildings matter so much both from an energy standpoint but also in allowing us to live and work in nicer surroundings.

From aquaponics to zero-carbon buildings, many of the most important innovations taking place in East Asia’s built environment are sketched out here. The book’s strength owes much to Cheng and Tong’s real-world experiences. Numerous case studies spotlight innovative little-known projects, such as an air-purifying bus stop, as well as more standard techniques such as life-cycle assessments of building materials.

Like much of the writing on the transition to a greener, low-carbon future, the book is aspirational. Cheng and Tong understandably want to show us the positive models that exist and to inspire policy makers, architects and others to promote energy efficiency in a way that works with a contemporary lifestyle. There’s little room here for analysis of about what worked and what didn’t work with specific projects. There’s also an uncritical acceptance of existing standards rather than, for example, a critique of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building standards that are often box-ticking exercises.

The book also shies away from engaging with what, for me, is the central question: If green buildings are such a great idea, why aren’t there more of them?

Cheng and Tong lay out a general road-map about the importance of political leadership and bottom-up engagement. More detailed looks at the cases they cite could help us better understand the political dynamics that are underpinning change—or, more often, blocking change. China to date has been remarkably successful in reducing its energy intensity and in promoting the installation of solar and wind power. It appears to have been less successful in implementing energy efficiency measure for the built environment, although the issue is well understood among China’s policy makers.

Similarly, the authors’ account of Hong Kong’s building energy efficiency standards doesn’t mention the way in which the territory’s powerful real estate interests blocked the government’s attempts to impose mandatory energy efficiency standards. Although the authors laud Singapore’s mix of top-down and bottom-up approach, there is not yet enough evidence to show whether the policy of having 75 percent of the country’s building stock certified as green by 2030 will cut electricity demand.

An answer for why such an obviously good idea is taking so long to become a reality will have to wait. Meanwhile, Cheng and Tong have written an excellent primer that will be useful for practitioners, policymakers and activists alike.


Mark Clifford is Executive Director of the ‎Asia Business Council.