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Bright Green Urban Leapfrogging
Jamais Cascio, 18 Jul 05

leapfrogcity.jpgChina and India seem to be taking quite divergent approaches to sustainability. It's tempting to over-simplify the differences as "top-down" vs. "bottom-up," but there are sufficient counter-examples in each society that such generalizations tell us little. "State involvement" vs. "benign neglect" is perhaps closer, except that the Chinese state choices are not always beneficial and the Indian state "neglect" has sometimes meant opportunities for emergence and entrepreneurialism. Regardless, the distinct cultures and politics of the two nations are clearly affecting how each comes to grips with the need to improve efficiency, reduce energy consumption, and bring a growing portion of their people the bounty of wealth and comfort.

When it comes to green buildings, the differences are clear. India's approach seems quite similar to that of the West -- lay out some semi-official ground rules, then encourage (but not require) builders to meet them. China's approach, conversely, seems to be more revolutionary than evolutionary -- build sustainable cities from the ground up. Read on for a look at the LEED-India standard and what William McDonough is up to in the village of Huangbaiyu...

We noted recently that India is second only to Canada in the number of LEED-certified and registered buildings outside of the US, and that a local energy research organization was sponsoring its own locally-appropriate alternative version, TERI-GRIHA; in the comments, one of the organizers of India's Green Business Centre pointed us to the LEED-India proposal, which would adopt the existing LEED standards to Indian conditions.

The LEED-India proposed changes, by and large, make the local version more restrictive than the US LEED standard, and many of the LEED-India ideas could (and should) be integrated into the base guidelines. Notably, LEED-India adds credits for: reducing or eliminating the use of potable water for air conditioning purposes; the use of low-emission paints for outside walls as well as inside; construction safety standards (met with existing regulations in the US, so not included in base LEED rules); and a requirement that "captive" building power plants -- extremely commonplace in India -- meet restrictive emissions controls.

One existing modification to the LEED rules that I'm less-encouraged by is the addition of "2-stroke engine operated two wheeler" vehicles to the "alternative transportation" credit. 2-stroke engines can be awfully dirty, although this is not always the case. Is anyone here sufficiently familiar with Indian 2-stroke motorbikes to argue for or against this modification?

Sustainablog points us to another piece of green Indian construction. While not directly LEED-based, a new housing complex in Kolkata will be the first in the country to be built with integrated solar power. Each of the 25 two-storey houses will have 2 kilowatt photovoltaic systems built-in; the expectation is that this will reduce the typical power bill by half. Any extra power will be sold back to the West Bengal State Electricity Board.

As Alex reported last December, China is set to enforce regulations that all cities reduce their building energy use by 50% by 2010, rising to 65% by 2020. This will involve both retrofitting existing buildings and enforcing higher efficiency standards in new structures. The Beijing 2008 Olympics is also proving to be a great motivator, with the government seeking to make the event itself as green as possible while increasing the number of parks and green roofs(!) in the city.

But perhaps the biggest example of China pushing green urbanization is the "Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village Master Plan" by William McDonough and Partners.

The development of this new community is serving as a national prototype for the design of a sustainable village, an effort focused on creating a template for improving the quality of life for 800 million rural Chinese.

... The design of the village aspires to draw power from the sun, to maintain materials in closed-loop systems of technical and biological nutrition, and to create an intergenerational community of people productively engaged in restorative commerce. Its goal is to provide a higher quality of life for the villagers and to exemplify a more hopeful future for the children.

Initial designs for the project's sustainable dwellings were completed in March, and the construction of the model home is imminent (it was scheduled to be completed in "the first half of 2005," but I could find no reports that it was actually done). The home design is notable in part due to its use of compressed earth block and straw bale technologies for the structure.

Earlier this year, Metropolis interviewed McDonough about his efforts in China. Huangbaiyu (PDF) is the first of a series of projects with the China Housing Industry Association (CHIA) to explore templates for "cradle-to-cradle" cities in China. CHIA is a semi-private group, a consortium of private developers working with the government on projects. He talks about both the philosophy underlying the changes in China and the visible effects of the proposals:

Everything in China is under way at a fierce rate, so it’s not a tabula rasa. Some of these projects have been master planned, and we haven’t reworked them yet. We adjust some existing plans as best we can. Others we do from scratch. What we’re looking at is developing planning templates that people can take and use for their own projects. We want to spread the word as fast as we can because this is a fierce commotion. CHIA did a mass-energy study on what would happen if all 400 million units were built with brick. They’d lose all their soil and burn all their coal. You’d have cities, but you wouldn’t have any food or energy. That’s how big this is. In fact, 174 jurisdictions have made brick illegal.

For now, it appears that China is further along in the shift towards green buildings than is India, at least from a planning perspective. The risk with the Chinese approach is that large scale efforts require large scale resources, and any number of economic (or ecological) setbacks could stall the plans. With the more ad-hoc approach in India, individual builders and local authorities can adopt the LEED-India (or TERI-GRIHA, for that matter) guidelines when they recognize the incentives to do so. In short, the Chinese approach (as it currently exists) can be wildly successful if everything goes right for it, while the Indian approach (as it currently exists) is more resilient in the face of problems, but less likely to be utterly transformative of the urban environment.

Clearly, an intermediate approach of some sort could be an ideal way forward. Perhaps it could be a mix of gradually-increasing minimum standards, with guidelines for both new and existing structures, along with a series of "nodal" megaprojects -- large-scale efforts that, when completed, become economic and model catalysts for changes in the broader region.

Either way, building stock and urban infrastructure is a leapfrog arena with a great deal of potential, possibly even more than in the realms of telecom and energy. Cities change slowly; buildings and layouts that are inefficient and wasteful are apt to remain for years or decades. It's highly likely that the difference in efficiency and usability between structures built in the early-mid 20th century and those built up to Cradle-to-Cradle or LEED-India standards will be staggering. With focused attention from government planners, building entrepreneurs, or both, cities in India and China have the potential to become stellar examples of what sustainable urbanity can be.

Let the best city win.

(Thanks, Glory, for the McDonough links!)

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Comments

Truly India and China are making major strides in
promoting sustainability in the construction
sector due to the growth rate of the two countries. But the Chinese approach seems to be
better suited considering the magnitude of the
economies of India and China. The advantage of
sheer size allows to take bigger swings, which is
exactly what China is headed towards.

The subtle approach by India, waiting for the
people to recognize the incentives of sustainable buildings is definitely in the interests of the masses. But the wait may be too long, and it may be too late. Forced restrictions are necessary, at some stage for kickstarting/accelerating the entire process. Aggression is very important in this fast changing world, of which China and India have a major say, and it is high time India realized this fact.


Posted by: Guruprakash Sastry on 25 Jul 05

Truly India and China are making major strides in promoting sustainability in the construction sector due to the growth rate of the two countries. But the Chinese approach seems to be better suited considering the magnitude of the economies of India and China. The advantage of sheer size allows to take bigger swings, which is exactly what China is headed towards.

The subtle approach by India, waiting for the people to recognize the incentives of sustainable buildings is definitely in the interests of the masses. But the wait may be too long, and it may be too late. Forced restrictions are necessary, at some stage for kickstarting/accelerating the entire process. Aggression is very important in this fast changing world, of which China and India have a major say, and it is high time India realized this fact.


Posted by: Guruprakash Sastry on 25 Jul 05



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